Student Blogger Study Abroad

Tasting the Sustainable Difference

Person standing in gravel courtyard surrounded by tall frond trees and leafy green trees

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Anna Kate Stephenson is HECUA’s student blogger for Italy: Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice  program this fall. Anna Kate is a student from the University of California Berkeley majoring in Environmental Science. Read on for her next post!

In the past few weeks, our class-style has made a switch, and we have been applying our studies to the field. We have traveled all around Tuscany and Northern Italy, minus our brief week-long break in between. After our series of lectures on biodynamic farming with Roberto, we visited the biodynamic vineyard Tenuta Valgiano. The farm’s hospitable owner gave us a tour of the winery and a taste of the freshly-picked, fermenting wine. Since Tenuta Valgiano is biodynamic, there are rigorous restrictions on how they must produce wine. One of which being that, for the most part, they cannot add any other ingredients (besides limited sulfites for preservation). Therefore, all of the flavor of new wine must come from the grape itself. But with the help of strategic planting and creative pest management, they are able to produce wine with notes of stone fruit and even truffle! We tasted the difference for ourselves during a lunch outside their gorgeous stucco and blue-shuttered villa. One of the wines was even older than us. We sat for hours, asking questions about the Common Agriculture Policy and enjoying the view looking down on the town of Lucca. Eventually, their trampoline and soccer goals called to us, and we couldn’t fight the urge to just run around their amazing yard and play.

Upon our return from break, the Tuscan countryside had faded from green to vibrant yellows and reds, and the temperature had dipped almost 20 degrees Fahrenheit. We dove into lessons on sharecropping, Tuscany’s former farming management practice. Though sharecropping has been out of use for almost a hundred years, the practice greatly impacted the way the Tuscan landscape looks today. We discussed how exactly its land segmentation influenced our daily outdoor view while on top of the tower in Castello Sonnino. Riccardo pointed out villas and castles perched all along hills and explained their historical significance, and were even treated to a (double) rainbow.

The following week, however, held the ultimate outdoor experience, our field trip to Mugello. We bundled up in scarves, hats and rain jackets prepared to brace the elements (drizzling and 50 degrees) and texted our loved ones to reassure them that we aren’t dead, just without WiFi for a few days. Our first stop was a meat and dairy agrotourismo that sells their products only directly from their farm. It sounds difficult for being in the middle of the mountains, but supposedly they had clients that flew in from as far away as Norway. Their free-range farm animals seemed content with their organic lifestyles, a factor in which the farmers testified contributed to their meat’s taste.

Three white cows, one facing the camera stand in an open air shed with green hills in the background
Excited cattle at our first agrotourismo in Mugello.

Our second agrotourismo of the day was a healing farm deeper in Mugello. The therapeutic farm uses the beauty of their landscape and the diversity of their animals to help ex-criminals or people who struggle with mental illness. As an ethical farm, they raise animals like rabbits and donkeys solely for the purpose of an improved mental headspace.

The next morning, we woke up and headed into a national forest famous for its chestnuts. At our first stop, we foraged for chestnuts ourselves before eating lunch at an agrotourismo rated first in the country for its chestnut flour. They did not disappoint. We enjoyed chestnuts boiled, roasted, flambéed, baked into cakes, and mixed into marmalades. At the end of it all, I couldn’t stop shoving chestnuts into my mouth.

Woman standing in a chestnut grove among green leaves and fallen brown leaves covered the slanted hill
Me foraging for chestnuts for lunch. Photo credit: Madelyn Wood.

Our final stop was a meat and dairy farm truly in the middle of nowhere. There was no service, no paved roads and no other houses for miles but the family who lived there could not seem happier about their lifestyle choice. That night, we went through albums of the farm’s history. The couple stumbled across the farm while hiking and bought and restored it in 2002, after the property had been abandoned for half a century. They discussed how difficult it is to thrive being organic, family-owned and barely subsidized. But at the end of it all, they made their slow-paced isolation seem pretty attractive with stories of all they do on their beautiful mountain land.

Autumnal scene of tree without leaves on the right side, green hill sloping toward a valley of yellow and brown covered trees
The view from our final and super secluded agrotourismo in Mugello. Photo credit: Anna Kate Stephenson

Though we were all sad to leave Mugello behind, there are plenty of fun activities, lectures and field trips on the horizon.




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