This latest post comes from an old and faithful friend of Boggioli, Brett Donham. Brett is an architect, and he and his wife Priscilla live on an old and beautiful property in rural Maine.
Brett raises two important issues, both of which can be related to our situation in Tuscany. Here many small hill farms, unprofitable and often primitive, were gradually abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s and the forest moved in. (Tuscany is Italy’s most forested region, though not the largest.) Some farmhouses have been restored and often used as second homes, but actual hill farming has been greatly reduced. The main beneficiary of this of course is our local wildlife which has increased in numbers dramatically in the last few years.
The other issue highlighted by Brett is the growing concern about where our food comes from and how it is produced. We in this part of Tuscany now have several farmers’ markets, one of them permanent, and the term ‘organic’ is now widely accepted as a basic criterion for choosing which products to buy. It still means that you can buy fruit in particular out of season, but you don’t have to have if local suppliers can offer you a locally produced alternative. And you can always grow your own!
No Farms No Food
As you drive through rural northern New England you see on older model cars and pickup trucks bumper stickers that say NO FARMS NO FOOD. Two hundred years ago New England was 90% cleared land for field crops, orchards, pastureland or hay and 10% forested land. Now the ratio is reversed; 5% farmed or pastureland, 5% urbanized development and 90% forested land. Stone walls demarking former cultivated fields and pastures and now wandering off into second-growth forests are vivid testimony to this. Abandoned farmland is being converted to second homes or “camps” and low-intensity commercial development. Much is just reverting to a thick impenetrable tangle of forest; with New England’s abundant rainfall an abandoned field is unrecoverable in 15 to 20 years.
In the 1970s a nascent “back-to-the-land” movement tried to reverse this trend but it petered out. The unexpected hard physical labor, lack of access to markets, the inability to afford health care and save for retirement, and the constant capital expense drove many of them to a more predictable lifestyle. More recently, in the last 20 years or so, a new wave of “back-to-the-landers” has appeared on the scene, at least in the part of rural Maine we live in. For those for whom really fresh food, the aesthetics of open worked farmland, and the human fellowship of farmers’ markets are important, this is good news indeed.
So what has changed to encourage this second wave of new farmers? One is the nationwide growth of interest in healthy food. Many restaurants now list on their menus the source of their meats and vegetables with emphasis on local farms. Another is the explosion in the number and availability of farmer’s markets. In our immediate area there is at least one farmer’s market every day of the week in warm weather and two a week all year round. Favorable tax policies have helped. By placing a permanent farmland easement on property in some jurisdictions the assessed value of the land and thereby annual taxes can be reduced. And finally, charitable organizations have been created to help. The Maine Farmland Trust , for example, being a non-profit is qualified to accept farmland easements on farm property, thereby reducing the value for inheritance and land taxes and making purchase by new young farmers easier. They arrange farming apprenticeships so new young farmers can learn the trade.
Awareness of our carbon footprint and our individual responsibility to reduce it play a role here too. Fresh raspberries in January taste terrific until you think about the carbon cost of flying them 4,000 miles to mid-coast Maine. Local apples and root vegetables are available all year round in New England and always have been.
More Farms More Food
Thank you Brett.