After long periods of fruitless searching for an affordable home with enough fertile land to accommodate organic agriculture, Elisa and Romano eventually discovered the property that would become Azienda Agricola Il Granello, squeezed between high Appenine hills about 20km from Bologna. The house was badly neglected and the land was worse. When they arrived their two hectares were completely smothered by weeds, requiring a total restoration effort. This is still a work in progress that will take a lot time and plenty of help from WWOOF volunteers. Still, they set to work immediately and have achieved an impressive amount in the short time that they've been here.
Their main focus is on herbs, both medicinal and culinary, and they grow a staggering variety of them. In the week I spent working with them I was introduced to several varieties of sage, multiple types of mint and many versions of thyme, marjoram, chives, tarragon, basil and parsley. They also grow potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower and zucchini as well as unusual varieties of lettuce, chicory and other greens. In addition to their vegetable and herb production, they keep hens, geese and ducks for eggs, raise rabbits and chickens for meat and have some of the oddest pets I've encountered anywhere in Italy, with a special mention going to Pancetta the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and the miniature Tibetan goats (actually used for grazing around the perimeter of the property to keep unwanted growth in check).
It's an impressive transformation of what was simply a vast field of weeds just a few years ago. There's still a lot of experimentation going on, and Romano admits that he never knows how a plant is going to take to their emergent ecosystem. He repeatedly emphasises that you can only learn so much about agriculture through theory – you need to get your hands dirty before any of it starts making sense, and you'll inevitably find outcomes different to expectations. Just under half their property still needs recuperated, and the organic methods they insist on are labour-intensive and time-consuming.
Il Granello was a massive task for a young family to take on, one that a lot of people would probably write off as an impossible fantasy. Their efforts, however, are paying off. WWOOFers provide an immense help, and their big country house can host up to four volunteers at time. During my week with them I seeded, weeded, cut herbs, fed the animals, transplanted seedlings and helped organise their stall for the Wednesday and Friday markets in Bologna. Organised by a local farmers' association, Campi Aperti (Open Fields), the market has been a major financial lifeline for the family. Their unusual herbs and vegetables sell well and they've had swift success in stamping an identity onto their produce. The challenge for them, says Romano, isn't finding people who want to buy their produce – it's producing consistently and in quantities that can satisfy demand. Their stall at the Campi Aperti market was noticed by the coordinator of Bologna's Mercato della Terra, a weekly market in the city sponsored by Slow Food. Vendors must demonstrate a strictly monitored commitment to high-quality food, with many specialising in rare or 'endangered' products. Preparations are being made by Romano and Elisa to start selling at the Mercato della Terra in late May.
The Subaru loaded for the Campi Aperti market in Bologna
One of my main research questions concerns how associations such as WWOOF and Slow Food facilitate back-to-the-land migration. It's been something of a revelation to see it put so clearly in the Il Granello example. I'm finding the value of these networks constantly reinforced, enough to make me despair at the thought of where people like Elisa and Romano would be without them. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of their situation is 'raw', though I hope that doesn't sound critical or even undesirable. They depend on the simplest forms of market trading for their sustenance, not to mention amenable weather and plentiful help from volunteers and family. Plant seeds, hope they'll grow, sell the result at the market, carry your weekly earnings home in a cashbox... This is a tense existence, but they've managed to stay positive and optimistic throughout.
Elisa sets up the Il Granello market stall
I'm very grateful to all the WWOOF hosts I've stayed with so far and haven't had a bad experience yet. I've learned loads from everyone and have always come away with a lot of admiration for what they're trying to achieve. I particularly want to salute Romano and Elisa, though, who've created a worthy and potentially very successful project from origins riven with disadvantages. Also, another special mention goes to Romano's parents, who arrived from Puglia for the week in a car crammed with incredible Pugliese treats – cakes, biscotti, sweets, cheese, fresh homemade pasta, marinated anchovies, octopus salad, limoncello and more. La nonna's cooking was some of the best I've ever had, and somehow magically served whenever I was at my hungriest. Grazie mille!