Sustainable Agriculture, Food, and Justice
Unpack the Slow Food movement’s motto of “good, clean, and fair” in its Italian birthplace. Explore how the business of food affects the health and wealth of farmers, workers, families, and communities.
Across the semester, classroom seminars provide context for field speakers and visits to innovative agricultural initiatives, and for structured exploration of the multiple functions of the Sonnino farm. Instruction in Italian each week builds functional ability. Internships begin the seventh week of the program, with 15-20 hours per week at the internship.
Topics & Themes
Sustainability, organic farming, biodynamic farming, and permaculture; slow food and other food movements, Italian and European agriculture and food policy and business practice; economics and social effects of food production.
Terms & Dates
Fall 2019: September 2nd to December 13th.
In much of the world, industrial food systems provide plentiful and relatively cheap food, a convenience that comes with steep environmental and social costs. HECUA’s exploration of culinary culture and food production in Italy offers an alternative, taking students behind the scenes at Castello Sonnino, a family-owned historic estate with a sustainable farm and vineyard. Students see how Italian and European agricultural policy, business practices, and financial structures affect workers and their communities.
Students live and study at Castello Sonnino, roughly 45 minutes outside of Florence, in Tuscany. They observe how Tuscans define sustainability and are working toward it. Students gain direct experience of food systems, rural Italian culture, and policy through an internship on the Castello Sonnino estate, at a nearby farm, in the adjacent town of Montespertoli, or in Florence. Students receive a food stipend and prepare their own meals in apartments on the Sonnino grounds, surrounded by more than 300 acres of olive groves, vineyards, and working farmland.
In addition to the immersive coursework and concurrent internship, students complete a guided individual study project. Italian language instruction each week can accommodate all levels of proficiency.
Staff and Faculty
Filippo Randelli is the Program Director, responsible for the program as a whole. He teaches the course Agriculture and Sustainability in Tuscany, guides students in internships, and supervises the Independent Study Project. Filippo Randelli holds a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Rome “La Sapienza.” He is a tenure-track researcher and lecturer in the Department of Economic Science at the University of Florence. He has done extensive research on sustainable tourism, geographical economics, and environmental economics, and has given lectures and seminars on these themes and participated in many international conferences and workshops. He is on the board of the Società di Studi Geografici. He has been an invited scholar at Utrecht, Cambridge, and Zurich Universities. Filippo Randelli is also an agricultural entrepreneur himself, having moved from the city to a small farm in Greve in Chianti, where he makes wine and olive oil and is part of a B&B business.
Riccardo Simoncini teaches the course Economics of Sustainable Food Production in Contemporary Europe. He holds a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of Parma, and has carried out research and taught agri-environmental policy at the University of Florence, Economic Sciences Department. He carries out research on rural development and agricultural and ecological economics in projects in Italy and the EU. Riccardo is a member of the Commission on Environmental, Economics and Social Policy of IUCN-The World Conservation. At present he is one of the Lead Authors of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for the Europe and Central Asia assessment (ECA) administered by UNEP.
Elena Monami teaches the Italian language and culture course. She holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics from the Università per Stranieri in Siena, Italy, as well as a master’s degree in Italian literature and cinema. She has led the Siena Abroad semester for the University of Massachusetts since 2002, and has extensive experience teaching Italian language to learners in Italy, Spain, Japan, Argentina, and Indonesia.
Caterina de Renzis Sonnino
Caterina de Renzis Sonnino is part of the family that has lived in Castello Sonnino for more than two hundred years. She is an artist and graphic designer. Her enthusiasm for the preservation of Tuscan knowledge of living on the land and living in community with others inspired this program.
Alessandro de Renzis Sonnino
Alessandro de Renzis Sonnino is also part of the current generation of the family living in the Castello Sonnino. He is the engine of restoration of the Castello Sonnino estate, from the buildings to the winery. Beginning in the late 1980s, Alessandro rejuvenated Sonnino’s wine production, continuing the Chianti tradition and introducing new varieties of grapes as well, and the winery has gone on to win Decanter World Awards and impressive Wine Spectator ratings, among other accolades. Castello Sonnino’s wines are now sold worldwide and the winery and restaurant are a popular stop for travelers in Tuscany.
Agriculture and Sustainability in Tuscany (4 credits)
The aim of this course is to provide students with tools to analyze—in an integrated manner—the transition towards a sustainable agriculture. Sustainability is treated as an ongoing process, not a target, selected theoretical tools illuminate mechanisms that may hinder or foster the transition. Each tool is tested and used to analyze different issues and case studies within the agricultural system. Italy is a leading country in the process of transition towards a sustainable agriculture, and many different ongoing processes and issues are presented in the class.
Students discuss sustainability; the historical roots of regional diversification; organic farming, biodynamic farming, and permaculture in Tuscany; the effects of practices and policies on farmers, workers, and communities; Slow Food and other food movements.
Economics of Sustainable Food Production and Rural Development in Contemporary Europe (4 credits)
This course addresses the economics of sustainable food production in rural areas. The overall objective is to allow students to achieve a comprehensive overview of sustainable development theories and concepts related to the agricultural sector and of the economic instruments and tools used to move towards sustainability. A major focus of inquiry and critique is the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. Many economists are now using “true cost accounting” to examine the costs of global food systems. Many international organizations are seeking to calculate the benefits that the natural world, whether in cultivation or not, provides. New methods of measuring “ecosystem services” like pollination, carbon storage, and water purification have brought renewed appreciation for smaller-scale farming and land use. Students learn how these economic instruments and tools can be used in rural areas to achieve rural development that delivers economic, social, and environmental benefits. This course is interdisciplinary, integrating economics, political economy, ecology, sociology, and the history of environmental economic thought. A background in economics is not expected or required. The interdisciplinary character allows students to understand and analyze theories of agricultural food production and rural development. The course includes associated field experiences that offer concrete examples of how theories and concepts are implemented through the EU Common Agricultural Policy in Tuscany.
Italian Language & Sustainable Italy Internship (4 credits)
Each week, Italian language instruction in context aims to help break down barriers to students’ participation in and understanding of Tuscan culture. Elena Monami leads weekly sessions both within and outside the classroom, at the Castello Sonnino, and in Montespertoli, Siena, and Florence.
Sustainable Italy Internship
The internship is a practical, hands-on way for students to develop skills and acquire insights into how different facets of society in Tuscany are working towards sustainability. Students work 125-150 hours during the internship. Students reflect on their experiences in weekly seminar sessions, which facilitate deepened self-awareness and a critical understanding of the internship site. Reflection journals aid discussions at seminars, and students give a final presentation on their internship site’s role in sustainability.
Independent Study Project (4 credits)
The Independent Study Project (ISP) allows students to tailor the program to individual learning and career objectives. Students can pursue a research question about a particular issue relevant to the program using academic resources accessible through home campuses’ online library systems, as well as other print and human resources in Sonnino, Montespertoli, or Florence. The Program Director must approve the topic. Because the ISP corresponds to a full course credit, assignments in structured stages build progress and depth over the course of the semester. For more information on the process of the Independent Study Project, please refer to the syllabus, below.
Below are details of a few recently completed internships. Note that internship sites can change semester to semester in response to the needs of local organizations, and when possible, in response to the specific interests of students in the program.
A family run farm in Montespertoli that produces wine and olive oil. The HECUA student helps with production: cleaning the wine fermentation tanks, picking up olives, pruning grape vines. They learn about the olive oil and winemaking processes.
Castello Sonnino–Wine Production
This is the wine production operation on the Castello Sonnino grounds. HECUA students with experience in chemistry have been able to directly assist in the wine process, checking the alcohol and sugar levels. Other students have seized the opportunity to have a hands-on experience – crushing grapes, removing the must, cleaning the tanks, and transferring wine.
Orti Dipinti is an urban “guerilla garden,” maintained by community members as a high-quality organic production site. Volunteers are drawn to Orti Dipinti’s visionary mix: it is a demonstration site for horticultural and sustainability projects, a radical program of re-use (the site itself is an unused school running track), a provider of vegetables and herbs to the surrounding neighborhood and local restaurants, and a site for community gathering and development.
Gelateria I' Stravizi
Gelateria I’ Stravizi, a small producer of gelato, has a storefront in the center of Montespertoli, two minutes walking distance from Castello Sonnino. The student is supervised by the gelateria’s owner, Michela, who provides an introduction to italian gelato culture and trains the student to prepare gelato batches, cakes, and cookies.
Food blogger Chiara Brandi
Chiara Brandi is a food blogger based in Florence. Students working with Chiara will be afforded a deep dive into Italian food culture. In addition to food blogging work, Chiara is an activist leading the development of food assemblies in Florence. The student intern will assist her with both projects, attending fairs, meeting local artisans, and developing content.
Cost includes group transportation to field sites, planned group excursions, lodging, meals, local transportation, medical insurance, and administrative costs. Students are housed in apartments on the Castello Sonnino grounds with a full kitchen, and receive a food allowance.
A note on costs
The program costs listed below are what HECUA charges for participation in its programs. The final amount that a student pays might be higher and can vary from college to college. Many colleges assess additional fees or charge their own tuition for off-campus programs. Some colleges also have specific financial aid rules for off-campus programs. Therefore, all students should check with the off-campus-study office and the financial aid office of their home institution to confirm their final cost for a HECUA program.
A full and comprehensive fee breakdown can be found on the Program Costs page.
Member schools are schools that are part of the HECUA consortium. For HECUA member school students, the cost of our program is $20,800.
Non-member schools are schools that are not part of the HECUA consortium. For non-member school students, the cost of this HECUA program is $21,600.
HECUA distributes three scholarships to students from consortium member schools: the Scholarship for Racial Justice (up to $4,000); the Scholarship for Social Justice (up to $1,500); and the Scholarship for Community Engagement (up to $750 for semester-long programs, and $350 for short-term programs). Learn more about HECUA’s Scholarship Program.
Good to Know
Students live in apartments on the grounds of the Castello Sonnino estate. Each apartment has a fully furnished kitchen. Orientation to food shopping in Montespertoli and cooking instruction help students make the most of food stipends they receive.
Italian language fluency is not necessary. All students are enrolled in an Italian language course upon arrival, and all levels of proficiency can be accommodated.
The program is offered in partnership with Università per Stranieri di Siena, which sponsors students’ visa applications, hosts the program for a field experience, staffs the Italian language instruction, and collaborates on curriculum.
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