What does it mean to plant a seed?

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Anyone who has ever planted a seed knows that it takes great faith, indeed. When you hold a seed in your hand, it is hard to imagine the crop that will subsequently grow and then be harvested – to produce seeds that we then eat. The small size and unassuming nature of most seeds often means that we overlook their role in not only our food system but in the environment that surrounds us.

Seeds are amazing. Given the right amount of water, sunshine, and soil, seeds have all of the energy needed to germinate and begin the process of photosynthesis that allows them to develop into plants and spread more seeds.

I go through three planting seasons a year (ah yes, that Mediterranean climate allows for fall, winter, and spring planting) and plant millions and millions of seeds. I have written before about the work that goes into planting season. Each crop has a specific window of time that is optimal for planting, and my job is to ensure that we’ve done the planning and all of the extensive field preparation work (that begins several months before planting) to be ready when the weather is favorable (or, more likely, not terrible).

And then you have to wait. No matter how many times I go through planting season, the waiting, as Tom Petty says, is the hardest part. What if the ground is too dry? What if it is too cold? What if the seeds are old? What if birds come feast on the just-planted seeds? I feel like I’m living in one of those New Yorker anxiety cartoons with the person who is terrified that the most commonplace of things won’t happen (WHAT IF water does NOT boil on the stove??).

What if the seeds don’t germinate?

Here is where Thoreau tells us to keep the faith. Keep the faith, for when the conditions are right, the seed will germinate. And be prepared to expect wonders.

On September 11, 1944, towards the end of World War II, twenty-two farmers in this area of Southern Tuscany – Maremma — signed the founding documents to create the local chapter of the national farmers’ association, la Confagricoltura.

The land-use history of Maremma includes several centuries of human intervention, but much of infrastructure that continues to shape the economy here today was realized first during Mussolini’s time and then in the post-war Italian economic boom. By mid-century, the challenges to agricultural production and the protection of land and farmer rights led to the need to form an association that could represent farmer interests and provide services to the development of farming in the area.

My grandparents purchased the land I now farm in 1936. In 1944, at the signing of the founding documents, the farm was a seed that had just been planted. Most of the buildings and farm structures, the fields and machinery, the trials of rice production, the pine forests – the wonders one could expect – were still decades away. The land was largely a big marshland with some Mediterranean brush, a farm structure, and a house built immediately before the war.

On April 18, 2019, I attended the inauguration of the new headquarters of the local farmers’ association. I serve as one of the vice presidents of the Grosseto chapter and rely on the association and its farmer network for everything from submitting subsidy applications to recommendations on a good tractor mechanic.

The inauguration was a big local event attended by politicians, the association’s national president, and the local press. As is customary at every event of this type just about everywhere, there was a healthy hour of speeches by local leaders and politicians. Standing outside in the windy April weather, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I was distracted and not listening to the wind-blown, poorly miked words.

Somewhere in the middle of the first speech, the man standing behind me said, in Italian, “Ariane, did you hear?” Oh goodness, I thought. No, I did not hear. He continued, “Olga Lotti.”

I looked up at the podium. The local chapter president was telling the history of the farmer association in the area. One of those twenty-two founding farmers – and the only woman – was my grandmother, Olga Lotti.

I was completely struck by the news that my grandmother was a founding member of the association. Without the main actors around today, I’ve had to stitch together a history of the farm and my Italian family – and that history has not included a spot for this piece. My Italian family was from the North and even if they owned a big farm in the area, they weren’t active in local institutions and organizations. My grandmother was weak and sick – not the only woman in a group of men, in the 1940s. Making a place for this piece has required a reinterpretation of the entire image.

I did not know my Italian grandmother very well. She passed away when I was twelve, and the most vivid memories I have of her are as a strict, often sick, person. Her only son passed away five years before she did, and I imagine that that strongly influenced the end of her life when I knew her.

This piece of local history also communicated that I have a place here. I am a (relatively) young, American woman managing a substantial farm in Southern Tuscany. I can’t count the number of times a man here has told me that I am too American – which translates into everything from “you’re crazy” to “don’t rock the boat” to “no” – for any number of pretty basic requests and expectations. I look differently, I behave differently, I speak differently; everything about me is different to the people here. I am an outsider, albeit in a privileged position. That my grandmother – grandmother – founded one of the most important institutions here locally is a statement that I too have a claim to this land and to this place, not as an outsider, but as someone who has roots here.

I don’t know what my grandmother would think of me today. I don’t think she could have ever imagined in 1944 at the signing of those founding documents that seventy-five years later her granddaughter, as vice president, would be present at the inauguration of the association’s new headquarters. Even less would she have imagined that her granddaughter would have come back in her early thirties to the farm from America, as an American. It would have been unthinkable to her that seventy-five years later her two granddaughters would be running the farm because her son would die in her lifetime. And that for a period of time, all of the growth and all of the projects would be put on hold until the granddaughters were old enough to make things grow again. She could have never known.  

But she had faith – that faith in a seed. That faith that leads to a crop and, if one is lucky, to a harvest, a harvest of more seeds. And we can never know if and how the seeds will grow and where they will go, but it is right to expect wonders.

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