A piece of farmland tells a story – a story about people and their dreams, shaped by an environment and its physical limitations.
The story of this farmland begins in the 1930s, when my grandparents purchased the land.
Through a series of large infrastructure and drainage projects, Italy’s Prime Minister at the time – Benito Mussolini – had transformed the area from a marshland into arable land and had gotten rid of malaria.
My grandparents were part of a wave of Italians from the North who then decided to invest in Maremma – this area of Southern Tuscany along the Mediterranean coast that is wild enough and far enough from the manicured hills of postcard Tuscany to evoke images of African savannahs and cowboys riding off into the sunset.
Mussolini’s drain-at-all-costs approach followed by Northern investment spurred economic activity in the area. My grandparents built farmhouses, machine sheds, stables, granaries, and homes for the farm families who put their manual labor into the land.
They built fences, planted trees, and bought new farm machinery in a post-World-War-II era defined by mechanization and industrialization.
They tested all sorts of crops on this former marshland – tomatoes, vineyards, wheat, rice.
And when the crops weren’t enough they tried animals; they bred horses and raised cattle, and there were some amazing free-range chickens roaming around.
Their efforts yielded several decades of success. The investments did result in economic growth that helped to develop agriculture in the area and provide jobs.
For my grandfather’s 80th birthday in the late 1980s, the people working for the farm gave him a silver platter. There are 25 names on that platter – 25 people on the payroll, 25 families living on or near the farm, 25 pairs of hands to make this 1,200-acre farm successful.
After decades of growth and activity, the farm entered a period of dormancy in the early 1990’s when my grandparents and father all passed away in the span of a few years.
My father was an only child, so the land came directly to my sister, my mother, and me.
But we were in the U.S., far away from Maremma, and my family made the decision to keep the farm but scale it down to its bare bones for what seemed like a far-away future when my sister and I could take care of it. Buildings were closed, workers moved off the farm, and the farmland was rented out to other farmers. The remaining land was taken out of production and put into a 20-year easement program.
The bare-bones phase lasted a little over a decade.
I remember coming to the farm on a college research grant in the early 2000s to study the feasibility of organic rice production.
At the time, there was a part-time farm manager and one farmworker left living here with his family to do regular maintenance and keep an eye on things. The buildings were empty, and the land was either removed from production or in someone else’s hands.
Perhaps no land is better equipped than farmland to withstand cycles of life and death, periods of activity and dormancy. The forced seasonality of the work creates a familiarity with annual cycles that prepares the land for longer cycles. After periods of inactivity, eventually things slowly begin to wake up.
About ten years ago, when we had to decide how to move forward, my sister resolutely decided that there was no way we were going to sell our land.
She reorganized the farm business and launched an agritourism, where guests could come and stay in renovated farmhouses.
Despite her love for this land, she was not able to move full-time to Italy and remained in the U.S. to finish school and begin a career there. Around the same time, she hired a farm manager with a family who came to live and work here.
When I came back to the farm in the summer of 2014, only a portion of our land was still rented out and we had a crop of conventional rice in the ground.
The agritourism project my sister had developed was in full swing, with the farm manager’s family cooking traditional Tuscan meals for the guests who came to stay in the apartments. There were a couple of vegetable gardens, a small orchard, and a young olive grove that had sprung up in the past few years.
This was the situation I landed in when I returned, and my task was going to be to transition the farm to meet the business and agricultural challenges ahead.