Thursday, October 15, 2009

Promiscuous Agriculture

Agricoltura promiscua. That’s what Italians call growing a bit of everything on a parcel of land. Otherwise known as mixed or integrated agriculture, it's at least linguistically ironic that in the culturally promiscuous US we are thoroughly and deeply addicted to monoculture when it comes to producing our food.

My neighbor Giovanni Mangiavacchi is a consummately promiscuous farmer, a contadino, the last of a breed of disappearing from the world. He's 73 years old, but you wouldn’t know it to shake his strong hand. From sunup to sundown, he does what it takes to survive on a small family farm. He butchers and cures his own hams. He makes wine and oil. He grows wheat for income and heats his home with wood he and his son Arnaldo cut. And he does most of it the quaint old-fashioned way, by hand and hard labor.

When we met two years ago he was tying up his grapevines with willow switches. “We need good people around here,” he said in his raspy good-natured voice. “This way of life is vanishing. No one wants to do this work anymore.” I understood because I had an interpreter. When I apologized for having no Italian, Giovanni grinned. “Work with me. You’ll learn!”

This morning, after waking to the first frost of the season, I asked him to put me to work. Voglio lavorare per te. Voglio aiutare. Voglio imparare l’arte del contadino. (I want to work for you. I want to help [unspecified reflexive object]. I want to learn the art of the Contadino.). At first he is perplexed, but when I say I want to walk around with him and talk, to learn Italian, he nods and starts off toward the barn.

The walls of his barns are festooned with ox yokes and giant sieves that would not be out of place in a shaker barn. But these are not antiques. Today he will use one to clean favalino.

A kind of small black fava bean planted and turned under when mature, to add precious nitrogen to the generally poor Tuscan soil, Giovanni pours the dried beans, 40 or 50 pounds at time, into the big crivello (sieve) suspended under a crude tripod. He swirls them like he’s panning for gold or roasting coffee beans. After several sizzling laps, the undesirable thistle and weed seeds float to the top and are discarded. Any oats, barley, and immature beans have fallen to the floor—food for pigs.

Provo? I ask. I try?

I’d like to say I succeed. But first I spill the beans, literally. Then I can’t even get the remaining ones to roll. These are not light little coffee beans. It’s like bowling with Jello or trying to juggle bread dough. Now my tennis elbow aches and Giovanni laughs good-naturedly. I’ve no choice but to laugh with him.

Then Arnaldo walks in. He looks amused. Giovanni says his 45-year-old son refuses to clean beans this way. Arnaldo confirms it. It’s just a fact. There is this old-fashioned respect for character in Italy. Meanwhile, I don’t know whether to feel better for having tried, or just a fool.

At least I can help him pour the cleaned beans into sacks. This becomes our morning’s work—200 kilos of beans, over 400 pounds, six big sacks full in 3 hours.

8 or 9 more times I try to swirl the beans over the morning. 8 or 9 more times I fail. And laugh. And am humbled when Giovanni takes the sieve and simply swishes them around.

In consolation, I'm invited to lunch. I can practice my sparse Italian at the table least.

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