Editor's note: Italy and France are at the forefront of European efforts to promote nutrition and exercise in schools, according to GlobalPost contributors in Rome and Paris. Read about a government-sponsored program to promote healthful eating in Italy's schools and French efforts to combat the beginnings of a U.S.-style obesity epidemic.
TURIN, Italy — Cascina Stella, in the heart of Italy's Piedmont region, is a farm in the traditional mould — blending production, trade and plenty of soul.
During the weekdays, owner Franca Tesio and her two sons work on the 70-hectare estate, tending to the corn fields and milking the property's 40 cows.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the cascina (which in Italian literally means “little country house”) turns into a farmer’s market, where locals and cityfolk alike buy fruits, vegetables, honey and eggs, as well as jams, natural cosmetics, facial creams and soaps made by Franca. Many shoppers also fill plastic bottles with the rich, creamy milk produced by Franca’s healthy cows and stored in a cooling tank until market day.
Farmers’ markets are proliferating in Italy — there are more than 200 scattered throughout the country. The farms are a reminder of pre-Industrial times, when families earned their entire living off a small plot of land.
But their success in the modern era owes much to hard economic hard times, and to consumers who are increasingly concerned not only with quality but with price.
A liter of milk at Cascina Stella, for example, costs 60 euro cents (78 cents), almost half the store price.
“Why buy milk at the supermarket when this one is more tasty, natural and less expensive?” asked Giorgio, a 63-year-old pensioner shopping at the market.
At Cascina Stella, shoppers pay a much lower price for cherries and tomatoes than they would at the grocery store, and here they get to pick their own.
"I have a daily intake of three kiwis per day, which multiplied by a month means I’d spend something like 30 euros [about $38], but here just 20 euros [about $25],” said 35-year-old Patricia Schirripa. “Plus it’s great fun here. I get to select the best kiwis and it helps me to relax. The surrounding nature is just breathtaking, with the singing of the birds and the sound of the stream running along the orchard.”
The silence and harmony of Cascina Stella has something of a soothing effect on visitors, especially those living in crowded and chaotic cities like Turin, Milan and Rome, Franca said.
Franca produces 10 different types of honey as well as home-baked bread and biscuits. “In hard times the number of intelligent consumers has risen, people are more aware of what they buy and where they buy it,” she observed.
And it’s not just a matter of better quality: Franca supports a zero "food miles" approach, on the premise that buying at the source of production limits the environmental impact of the food distribution chain by curbing transport-linked carbon emissions.
“Under a certain perspective the countryside’s survival largely depends upon the consumer’s choices," Franca said. "Buying agricultural products at the origin shortens the big distribution chain and boosts local markets.”
A sideline trend is also emerging: the rental plot. Franca provides a collective yard, where citizens pay a monthly fee to share a small piece of land for growing vegetables. Renters can visit their plot at any time, and many do so for both financial and lifestyle reasons.
An increasing number of couples and families are using the plots as a means of escape — a break from workweek pressures and a chance to get into the countryside. Giorgio Lattani, an employee at a local bank, explained it was like a special treat. The "office can be really suffocating at times, you just feel the need to get out of there as soon as possible to come breathe some fresh, regenerating air over here."
“The monthly fee for renting the vegetable plot is roughly 80 euros [more than $100] per family,” Franca said. “If you consider that some of our clients come on a daily base and pick all they want, both fruits and vegetables, that’s a pretty reasonable price.”
For Franca, market farming has proved lucrative. She has about 80 regular clients, and in the summertime that increases as shoppers increase their intake of fresh fruit and vegetable amid the suffocating heat of the northern plains.
Franca’s cascina is very popular on the outskirts of Turin. On weekends families return home from the collective plot packed with four different varieties of salad, carrots, cucumbers and a dozen eggs laid by the hens that freely run around the farm.
According to Franca, the bucoilic surrounds of the cascina gives tired, bored citizens the opportunity to make contact with the land as if they had their own country house there, without all the worries of running one.