What does farming look like when food, nature and people are valued? There are many answers to that question, but one of them could well be: Fattoria La Vialla in Tuscany. I have just returned from a trip there with a group from Slow Food Limburg, and I have to say it was a most inspiring and illuminating trip.
La Vialla is a family-run biodynamic organic farm and wine estate that occupies 1,400 hectares of beautiful farmland near Arezzo in the Chianti region. Although the land here has been farmed for many centuries, by the 1970s most of it was abandoned, due to the end of the quasi-medieval mezzadria (sharecropping) system that had operated in Tuscany until the 1960s, in which small farmers rented their land from local landowners. When the textile entrepreneur Piero Lo Franco and his wife Giuliana came here in 1978, they wanted to buy a small farm as a holiday place so that their three sons could experience nature. Soon, however, Piero began to have another vision: to buy up the surrounding farms and combine them in a new enterprise aimed at producing the very highest quality food while taking the best possible care of the land. He and Giuliana began to buy up local farms, restoring the farmhouses, vineyards and olive groves. Today, La Vialla is the largest biodynamic estate in Europe, producing its own wine, olive oil, grain, eggs, pecorino cheese, vinegar, honey and vegetables, which it processes on site to make pasta, sauces, antipasti, biscuits and sweets to sell all over the world.
The farm is run by Piero and Giulana’s three sons Gianni, Antonio and Bandino (seen above on the bench), who kindly invited us to join them for lunch to tell us the story of the farm. Their parents asked them in 1989 whether they wanted to join the business, Antonio explains: a big family conversation, given that they were only aged 20, 18 and 13 at the time! What is evident today, however, is that none of the brothers regrets their decision. The three brothers, who happily finish one another’s sentences, work as a close knit team, they tell us, doing everything together. And Piero’s vision has certainly paid off; indeed, his business model – aiming high, instead of low – has proved so successful that the farm now employs 130 people and has 10,000 regular customers on its books.
Ironically, La Vialla’s vision of a thriving Italian organic farm has depended almost entirely on foreigners for its success. When the farm went organic in 1989, the Lo Francos found that few Italians were willing to pay a premium for their produce. Instead, it was the German, Dutch, Belgian and British tourists who came to stay on the farm and raved about the produce who gave the family the idea of marketing their produce directly abroad. Today, all the farm’s produce is still sold directly in beautiful wicker hampers, mostly to North Europeans: it sells 50,000 a year, 70 percent of which are by the internet. Most of the farm workers come from Eastern Europe too, the brothers tell us, lamenting that few Italians want to farm these days – even agronomy students don’t want to get their hands dirty.
Perhaps that will change in the future: the brothers certainly hope so. For now, however, La Vialla remains a beautiful vision that most people, it seems, would rather experience from a distance. Having tasted the farm's delicious food and wine, however, I can heartily recommend the close-up version.