The love for the land bears only good fruits

an old commercial that ran on Italian TV used to say.

 We can look at “land” as one of the classical elements of Earth, but also as a territory, as in a farm. Antonio Abruzzese, a young farmer from Colletorto, in Molise, is the living proof of this dual perspective.

We asked him to share his passion for olive crops in his day-to-day activities and also about his relationship with the Molise region. Antonio is one of those farmers who have been able to evolve and modernise, although his bonds with tradition are still very strong.

We would like to clarify that this interview was conducted remotely, triangulating between Milan, Singapore and Molise, in compliance with social distancing measures for containment of the COVID-19 virus.

While we all love tradition, we also really appreciate these technological innovations that enable us to interact with each other remotely. After all, this is one of the characteristics of agriculture too: knowing how to reconcile tradition and innovation, the old with the new.

Antonio, tell us more about yourself. What were your education, professional, and personal experiences before becoming a farmer, and what made you decide to devote your life to agriculture?

“I am an agricultural expert by education. Due to work commitments I was unable to continue the bachelor degree I started at the University of Molise (Department of Agricultural, Food and Environment Sciences). What binds me most to farming is passion for the land and for our region.

While working in the groves, I often pause to take in my surroundings. Despite growing up here and being accustomed to our landscape, I still find the panorama of sea, hills and mountains a wonderful combination to gaze upon. It’s a scene of breath-taking beauty. When we add that the towns in Molise are extremely rich in art and history, the total package is nothing less than fabulous”.

How did your passion for agriculture come about? Is it something that has been handed down in your family for generations?

“Yes, it’s definitely our family’s passion, handed down from generation to generation. My family is a family of farmers. My grandfather was a farmer. My father is a farmer. And I am a farmer too. Their continued passion, dedication, and love for the land have fuelled my interest and enthusiasm to become just like them since I was a child.

Over the years, I invested significant efforts in our family business. I invested my expertise and time in it. I am excited to observe that we have been fortunate to have generated a significant increase in production volumes and quality of crops over time, as well as turnover. This is not the result of my sole efforts, of course, but rather teamwork, guided to a large extent by my parents’ teachings”.

In addition to conventional crops, we are aware that you are very passionate about organic agriculture. Can you explain to us what the key differences are between conventional and organic farming?

“It is indeed true that sustainable and organic olive farming practices are extremely important to me and to my family. This applies to all farmers in the region, where maintaining balance and harmony with nature is held in high esteem. Our goal is to ensure that our production is obtained from trees that have been carefully cultivated in healthy and clean soil. This is our vision, and this is why we are currently converting the entire farm to certified organic production.

This won’t change our modus operandi at all, as already we use no pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Everything here is organic and grown using sustainable methods. We are very fortunate to live in an area that allows and encourages us to do so. We take care of our trees with no need to depend on fertilizers or pesticides, ultimately benefitting our health too. From this viewpoint, I am very proud to say that growing up and living in Molise is truly a privilege”.

Based on your experience, what consequences does this choice have on a practical level?

“As I said, we don’t expect significant changes to our modus operandi. Nevertheless, the limited use of chemicals and pesticides is by no means easy to achieve. It requires us to carefully manage each of our trees. We must work according to the plan, understand what it requires and when is the most appropriate time to carry out certain activities.

It is not as simple a job as it might sound, and it requires dedication and very solid know-how. For instance, we still follow my grandfather’s teachings, and sometimes we rely on lunar phases for some of our activities. In fact, we have known since ancient times that the moon affects certain aspects of life on Earth, including the growth of plants and the bottling of wine. It’s such a fascinating thing, is it not?”.

Tell us more about the olive groves. What techniques do you use to ensure that the olives produced are of the highest standards?

“Awareness of climatic conditions, continuous monitoring and correct management of the plants are the keywords here. In addition, it is important to respect the rhythms of nature and to follow all the phases that lead up to the harvest.

It starts with the right pruning, which allows the sap to reach every single branch. Then there is suckering, which is an essential activity to ensure that the supply lines of nutrients are directed from the roots to those parts of the plants that actually produce the olive fruits. Last but not least is optimal soil management. I use the practice of spontaneous grassing, which releases an organic substance into the soil and the many aromas that we find in the final product”.

Antonio, you talked to us about spontaneous grassing and sucker removal. Can you tell us more about these techniques?

“Without going into too much technical detail, grassing is a way of managing the soil that allows you to keep trees under tight control. In essence, it consists of covering the soil surrounding the crops with a natural herbaceous covering. The main advantage is that this is a natural process, with minimal environmental impact or none at all. Sucker removal consists of pruning the suckers that grow at the base of the stem. Suckers must be removed early as they absorb nutrients that instead need to be absorbed by the fruits. It helps the trees and reinvigorates the fruits too”.

More and more farmers are abandoning agriculture to devote themselves to other employment such as office work, for example. But they too will need the products of the soil. What is the point of view of someone like you who has made a diametrically opposite choice, even as a lifestyle?

“Agriculture is a physically demanding job and olive farming in particular. I guess my fellows prefer office jobs to avoid the frequent exposure to unpleasant weather conditions. Here in Molise, the older generation is still the backbone of the olive production industry. However, even agriculture has changed dramatically over time. While in the recent past the hoe was enough to cultivate land, today manual work must be accompanied by accounting knowledge too. Office work is essential in order to manage the farm’s books well: bureaucracy is increasingly difficult and complicated. Therefore there is a need for people to be able to deal with these aspects even in the agricultural sector”.