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.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Town & Country

It is hard blogging about the farm when I am away from it for the winter. This is why my posts tend to thin a bit once I've returned to New York in January. I just don't have the callus-building hands-on daily experience to write from. So, I will continue to write about what I know and experience in contrast to my life on the farm. Which means a little bit more about the gentleman in the gentleman farmer. So here goes.

Sally and I do the New York-Tuscany shuffle. We do not disagree with anyone who says we have the best of both worlds. But right now the farm is asleep. The new wine is quiescent in the cool cantina. The new olive oil is thick as green lard in the cans. In two months the oil will thin and settle, the wine will fizz once again, and the buds on the prune and peach trees will pop. And I will be there for it. But right now who is Jack without all this?

Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump, a super-lucky nobody among somebodies. Imagine me at my friend Jean Pagliuso's opening of her "Poultry & Raptor Suites" at the Marlborough Gallery a few nights ago. Jean renders exquisite black and white portraits of seemingly unlikely subjects until you see them and realize the personality in each once it's rendered on specially prepared mulberry paper.

The subject (above) and the work.

I took my friend, Italian movie producer Roberto Bessi (Ladyhawke, A Good Woman, Modigliani, etc.), to the opening. He has been here the last four days, drumming up interest in several projects we are developing together, including a romantic comedy based on my experience reclaiming the abandoned Tuscan farm.

Afterwards, Sally, Roberto, and I went to a cozy after party at the home of Jean and her husband Tommy Cohen, where Roberto pretty quickly struck up a conversation with an old acquaintance, Jeremy Irons. I was also able to reconnect with many of the people I missed over the 9 months I was working on the farm, including Managing Editor at Sports Illustrated, Terry McDonell, amazing figurative painter Eric Fischl and his wife, landscape painter April Gornik. Susan Minot, Bryan Hunt, surgeon-author Jerry Imber, and other friends were there, as well. Thanks Jean and Tommy for a bright night in a long cold winter.

Sometimes I can't believe my life. When I'm not doing what I love on the farm, I'm doing what I love in the city that never sleeps. Farmer Jack is one very lucky gentleman.