Friday, March 4, 2011

Win-Win Sharecropping

Being a writer married to a photographer and having wonderful friends in the arts and sciences means I get to do some pretty cool things. For instance, I remember sitting opposite renaissance funny man Steve Martin in his limo immediately following the Broadway opening of his play “Picasso At The Lapin Agile” as he cracked, a little nervous about reviews, “I’m still just the son of a poor sharecropper.”

What does this have to do with Tuscany, you're wondering?

Sharecropping is still alive here in Tuscany, but not in the way you would think. Besides the fact that the feudal mezzadria (half-sharing) system wasn’t outlawed until 1964 -- which makes almost anyone still farming in Italy literally the sons and daughters of poor sharecroppers -- there are those of us who think an updated version of crop sharing might hold promise, especially in these times when “think global, act local” is the viable path toward sustainability, stability and health.

I’m one of those people. So is Pienza-based cheese maker Ulisse of Podere il Casale. By virtue of being abandoned for over 10 years, our farm is certifiably "organic," so I call the new system we are setting up mezzadria biologica -- organic crop-sharing. It starts with the kind of barter I spoke of in my "Bragging Rights", post about giving away our plums in return for a case of the delicious plum preserves they were transformed into. The next step was when Sally contacted Ulisse, a Swiss cheesemaker over by Pienza and he brought his team of WWOOF volunteers to help harvest our olives. For this service he took half the oil, our best vintage yet. It was a great deal we plan to continue because till now we've only been able to harvest half our trees ourselves anyway. In the end we got a cheese credit as well!

What is WWOOF, but a form of sharecropping? Unlike today's internships, where college grads become unpaid slave-apprentices hoping to get offered a job, Wwoofers give labor in trade for education, room and board in beautiful locales like ours. Everyone is happy in the end.

Now, I am in talks with Ulisse to sharecrop our large orto (garden) in exchange for his products, and perhaps to graze his sheep on our fallow wheat field. The sheep will improve the soil with their manure and keep noxious weeds down, while enjoying free-range health. And I won't have to mow!

But just as good as its practical win-win economics, neuroscientists are now finding that the pleasure centers of our brains light up when we share, making sharecropping a feel-good thing to do.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to come across someone else sharing the Tuscan experience as I search for information about the mezzadria system for a future post for my own blog. Keep up the good work and congratulations on the New Jersey produce! We sympathize with your roadworks.
    My blog is at, a bit of a mouthful, but great fun to work on.