The Italian farmers’ organisation Coldiretti calls it an ‘epochal change’ in society that has not taken place since the 19th century. In the year 2016/17, almost 30,000 people submitted an application to become farmers in Italy. Two among them, Katrin Mamberto and Paolo Frea, share their story with Riviera Insider.
As it so often happens, it only takes one moment to change a life. Couple Katrin Mamberto, an interior designer, and experienced construction developer Paolo Frea had been looking for a piece of land on which to build their dream home for some time, but sites were either way beyond their means or deep in the Ligurian hinterland, up to 30 kilometres from the coast. One day in 2014, while walking their dogs in the near forgotten Bottassano Valley, which is nestled between the towns of Finale Ligure, Borgio Verezzi and Tovo San Giacomo, they spotted a sign scrawled with the word VENDESI (translation: for sale).
The plot was barely visible, hidden in amongst the shrubs, as if the owner would rather keep it. Katrin and Paolo were curious. They called the number and a few days later, the owners showed them the land in all its unkempt glory. It was totally overgrown and had been untouched for decades by humankind, but the couple was enchanted.
“It was like immersing ourselves in another world,” they recall today. Caught up in the raw beauty of the site, they didn’t immediately see the gorgeous, pastel-coloured house in the background. With bated breath they asked, “And that?”
“Oh, that’s a part of it too,” came the answer, as if the property was nothing more than an annoying appendage. For Katrin and Paolo, fate was sealed. They fell madly in love with the jungle just minutes from the sea. That was the moment.
There were other interested parties, but the proprietor, whose aunt had owned the nearly three-hectare paradise, was keen that it went to loving hands. Owner Maria* had spent her childhood here and had watched her aunt pack a donkey-pulled cart high with fragrant peaches for sale at the market. So it was for emotional reasons that Katrin and Paolo were awarded the sale.
The designer and developer were in seventh heaven, but reality would soon catch up. They had to get the funding together, with help from family and friends, before the sale was notarised after many hurdles. One such complication was waiting to see if any of the 18 people whose land bordered theirs would enact their presale rights.
The main building had been built in 1930 and was solid, the roof good and walls dry, but there were obvious renovations to do. It wasn’t connected to either water or electrical mains. The couple had originally thought of starting a bed and breakfast (the idea of organic farming would come later) so the ivy-strewn barn they also discovered on the plot would be ideal for holiday rentals.
Over time, the concept of biodynamic agriculture at La Rutabaga – the name of their new home – began to develop. With little to no experience in biodynamics, a rigorous form of organic agriculture rooted in the work of Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner, Katrin and Paolo contacted Piedmont-based agriculturalist Patrizio Michelis.
When Michelis visited La Rutabaga for the first time, he told the two enthusiastically, “This land is so pristine and full of positive energy! It’s as if it was made for biodynamic cultivation... It would be a shame not to take advantage of this opportunity.”
They set about learning the basics of biodynamics, which remains a niche type of farming in Liguria and is poorly represented among the agricultural community. One of their first tasks was to resolve the water problem. A dowser (someone who uses a divining rod to find underground water) located a spot where they could drill. Following a lengthy and costly process, laboratory tests confirmed that good quality water could be found at a depth of 54 metres.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Paolo was finally able to free the plot of its jungle state and expose centuries-old dry stone walls and terraces. Heavily scented lilac, sun-yellow mimosa, violet, thyme and rosemary settled in the place of the brambles. Vegetable beds were created, an irrigation system installed and an electric fence erected around much of the estate in an attempt to keep the deer out (not always possible as they can jump up to two metres). The organic oasis soon attracted the attention of other animals, among them rare eagles and birds of prey.
Then they had to sow and plant seeds, always according to the rules of biodynamics and respecting the laws of nature. Pesticides and artificial fertilisers are frowned upon so they use the manure produced by organically –raised animals.
For Katrin and Paolo, it seemed like a miracle. Suddenly an array of fruit and vegetables burst out of the soil: carrots, potatoes, parsley, melons, courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines, beans, peppers... All the Mediterranean produce under the sun thrived in the altitude of La Rutabaga. Last summer, they harvested a staggering 4,500 kilos. It was as if the earth they had awakened wanted to honour them.
Thanks to social media, the news that biodynamically grown produce was available in Bottasano spread like wildfire. Health-conscious customers came from far away and restaurants, organic stores and hotels were also interested. In her crates of vegetables, Katrin was able to express her creativity. Lain with tulle or adorned with a ribbon, her lovingly added extras are well-removed from the anonymity of vegetables bought in the supermarket. So how can the government better support newcomer farmers such as themselves?
“Less bureaucracy and subsidies as an incentive to reclaim abandoned land,” is their suggestion. They have both experienced this change in their way of life differently. Katrin loves the sowing of seeds and watches her tender plants sprouting: “It’s always a wonder to see each has its own rhythm.”
For Paolo, it is the cycle of nature that impresses him the most and he feels a need to protect and preserve this piece of land. Both, however, have had to address the frustrations of following Mother Nature’s rules. If the weather isn’t on your side, then little can be done.
Soon the renovations to their home and barn will be complete. The couple hope to organise special holiday rentals with organic breakfasts and picnics, aperitifs out in the fields and small events with live music under the stars. They also place to plant a fruit and herb garden as well as a botanical path. It’s a life’s work that requires plenty of love, dedication and self-belief. Good luck, you two!
*Name changed for privacy
Back to earth
Not since the two industrial revolutins of the 19th century has Italy's agricultural industry seen such social change. 61% of the approximately 30,000 people who want to become self-employed as farmers live in the south, the rest in the north of the country, according to the Coldiretti farmer’s association and its recent study, Ritorno alla Terra (Back to earth).
Coldiretti President roberto Moncalvo says, “The farming profession has regained prestige and is regarded as promising and attractive for a well-educated generation with the will to roll up their sleeves. We are dealing with an epochal event.” Sicily, with 4,700 applicants, is the region at the top of the budding young farmers’ movement. Liguria has 445.
One of the major hurdles is the high price for fertile, farming land. The average cost for one hectare is around €40,000. In Liguria, it is €108,000 – the highest in Europe. Added to this is the extremely convoluted Italian bureaucracy. Instead of promoting budding farmers, there are hurdles every step of the way.
According to Coldiretti, a farmer is engaged in administrative tasks for a hundred days of the year. For organic and biodynamic cultivation, it gets even more complicated. Those who wish to benefit from EU funds should probably think of hiring an expert, which is virtually impossible considering the financial struggles faced by so many young farmers.