The Good Life

09 Jan 2003

Many people ask me for advice when they decide to change their lives and start working in the farming sector. The first thing I tell them to do is to go and talk to people who have already made the move and developed small self-sufficient farms that generate decent income by operating in accordance with local traditions, but without ever losing sight of the nutritional and cultural quality of the food they produce.

This first step will certainly be enlightening—and it’s also certain to trigger creativity—but it obviously won’t suffice in itself. No, at least another three aspects have to be taken into consideration Two are technical—land analysis accompanied by scientific guidance for ‘new’ farmers, and new credit policies designed, first and foremost, to encourage good ideas—whereas the third involves the construction of a more intelligent production system in which consumers can grasp the innovative approach of the ‘new’ farmers and reward them accordingly. Often the people who go into the kind of farming I would like to see either own land or farm buildings already (usually family inheritances) or are courageous and broad-shouldered enough to invest in small farms they happen to see and like.

Ideas and ambitions need to be backed up by scientific support, which is invariably either hard to find or expensive. Nonetheless, it’s worth seeking the consultancy of analysts and professionals capable of understanding a budding new farmer’s aspirations and offering proper information on land use. The temptation of over-the-top productivity is to be avoided at all costs. Far better to invest a little extra to contact authoritative arguers of the sustainable cause, free from the subterfuges of community subsidies and cheap utilitarianism.

Alas, as yet there are only a very few structures capable of offering these services without falling into the temptation of standardization and corporatism. Yet both in universities and in the world of small-scale production people with the necessary prerequisites have risen to the fore, capable of sounding out the terrain and drawing up the specifications for a sustainable farm with the right dimensions, produce and time-scale. The thing to do, therefore, is ‘shop around’ and speak to well-established farmers and the right people from the academic world. Slow Food already has many reliable contacts of this kind, and, compatibly with our commitments, we are prepared to provide consultancy when it comes to contacting people with the suitable knowhow. In the wine world, it is essential to be able to rely on the advice of experts to grow great vines and make great wines. Whether you intend to grow other crops or breed livestock, it is obviously better to find an agronomist who can advise you on the best plants for your soil as opposed to one who’s only interested in checks from the European Union or a veterinary surgeon capable of developing natural methods, possibly with autocthonous breeds in sustainable conditions as opposed to one out to make cash by using the antibiotics of his ‘trusted’ brand.

It is to be hoped that the experts in question are fully aware of the productive history of the areas in which they work and, even more importantly, that they avoid advising operations that would degrade those selfsame areas through soil pollution and the defacement of the local landscape and geomorphology. Old-fashioned, no-nonsense countrymen often frown on the eco-sustainability of new farms as something of a caprice, halfway between the dreamlike and the fraudulent. They either fail to grasp concepts such as ‘organic’, ‘biodiversity’, ‘naturalness’, ‘seasonality’ and ‘quality’, or see them as being badly mixed and matched.

The eco-sustainability of farms is sure to be a huge added value in the future: a) because it is morally better and b) because it envisages high-quality products with market potential and without fear of competition of any kind.

Last but not least, all of this will certainly be convertible into cash and will also be a way of implementing the all-purpose approach to agriculture that many champion on paper but do very little to put into practice.

Adapted by John Irving

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