A farm in Tuscany

Could you make a success of an Italian farm?

Behind them lies the whole grandeur of the Tuscan countryside. Before them is Casanova, the farm that is the pride of them all. They stand there, three generations of Conte men; grandfather Santo, current owner Bartolo, and grandson Raphael who is preparing for a future on the farm. There will be no shortage of challenges ahead, but the Conte family is prepared to meet them as they always have, with courage, optimism and innovation.

Some 50 years ago, grandfather Santo purchased Casanova from one of the noble families of Siena, the ancient city 40 minutes drive away that is a match for Florence when it comes to art and architecture.

After the Second World War, farm employees flocked to the cities, which meant the aristocratic landowners were left with vacant farms, forcing them to sell. Santo had come from Sicily as a 14-year-old and worked his way up, purchasing first a tractor and then finally the farm.

That stubborn Sicilian mentality was the asset that made a go of Casanova. Then, when Santo had a heart attack in 1989, Bartolo left the military to go back to the heavily indebted farm. His wife Wiebke Buchholz (called Vicky by all the locals who can’t pronounce her German name) joined him in 1999 and they’ve operated the farm together since.

Lined by typical Tuscan cypresses, a long white gravel road today leads from the rolling Crete Senesi (literally, “gray clay” named for the area’s soils) and takes you up to the beautifully landscaped, centuries-old farmhouse with its swimming pool.

Pure white cattle graze on the hill opposite the house; a new mother licks her calf in the comfortable barn.

It all fits together, just like the way the agriturismo (farm bed-and-breakfast) and the cattle breeding enterprises fit together as the two main pillars of Casanova.

How to farm in Italy

Unlike so many agriturismos, which consist mainly of farm buildings with an olive grove, Casanova is, by Italian standards, a large working farm, based on 400 acres, and the Conte family has raised purebred Chianina cows for over 50 years.

Chianinas are a heritage breed that trace their roots back to the ancient Etruscans who lived in the region 2,000 years ago. They ask little in the way of care besides feed, says Wiebke. The 30 cows, together with the 1,100-kg steer that Santo is particularly proud of, roam the 100 acres of pastures along the Crete.

Conte also grows 40 acres of barley and 100 acres of hay for feed. He crops 175 acres of durum wheat, at an average yield of 3.5 tonnes per hectare (51.5 bushels per acre). The wheat is shipped to a local stone mill. Some is made into Santo’s wife Nona Paola’s traditional homemade pasta, pici, and served to guests as the Primo before the Secondo of grilled Chianina beef. More pasta is dried to sell — to guests and to Wiebke’s German relatives and friends, and sold in local co-operative stores.

Bartolo (l), with son Raphael and father Santo overlooking the hills of Tuscany.

The climate south of Siena is ideal for durum. Italy produces nearly as much durum wheat as Canada — an average of four million metric tonnes.

Bartolo waves his hand over the steep hillsides which are a deep green in spring, covered in wheat and barley. A hot dry summer follows — earning it the name “Accona — Italy’s desert.” Usually there’s enough rain from November to spring to fill the kernels. The largest farmers sell their wheat to Barilla, one of Italy’s premium pasta makers, whose products can be found on Canadian supermarket shelves. Increased pasta exports are making up for decreasing Italian pasta consumption.

Farmers like the Contes market their durum on the farm and in co-operative stores dedicated to local produce, which are favoured by Tuscany’s many tourists.

“To produce straight grain a farmer needs a minimum of 50 acres,” Conte says. Only a very few own all their land. Wheat is still a lucrative crop, he believes, adding that farmers are still profiting from higher EU subsidies for wheat in comparison with other crops. Without those subsidies farmers couldn’t compete against durum from Canada with its lower production costs. (Bartolo says Barilla prefers Canadian durum to the Italian, because of its higher protein content.)

Wheat subsidies are being lowered annually, and are now tied to production practices such as crop rotations. It was not uncommon for Tuscan farmers to plant wheat 15 years in a row, enabled by heavy clay soils and low disease pressure. Newest EU agriculture policies only allow cereals two years in a row in the crop rotation. The new policies along with lower prices are changing the face of the Tuscan hills.

Having always followed a one-year rotation of cereals with other crops, the Conte farm finds that subsidies tied to production practices are only advantageous. Last year the EU introduced a subsidy for each cow, whereas in the past it was tied to calves, meaning that feedlots had an advantage over cattle producers.

“The Germans make agriculture policy in the EU,” Bartolo says with a pointed look at his German wife. After 30 years as an EU member, Italy still doesn’t really have an agriculture policy worth speaking about, he says. As long as their currency was the Italian lire, farmers did well. That all changed when the euro came in. It is difficult for an Italian farmer to compete with the French and German farmers, he adds. “German and French farmers have two legs, the Italians limp along behind.”

A country of co-ops

Although the steep hillsides would seem a natural fit for no-till farming in order to reduce erosion, Bartolo says that’s not feasible in the heavy clay soil and the dry, hot climate. The main harvest period is in June, after which the fields are worked. They then lie barren in the heat until seeding in November. Without working the fields, the soil would be too hard for the seed drill, he says. He has three 150-hp Massey Ferguson track tractors in his shed, and the fields are worked parallel to the ridges, with track tractors to minimize pressure. Conte stresses the importance of correct placement of water draws, adding that water erosion is rarely a problem except in extreme years.

Bartolo was vice-president of the board of directors of the local bank in Asciano, a high honour for a farmer, Buchholz says. He resigned together with the president two years ago when bank shareholders approved a merger with a larger Sienese bank instead of with the smaller bank Bartolo and the director believe would have been more beneficial for farmers and locals.

As Italian banks are forced to adopt new EU banking laws, financing has become more difficult for the Contes. New loans are dependent on secure income generation, as compared to net worth of the farm. Until Italy has its economic problems solved, things will remain difficult, Bartolo says. More and more farmers are banding together as co-operatives to apply for funding.

That accounts for the butcher shop in Siena. Bartolo was instrumental in forming the co-operative of six farmers that in 2011 opened a meat store, the Macelleria Senese, in Siena as an outlet for the Chianina meat they all produce. The cattle are raised according to strict criteria such as having access to the outdoors at all times. Slaughtering happens in nearby Cortona, in a stress-free environment.

The co-operative hires a butcher who cuts the carcasses in the shop. Each member spends one weekday selling at the shop. “The presence of the farmers ensures the customer that this really is a direct-sales business,” Wiebke explains. The shop also delivers meat to a few restaurants and agriturismos that value the local Chianina beef. “Those that are just looking for cheap meat will go elsewhere,” says Wiebke.

A new machinery shed got 10,000 euros in EU grants, but the permits cost 12,000.
photo: Marianne Stamm

The AgriTurismo

The bed-and-breakfast is Wiebke’s project. It was a slow process to build it to what it is today — offering six modern rooms for up to six persons and homemade meals, a swimming pool and a fishing pond. When Buchholz first came to Casanova, a row of cedars got in the way of the stunning view that guests raved about.

They had been planted and cared for by Santo, and when the family wanted to cut them down, each one became a major battle, as were almost all changes Buchholz implemented. Wiebke’s German heritage clashed often with Santo’s Sicilian approach.

She could count on her mother-in-law Paola’s backing though. The rooms are furnished with antiques that the Conte relatives had stored in the old barn and forgotten. The barn itself was renovated into a cozy dining room where guests enjoy traditional Tuscan homemade breakfasts and dinners by the fireside.

Paola is the heart and hands of the kitchen. Only recently has Wiebke mustered the courage to cook meals for guests, as Paola is getting older. Paola still makes the pasta though, although she admits she uses a machine now instead of forming it by hand. That Wiebke speaks German, English and Italian is a valuable asset for her international guests.

“There are two paths for Tuscan farmers to take in the future,” Bartolo says. Either they expand into large industrial farms or produce for niche markets such as the Siena butcher shop. For him, he says the land made the choice. “A farmer here can only produce for quality, not quantity, because of the climate and topography.”

Besides, local policies that rule out any new buildings on a farm (protecting heritage) make expansion more difficult. The old hayshed that Santo built years ago began collapsing. It took Bartolo four years of wheedling with authorities to get the building permit for a replacement shed. He received 10,000 euros from EU subsidies towards the building. It cost him 12,000 euros for the permits.

Their biggest problem is land taxes, Bartolo says. Italy charges land and income tax, similar to Canada. Land taxes in Italy are higher than income tax, though, and they vary widely according to municipality. “The whole state household has to be paid,” Bartolo says dryly, adding: “Although everyone pays into state health care, we still have to pay privately when we’re sick, because state medicare is so poor.”

Corruption is also a problem. “We have a saying: The law applies to the common person. For friends it is interpretable.”

Despite the challenges the Contes see ahead, 16-year-old son Raphael is planning for a future on the farm. As a child he was never far from his father’s side. Currently he is attending an agriculture college in Siena, the same one his father attended. Whether he really will take over the farm one day remains to be seen.

Until then, Bartolo and Wiebke continue to work hard to keep Casanova a profitable and encouraging enterprise. For inspiration they go for a drive along the top of the Crete. Even for Italians, the Italian landscape is a thing of beauty.

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