Archives for category: farming
















over the last couple of days I have been listening to some of the talks of the Sustainable Small Farm Summit. If you have chance, check it out:





(NYT, “Hold the Drug, Go Straight to the Source,” Jan, 26, 2015).

In this day and age, when many of us are worried about personal data and loss of privacy, such reporting reminds us that we should maybe worry more about the physical loss of biodiversity and our rights to use such resources in a sustainable way. Plant knowledge and even genetic material can easily become proprietary, also known as biopiracy. Meanwhile, enjoy all the richness around you.

















Support your local farmer, and consider your global fellow human beings. Nutritious food and clean water should be a basic human right across the globe.




Slide17 (old article, time to assess)











Click to access MilkweedFactSheetFINAL.pdf











now growing in Italy

Watch the discussion at:










The end is nearing of the year of FAMILY FARMING. Not many people, even farmers, know about this declaration by UNESCO /IFAD, and that is unfortunate. The declaration is motivated by earlier studies that show that family and small-scale farming is the most sustainable strategy for future food security, but who cares.

Last winter I attended several meetings and workshops at the European Parliament in Brussels, organized by or related to the agricultural and rural development committee. While the Unesco promotes small-scale farming, the direction of EU (and global) policy appears to go toward upscaling, mechanization and increasing industrialization. Several small farmers spoke at these meetings on how they deal with the general lack of support for small farming, for instance through joining a cooperative. In that way, farmers are able to apply for subsidies for which they otherwise don’t qualify (too small).

Working with farmers I hear the same concerns. The rules and regulations seem to punish instead of encourage small-scale farming. Many farmers I spoke to mention the difficulty of maintaining organic certification for instance. It is too expensive, making the difference between being able to produce enough and going out of business. The rules for certification do not always make sense either. For instance, here in Le Marche, the biodynamic practice of using nettle tea is not on the ‘allowed’ list. Using it will result in high penalties for the farmer. Other methods (not necessarily organic) are allowed.

The International Day of Rural Women, (“Invisible Agriculture”) passed without much fuss.

Support small farmers, support women farmers!

Please watch:

And read:










This may sound innocent, however, a few years ago I was involved in a project in collaboration with the acequia communities in New Mexico. Acequias are at the core of a traditional agricultural, gravity-based water management system. This system requires the commitment of the community, and water, other resources, and (cultural) duties are shared, rooted in the idea of the commons (Bollier). This system has been shown to be more sustainable than industrial farming; the water that flows through the earthen canals also seeps into the ground to replenish groundwater and aquifer.

When individual farmers that are part of this system sell their water rights the system as a whole is affected, when many farmers sell their water rights, it can no longer exist.


Please visit









New York Times, 300,000 Evacuated as Strong Cyclone Hits Eastern India, Oct 12, 2013




A Microscopic Issue of Unknown Consequences On Warmer Planet, Range of Soil Microbes May Change, New York Times, Sept 22, 2014





An older study, comparing production methods of different plastics:

developments in recycling PLA

Artificial fertilizers do their thing



Hoekstra, A.Y. and Chapagain, A.K. (2008) Globalization of water: Sharing the planet’s freshwater resources, Black­well Publishing, Oxford, UK.

















Click to access 3dea0961-4cc1-4745-bbc6-c52d1f138e4b_HennepinEuropa.pdf



This afternoon I went with one of the millers to the farmer who cultivates the spelt. On his farm, spelt started as marginal crop, in an effort to create a unique local product, based on collaboration between farmer, mills, and bakeries. The spelt is good, the mills are doing their work, however, the bakeries may be the weak link, according to the miller. Spelt requires a different way of making bread; it contains less gluten, and needs experimenting. The consumer so far is enthusiastic and this may be due to the potential health benefits and the fact that ‘local’ sells. It is nice to know your farmer, your miller, and your baker and their dedication to the product.

For anyone who wishes to experiment making spelt bread, here is a recipe from Pompeii,

Watch the video at:







I recommend:  The Cloud Collector’s Handbook, written by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, enjoyable in rural and urban settings.



Slide097 (impact of aboltion global scale)
















While working on farms in Europe, a common question was why Dutch produce was dominating the supermarket, especially with products that are easy to grow –bell peppers in Hungary, tomatoes in Italy– and arguably better tasting when grown locally in those countries.


In addition to this market domination in produce, the Dutch are also specialized in seed breeding. While most people are familiar with Monsanto and problems of patenting and licensing seeds in the United States, not many know what is happening in the “SEED VALLEY.” While I consider rural heritage in the coming weeks, the role that the Dutch agricultural business plays on the European scene is worth looking into.

For more information  and the Dutch position, revisit Philip Howard’s graph:



Maybe to be expected, but not selected on purpose, the farms I have worked at so far have mostly been run or led by women. In Japan (Okinawa) for instance, the network of farming women is characterized by a sharing of labor, products, produce and socializing. In Italy, it is a little different but the solidarity principle is underpinning a large organization of “Donne in Campo.” (

The work done by all these women is crucial for future food security (see report “Smallholders, food security, and the environment” IFAD, UNEP 2013). Yet, farmers and women are described by Raj Patel in his book “The Value of Nothing” as two groups whose work is in general the least valued in our current economic system.



P.S. incredible view on my run this morning…



The Commons as a general concept can be difficult to understand, as it is not easily defined. David Bollier describes it as “durable, dynamic sets of social relationships for managing resources – all sorts of resources: digital, urban, natural, indigenous, rural, cultural, scientific…” An important characteristic of the commons is that there is no commons without communing, and this, as Bollier explains, is what sets it apart from a public good. In case of the acequia community, the parciantes are the commoners.

To read a short overview WHAT IS THE COMMONS and why it is important:

In this overview, Bollier further states that the enclosure of the commons is one of the great unacknowledged problems of our time. This refers to many resources that are increasingly being commodified and commercialized, from classic small-scale commons focused on natural resources, to –recent– digital networks/information, and privatization of water on large scale.




In a western worldview, relationships are often defined as a dichotomy, and so it seems to be with the relationship between forest and field. The traditional Japanese relationship with nature, similar to those of many indigenous cultures around the world, contrasts with the western attitude toward nature that emphasizes opposite interests. Farmers want to cut the forest to create more fields for instance, as they often need more land to stay economically competitive. Treating both forest and field as one system that is going to provide our healthy future food supply may be a better starting point for rural management.


For some reading on the status of our trees:

The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, by Jim Robbins





When stacking wood, the challenge is to optimize space, often resulting in beautiful geometric patterns. The particular challenge for me is that the cut wood is a mix of salvaged wood, large and small tree trunks and branches, different in many ways. With ‘statistical precision’ I sort by size and shape, not by type of wood.


THEN there is another challenge: Zanzara. The little mosquitos or gnats are everywhere and they like me, a lot. I am covered with bites. They don’t deserve their fantastic sounding name, but for me it is time to change the dress style and go farming Asian mode, no more exposed skin.

I tie my Indian scarf/towel over my face under my hat so that only my eyes are visible. The weak point is the transition between long sleeve and glove; when I reach to stack, part of my wrist is exposed. I wish I had the Japanese gloves or arm covers with me, fantastic in the field and in fashion.







The crocus bank project is a consortium that includes partners that have good experience in different areas of saffron research, as is stated on the website and includes partners from EU countries, but also requires participation from non-EU countries.

The crocus bank project received financial support from the EU Commission, Directorate General for Agricultural and Rural Development in 2004. During its early stages, my host got involved and tried to be accredited as an expert in Italy. Since she has law degree, but not an agricultural related degree, her request was declined. The decision to not include farmers as experts seems strange, but not uncommon.

Together with my partners in several community projects I have written about this issue.

Van der Elst, Judith, Heather Richards-Rissetto, Jorge Garcia

2010                Creating Digital Heritage Content; bridging communities and mediating perspectives, In: Digital Culture and E-Tourism: Technologies, Applications and Management Approaches, ed.M Lytras, E. Damiani, L. Diaz, P Ordonez de Pablos, Information Science Reference, Hershey, New York, p-139-156

The latest update on the crocus bank project website is dated July 2012…




The dinner was good, the conversation lively; a way to exchange food and solidify relationships. It is exactly these traditions and farming methods that are inscribed in the UNESCO intangible heritage list and are intended to be preserved according to EU heritage regulations (see post June 13). Also, the small-scale farmers are considered a key component in meeting the challenge of global food supply in the future. These landscapes and traditions however may disappear fast.


Last week (June 13) the New York Times ran an article entitled “From Untended Farmland, Reserve Tries to Recreate Wilderness From Long Ago”. It describes one project, as part of a a larger trend in Europe to ‘rewild’, if that is a verb. In many of these projects species are introduced that were part of these regions at some time in the past. One of the criticisms is that the science is not solid or absent in these projects. Another criticism is that these projects that purport to be environmentally driven, are in fact a covert component in the carbon trade exchange market (‘landgrab’). When atmosphere and water become economic commodities and are no longer part of the commons we should pay attention.

In Spain, the projected revenue from increased tourism as a result of the Reserve did not happen.

“Land concentration, land grabbing and people’s struggles in Europe”, published by Transnational institute (TNI) for European Coordination Via Campesina and Hands of the Land network, April 2013.

“Smallholders, food security, and the environment” report IFAD, UNEP, 2013




I am currently on an organic saffron farm in the Marche region. Saffron is known as the world’s most costly spice, made from the dried stigmas of the crocus flower (Crocus sativus) Although often thought of as native to Southeast Asia, the cultivation of saffron most likely originated in Crete during the Minoan period. The ideogram for saffron is recognized in Linear B tablets (1450 BCE), documenting large amounts of saffron either cultivated or gathered from the wild. Frescos in Knossos also depict saffron gatherers.


COUNTING THREADS. SAFFRON IN AEGEAN BRONZE AGE WRITING AND SOCIETY, Jo Day, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30(4), 369-391, 2011

The spice is a valuable agricultural product, in the past and today, because of its variety of uses. It adds flavor to a variety of dishes, is used medicinally, and is a powerful coloring agent for skin, hair, and cloth. The production methods have not changed significantly since those early times and this explains the high price of saffron.


Crocus sativus does not grow in the wild, but derived from the Mediterranean plant Crocus cartwrightianus. The reason why it needs to be cultivated is because the crocus does not produce useful seeds. The corms, the underground bulb-like part of the plant must be dug up, broken apart, and planted again. The flowering period is in the fall. To harvest the stigmas and obtain high quality saffron, the flowers need to be picked before dawn when the flowers are still closed.


Right now is the time to dig up the corms…



Why do we focus on calories instead of nutritional value?

Why do we not make more use of savory and nutritional abundance?

Mora 2011, “How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?” in PLoS Biology, August 2011, Vol. 9, Issue 8



In general, plants as well as people need many nutrients to grow into healthy beings and together we depend on soil. The healthy plant takes up the nutrients from atmosphere, but primarily from the soil. Creating AWARENESS of the poor soil conditions worldwide and the implications of further degradation IS ESSENTIAL.

Industrial /commercial farming strategies include the breeding of varieties that can grow in poorer and poorer soils, but these seeds grow up to be nutrient poor plants. In eating such plants people take in energy (calories) but deprive themselves of healthy components that can be gained from plants grown up in healthy, nutrient rich soil.

If this sounds too academic, it is because I am one, but I also spent considerable research time as part of participatory/community projects. Research papers and policy documents are often interesting and well intended, however I find that sometimes they are of limited practical use and poorly connected to the day-to-day farm life. In adapting a nomadic research style I hope to better connect the dots, identify problems and challenges that will lead to practical solutions for farmer and consumer. It is clear that rural regions are rich in beneficial sensory experiences in need of maintenance support. Researchers and policy designers do agree. Some quotes from a recent report on European gastronomic heritage building on the UNESCO intangible heritage listing of the MEDITERRANEAN DIET

“Educational aspects

A. whereas the present and future health and wellbeing of the population is determined by diet and the environment and hence by farming, fishing and livestock breeding methods;…


Ai. whereas the European heritage is made up of a set of tangible and intangible elements and, in the case of gastronomy and food, is also formed by the locality and landscape from which the products for consumption originate;

Aj. whereas the longevity, diversity and cultural richness of European gastronomy are founded on the availability of high-quality local produce;…


Cultural aspects

21. Emphasises the need to create awareness of the diversity and quality of the regions, landscapes and products that are the basis of Europe’s gastronomy, which forms part of our cultural heritage and also constitutes a unique and internationally recognised lifestyle; stresses that this sometimes requires respect for local habits;…


39. Calls on the Member States to take measures to preserve the European gastronomy-related heritage, such as protection of the architectural heritage of traditional food markets, wineries or other facilities, and of artefacts and machinery related to food and gastronomy;…”


On the UNESCO list of intangible heritage (since 2003) are several regional and national diets (<10), among which the Mediterranean Diet. This is meant in large to preserve the variety of social and cultural aspects of the food production and consumption of countries, in this case the Mediterranean region. The diet itself is hard to define, but a common denominator seems to be OLIVE OIL, although this does not hold true for all countries.

I have eaten some wonderful local food products and sharing of these products is indeed important. To sell these products on the markets is often problematic because of increasing complexity in rules and regulation on local, regional, national, and international governmental levels. I listen to the stories of the farmers…

Meanwhile, supermarkets everywhere are dominated by products from large food producers, which control the market and influence policy in their interest, most of the time successfully. (to find out more, please revisit Philip Howard’s website ).

It seems that in order to support and promote these wonderful products and cultural practices, a more lenient set of rules would benefit small producers, as a transition period to test the market and raise some capital before investing in required infrastructure for increased production.





I like beans, as dinner and design *.

Beans are classified as legumes. A legume is a plant in the Fabaceae family or the fruit or seed of such a plant. Legumes are grown as food for humans and other animals and also for their NITROGEN-FIXING qualities, important for REPLENISHING THE SOIL. The symbiotic relationship between maize and beans forms for instance the foundation of many indigenous farming traditions.


Besides beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, tamarind are part of the legume family, but also clover, carob, alfalfa and peanuts are included. ALL SUPER GOOD TO EAT.  In many traditional diets, a combination of legumes and grains; such as rice & lentils, is a staple dish.


(* Cloud Gates – nick named The Bean because of its shape    )


In an earlier post I explained that soil is a non-renewable source on the human scale, meaning that if soil is completely degraded (no organic matter or nutrients, left) it will take about 100-400 years to renew. Healthy soil is a prerequisite for healthy produce, not just in organic farming terms, but in general.


The Marche region is subject of a case study of a Sustainable Agriculture and Soil Conservation project, commissioned by the Agricultural and Rural Development Committee of the European Parliament. Nine other case studies were conducted in other member states, chosen because they are representative of the problems of soil degradation.

The Marche region was selected for the EU study also because of its geography and the widespread soil degradation. Based on biophysical and socioeconomic factors the researchers of this study identified 14 different management systems and the objective of the study is to make suggestions for sustainable practice and soil conservation.

Alarmingly, even among farmers in the region the awareness of the severity of soil degradation is low to medium. This is a BIG PROBLEM

KEEP OUR SOILS ALIVE – for the big picture take a look…

Small scale farming is an important strategy for doing so and to address the global food challenge.

A recent article in the New York Times (Putting a Price Tag on Nature’s Defenses, June 5, 2014) discussed efforts of attaching a monetary value to nature’s defenses to clarify the cost of environmental degradation.  It is time to do something similar for soil degradation in calculating the cost of food production. Organic farming would become much more profitable compared to conventional and industrial farming.Slide30

My new nest is a giant airbed, in an old farmhouse up the hill, with a pleasant earthy smell.





But at the end of the day, we deserve something good, and THEN…



Using the scythe is however still a preferred method on steep sloping Alpine meadows.

For those of you who don’t know what a scythe is, you may know it from iconography as Father Time (Panofsky).


For rural humor, watch this youtube announcement of the Unesco supported Hay Making festival.

It is now hay cutting time in the valley and this weekend it is happening. Yesterday, the grass was cut and turned once to optimize the drying process. Today the grass, which is now hay, is turned once again and tomorrow we will shape it into rows for the making of bales.


Why now, you wonder, as did I. There is actually some TK (Traditional Knowledge) behind this. The grass is now (early June) at an optimum for certain nutrients and will be good for all the animals to eat the following winter. This hay is called FIENO. There will be a second cutting in August, called LIGOR. This hay is protein rich and is only good for animals that are milked. In other parts of the region at lower altitudes they sometimes have a third cutting, TERZOL.