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Lessons from Sardegna

Gloversville resident learns about ‘soft’ economy

July 11, 2012
By VINCENT DESANTIS - For The Leader-Herald

EDITOR'S NOTE: Vincent DeSantis, a Gloversville resident and former Gloversville City Court judge, is visiting a village in Sardinia - "Sardegna" in Italian, which is an island in the Mediterranean Sea and an autonomous region of Italy. He is working on a farm there. In the following report, DeSantis describes his experiences.


I have been working and living on a small farm near the village of San Priamo on the east coast of Sardegna since March 7. This is my first WWOOFing experience. WWOOF is an acronym for an international system of organizations - World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming. It all began in England many years ago and almost every country has one.

Article Photos

Enrico Curreli and Elizabetta Podda are hosting Gloversville resident?Vincent DeSantis at their home in Sardegna. (Photo courtesy of Vincent DeSantis)

I joined WWOOF Italia for 25 euros and got access to well over 100 organic farms in Italy. One then chooses a farm or farms from the online descriptions and makes arrangements directly via email with the farmer to work and stay. The deal is: you work about 4 hours per day for 5 days a week and in return get free room and board. But the real bonus is that on these small operations, you are treated as part of the family and experience not only the farm but get to know the entire network of people that form the community. Few tourists ever get this close to the essence of a people and culture.

My hosts here are Enrico Curreli and Elizabetta Podda and their two teenage children, and a host of other friends and neighbors. The last few weeks have been devoted to tending young olive trees, restoring a vegetable garden and pruning fruit trees - peach, pear, fig, apricot and pomegranate. Today Enrico will be bringing in olive seedlings with which we will establish a new grove. It has been a fantastic experience.

A special place

I have learned that Sardegnians really love their island and see it as a special place. It is in many ways a wild country, sparsely populated by European standards with a lot of steep mountains and remote places civilization has touched only tangentially for 4,000 years. This region is called Sarrabus, the southeast corner of the island. It is made up of a few small villages: Sarrabus, Muravera and San Priamo as well as a new village called Castiadas. It has a total population of about 15,000. A favorite pastime here is hiking the steep mountain trails. I recently took a long hike with a group of Enrico's friends over mountains along a spectacular seashore.

It was a feast for the eyes - vistas of the wild sea crashing on rock cliffs like I have never seen before. At one point we were at a lighthouse on a cliff more than 150 feet above the waves, yet we could feel the salt spray from the breakers on our faces. In between the peaks there are little isolated beaches where you are curiously sheltered from the wind. We ate lunch at one of them.

Enrico and Elizabetta's house is only a few years old, designed and built by them in a classical style with a central open courtyard. It includes a main house on one side and two guest apartments on the other which are rented out to tourists in the summer. The electricity is solar as is the hot water. I have noticed that photovoltaic panels are very common here. I daresay that buildings without them are in the minority. I was told Italy is No. 1 in Europe for production of solar electricity.

Independent, local

Sardegnians are very independent minded and locally oriented. Much of the food you buy is labeled "Solo da allevamenti Sardi" - only of Sardinian ingredients. They produce lots of wine, olive oil, all kinds of cheeses, oranges, lemons, artichokes, fennel and yogurt. The food is simple, wholesome and very different than what we Americans usually think of as Italian. The place has a very rich traditional culture not only with respect to food, but also music and dress. Though people here are quite educated and worldly, most of them are aware and respectful of the old traditions. I have heard it said several times that no matter what happens in the wider world, Sardegnians will be able to quickly turn to the old ways and not only survive but live well.

The skills for coaxing a living out of this rugged land, of tending sheep and goats and growing fruits and vegetables are still very much alive here. And let me tell you, it is not a meager existence. There are lots of things that I have already added to my list of favorite foods. One of them is an exquisite orange "marmalade." It is more liquid than what we are used to -there's no gel to it. It's like an orange reduction with the zest in a jar and you eat it with fresh ricotta on a crust - buonissimo! It is made fresh by a lady nearby, Segnora Cao, who runs an entirely organic grove, sells oranges and lemons and makes cheeses from her own goat's milk. She is organic not for marketing purposes, but because that is the way it has always been done and because chemicals, she says, are way too expensive anyway. Just the oranges themselves are worth writing home about. It's like I have never tasted an orange before. I will probably never again eat an orange without thinking of Segnora Cao.

Speaking of synergy, very close to her is an apiary. Giuseppe and Anna Bellosi have developed beekeeping into a fine art. They specialize in different kinds of honey from different flowers. Customers are encouraged to sample the flavors. It is surprising how different each honey is from the other depending on the flower it is from. The most highly prized is wild Eucalyptus. It is sadly becoming rarer due to the invasion of an insect from Australia which is attacking the trees. Thankfully, government researchers in Sicily have discovered a bacterium that attacks the invading insects, and we hope that it will soon be approved for use.

Enrico tells me Giuseppe will take hives into the hills at times when there is a bloom of a certain wildflower, and will actually pay to have the roadway leveled so as not to disturb the hives in transit.

Not far from these two farms Enrico Cappai and his two sons, Antonio and Sandro, make all sorts of fine cheeses. Everything from fresh ricotta to hard aged cheeses is available including gorgonzola and a soft spreadable cheese much like brie. All of it is traditionally made from local sheep and goats milk.

But what pervades Sardegna most, and I believe most of southern Europe, is olives. Almost every farmer has an olive grove. Many small farms produce only for their own use. Mid-size growers will often pay a local press to have their crop pressed and the oil bottled. They will supply their own bottles and labels so that the oil is farm specific. Large growers will usually have their own press and bottling operation. Enrico has his olives pressed locally for his own use. He brings it home in large containers and stores it in two 50-liter casks in his basement. This year he will be expanding his grove and hopes to eventually partner with his neighbor to bottle and sell their organic oil locally.

There are several bakeries here that proudly tout local ingredients and sell a variety of delicious products.

'Soft' economy

I never expected such a strong emphasis on organic and locally produced items. Such independent, small family enterprises comprise a large part of what is known in Italy as the "soft" economy. Its existence is one of the reasons the slow food movement started here.

Enrico teaches economics at a local middle school and stresses the importance of this economy to Italy's quality of life. Under the radar screen of the larger global economy, it is human scale and based on personal relationships, mutual trust and good will. It is free enterprise at its best, and though it usually includes the exchange of money, it is often conducted on a barter basis. It springs from the creativity, enterprise and skill of the people and there is nothing new about it. It is actually rooted in traditions going back centuries. In fact, it is what human civilization was built upon in the first place. This resourcefulness in maintaining a high quality of life without enormous amounts of capital seems to be second nature to Europeans. It is less energy intensive, more earth friendly, and unlike the global economy, it is sustainable. It is estimated that as much as 20 percent of the Italian economy is "soft." Since much of that does not show up in statistical reports relative to GNP, the Italian economy is a lot stronger than it officially appears.

From what I have seen so far, Sardegnians, and probably most Europeans, take part in the global economy happily, but only partly - only with one foot, so to speak. The other foot is set deeply in these ancient traditions that define who they are as a people and inform much of their music, art, diet and style of life. These traditions are essentially the special, historic relationship between the human community and the natural environment. As soon as you leave any big city you observe everywhere that strong connection between the people and their land. It is one of the reasons they are less distracted by consumerism and the media.

Sustainable life

Since American culture is much less traditional, it has been easy for us to jump into modernity with both feet. And why not? Advances in technology have made so many things faster and easier for us. It has encouraged us to disconnect completely from the quaint old ways of doing things. One of the results is that we have lost our intimate connection with the land, the seasons and the life sustaining qualities of the natural world around us.

But the main problem is that our way of life is not sustainable. There is no way we can continue to use up the earth's resources at this rate without disastrous consequences, consequences that will be sharply felt well before mid century. We seem to be finally coming to the realization that the development of a sustainable, local, agriculture based economy (a soft economy) is the key to sustaining the quality of our lives and the durability of our communities. Many of the successful strategies used in recent years by American cities to foster community rebirth are actually tools intended to stimulate a stronger soft economy. The establishment of a local currency, like Ithaca Hours or Berkshares, and the development of farmers' markets and community gardens are good examples. Our co-op - Mohawk Harvest?Cooperative Market in Gloversville - has assumed the leading role in moving that process forward in our region. The difference is that we approach this movement as a new thing. We devise strategies to develop it. We need it to be in vogue so that it will become more popular and therefore stronger. For Europeans, it has always been there. They never really let go of it. They seem to understand that without the traditions that connect them to the land, life is as shaky and precarious as a fiddler on the roof.



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