Expo June 2009 / Global
Who needs the agro?
Everyone, it seems. From the shopping aisles of one of Europe’s most respected grocery store chains to the meadows of piedmont to the Souk el Tayeb farmers’ market in Beirut, Farmers and their four-legged friends are the brands consumers want to buy and be part of.
For the 350 inhabitants of Roccaverano, a medieval town in the Italian province of Asti, the turmoil in global markets seems a world away. Indeed, contact with financial institutions is rather limited – the lone bank is open two mornings a week and the nearest cash machine is a 25-minute drive down twisting country roads. There’s just one general store, while the social scene revolves around the town’s piazza, with a 500-year-old Renaissance church by Bramante and a bar frequented by the two carabinieri stationed here.
Those in Roccaverano, however, prefer life in the slow lane. It’s what attracted Daniela Saglietti and Giovanni Solerio, who moved from Turin in 2006 to try their hand at farming. “The air is clean, there’s no noise from passing traffic and there’s the view,” says Daniela, as she walks on the couple’s 25-acre property, which offers sweeping views over the foothills of the Langhe. There’s little time to enjoy the scenery though, as the sound of bleating goats interrupts her.
Despite operating a bed and breakfast, the pair’s main source of revenue comes from cheese, specifically the coveted robiola variety that’s made from unpasteurised goat’s milk. The soft, snow-white cheese produced is protected by DOP status – the EU labelling system similar to that used for champagne that guarantees a regional food’s authenticity and method of preparation.
One of only 20 robiola DOP producers, Daniela and Giovanni follow strict guidelines and their farm undergoes monthly inspections. Only milk from the shaggy haired Roccaverano breed of goat and its Camosciata Alpine cousin is allowed. Hay must be grown locally while GM crops cannot be used for feed.
Twice a day, the herd of 60-odd goats must be milked. After each session, Daniela pulls on yellow rubber gloves and heads to the creamery. Milk is cooled in a steel vat, poured into two-litre plastic beakers and natural enzymes are added to coagulate the liquid. The next day, she drains off the whey, flips the container and adds salt. She repeats this again and within 48 hours she is left with a 250g patty of robiola. The cheese then dries on trays before being moved to a refrigerated locker set at 9C and 85 per cent humidity. Most remain 15 days before being sold, though gourmets eat longer-aged varieties covered in mould.
Robiola’s flavour is attained by nothing more than hard, honest work and a little help from Mother Nature. Most days Giovanni spends three hours gently moving the herd around so that they can graze on grass nurtured by the sea breezes from Liguria. Leaves of wild chestnut and oak round off the goats’ diet.
Once a salesman, Giovanni looks more comfortable in his role as herdsman and performs his job with Zen-like calm. He rarely disciplines with the stick, instead calling the goats by name and giving them a stern look and a wave of his arm.
“Certainly we earn less than a broker but we don’t lose our soul in the work,” quips Giovanni after a 14-hour day in the field. “We just wanted a life that’s more authentic, rooted in something real.”
Polluting our skies with their carbon-crunching cargo, pillaging our fields with GM crops, denying farmers their just profits: read most press and you would imagine that the supermarket is the biggest threat to civilization. But a retail concept in Switzerland that actively encourages people to go back to farming is impressively run by the country’s second largest supermarket chain, Coop.
Coop’s Pro Montagna line offers a range of 90 products including cheese, yoghurts, wine, pasta, edelweiss tea and wooden toys, all produced and packed in the Swiss mountains, and distributed throughout all of Coop’s 818 stores. Introduced in 2007, Coop now works directly with 800 farmers all based on the Swiss slopes.
On the three-hour drive from Coop’s headquarters in Basel to the gingerbread houses of the canton Valais, Coop spokeswoman Denise Stadler explains, “The USP of Pro Montagna is simple. It is not about being organic, or about Slow Food, it’s purely about Swissness.”
We arrive at lunchtime at the Imfield family’s dairy in Goms, where farmer Andy Imfield tucks into a plate of Pro Montagna tagliatelle produced three farms away and sips on white wine pressed nearby.
Imfield acted as Coop’s man-on-the-ground here, persuading local farmers to get behind Pro Montagna. “The farmers needed convincing that they can rely on a partner like Coop,” he says. But many enjoyed the entrepreneurial challenge. As Roman Bernegger, the boss at Novena pasta factory in Goms, says, “The challenge for me was, why is it so difficult to make something in the mountains, the Third World section of Switzerland?”
Like so many businesses and farms it works with, Pro Montagna has helped make Novena a success. Now employing almost 20 people – roughly 10 per cent of the local population – Novena produces 3,000 packs of ravioli and tagliatelle for Coop every week.
The question is, with new jobs on the old farms, has the idea of a career in the mountains attracted the younger generation back from Swiss cities? Farmer Albert Andereggen chuckles about the ambitions of his two adult daughters. “They showed no sign of wanting to take it over. My wife and I took our last holiday 31 years ago; our daughters were not interested in that.”
Employment in the area is burgeoning though, and demand in the stores is overtaking supply, especially with mooted plans to export Pro Montagna to German, Dutch and French supermarkets. The key to Pro Montagna’s success? Imfield explains: “We have a lot of Swiss tourists coming through the area, especially to Zermatt. With Pro Montagna, we have to deliver these good feelings of the mountains and deliver this in the supermarket when they go home.”
Tucked away in the Lebanese mountains, in a region scarred by a fratricidal civil war, is a patch of land where the main concern is organic farming. Forty-nine year-old Massoud Youssef Massoud could have emigrated to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the US like one of his three brothers during the Lebanese civil war, but he was never able to leave Rmeileh behind, a religiously mixed village of 800 people, deep in the Chouf mountains, an hour’s drive from Beirut. “The taste and smell of the wind is like nowhere else,” he says.
Massoud is part of the Druze sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam with adepts in Syria, Israel and Lebanon, who believe in reincarnation. Their religion mixes Islam, Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Those men who have attained a certain level of religious knowledge wear the sherwel (or shirwal), the black baggy pants recently adopted by the fashion world. The women cover their heads with elegant white scarves or mandils. To a degree, the secretive and non-proselytising nature of the Druze has kept their traditions intact, more so than the Christian minorities that also live in the Lebanese mountains.
“At the beginning, we did not have water, and until the army came here during the war, there was not even a road,” explains Massoud, who used to only grow olive and fig trees.
Today, with land varying from 400m to 1,000m above sea level and spread over six acres, Massoud grows “all the fruits of Lebanon”, including apricots, plums, peaches, oranges, cherries and grapes. He’s supported by agricultural engineers and the Lebanese Association for Forests, Development & Conservation (AFDC) that pushes for rural development in a region depopulated by war and with few opportunities to earn a living. Though Massoud never finished school, his two sons are now studying in high school and at university, which means they can only lend a hand on the farm during holidays.
But the biggest change for Massoud came in 2005, when Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of the Souk el Tayeb, Beirut’s farmers’ market (see issue 19), convinced him organic was the way to go. By offering a market where producers can sell their produce without passing through wholesalers, Tayeb gives farmers the chance to greatly boost their income. With the money made from his organic produce, Massoud is developing his own brand, Bio Ché, and an organic store in Beirut. “In 10 years, 80 per cent of the Lebanese will be eating organic,” he says.
In the meantime, Rmeileh has become a model for rural rehabilitation with an eco lodge and a pine tree nursery run by the AFdC.