IN A BOX
Early September, Rossana, province of Cuneo. A shy rain gently wets the ground, giving the illusion for a moment that this arid summer is about to end. In the woods of Val Varaita, at the foot of Monviso, Maria, Maura and Cristine dip heads of lettuce in a bucket of water, shake them a bit and arrange them in large red boxes. Then, they help store the red boxes inside a large cold room. The lettuce, together with other seasonal fruit and vegetables, will then be placed in boxes and delivered to more than 80 members who make up Cresco a community in support of agriculture managed at the community level, according to the principles of agroecology and respect for the soil. Cresco started in 2021 immediately after the pandemic period by the reflections about food sovereignty and sense of community of two young men: Lorenzo Barra and Pietro Cigna.
Lorenzo and Pietro
The story of Pietro and Lorenzo begins in not so different a way from that of many young people today: various attempts to find their own path and a great desire for a different future. And then a lucky meeting that changes everything, the one between a common vision of the world and two complementary knowledges, practice and theory: Lorenzo's hands, used to the earth, and Pietro's mind returning from Norway with a degree in Environmental studies.
Lorenzo, 34 years old, originally from Val Varaita, starts his small farm in 2018 and calls it CRESCO (from the Italian verb ‘crescere’, ‘to grow’), because it reflects the reality of nature, vegetables that grow in the garden and feed us. Before dedicating himself full-time to agriculture, however, he tried different jobs, such as graphic designer, thanks to his diploma in computer science.
Then he worked as a cook. It is by managing the kitchen of a restaurant in the valley that Lorenzo realizes how difficult it was to find vegetables on a short supply chain, a supply chain characterized by a limited number of production steps and commercial intermediaries. “Vegetables done well” he called them. However, in its land there is no shortage of fruit and vegetables. Val Varaita is located less than 20km from Saluzzo and Savignano, one of the largest fruit and vegetable districts in Italy.
Saluzzese is indeed the area of Piemonte where most of the fruit farms are concentrated. Apples, peaches, kiwis, apricots, plums, cherries, and also small fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and currants are all grown there. There are 4.500 companies scattered in about thirty municipalities for an orchard area of over 11.000 hectares. They give work to 6.400 direct workers, in addition to over 12.000 seasonal workers, 42% of whom are Africans who from June to mid-November move to the area in search of work. On 11 April 2022, the Court of Cuneo convicted in the first instance four agricultural entrepreneurs for labor exploitation and a laborer for illegal intermediation (caporalato). The Saluzzo agriculture is indeed based mainly on large-scale distribution systems known for the lack of care of labor rights, biodiversity and soil.
Lorenzo thinks that, if vegetables and fruit, just as he wants them, cannot be found, the only thing left for him to do is to cultivate them. He gives himself some simple but firm rules: sell everything locally, focus on as many varieties as possible, on biodiversity and seasonality, but above all work on an agriculture that respects the environment and the land. Furthermore, he adapts his work to the mountain area in which he lives which does not allow the use of tractors or large agricultural vehicles. He tries to offer "an effective service in the area, which was lacking". He lays the foundations for the birth of the CSA, which are rooted in the experience necessary for the cultivation of the land, and in the stubbornness of those who are determined to do it this way.
However, it is thanks to Pietro that the CSA sees the light. “The CSA was born with Pietro ... he introduced me to a reality I didn't know existed. He studied it at university in Norway. “Luckily there is still someone who teaches useful things'' says Lorenzo.
Pietro’s story is one of homecoming. He left a place with good job opportunities and a future of certainties, because it simply wasn’t home. Pietro is 28 years old and is originally from Caval Maggiore, a town 30km from Turin. ‘It all started from the desire to live in the mountains, to live in a territory that is on the margins, to take back a space left empty’, he says. He wants to build a future for himself in the mountains of his region and, like Lorenzo, he knows that if something doesn't exist, you have to create it yourself. “To build work, create opportunities and make alternatives where there are few”, this is the idea that moves him. If Lorenzo's experience with the land is the foundation, Pietro's ideas are the first stepping stones to this new adventure, which focuses on the production of food and the creation of a strong sense of community.
Val Varaita is certainly not a place of great opportunities for young people. After the war it was affected by an intense wave of depopulation. Pietro recognized that there was a vacuum for action, and "kept an eye on'' Lorenzo. The two begun to work together and shared all the difficulties that come with creating a farm from scratch. Just so, they begun to discuss a model called CSA.
THE PHENOMENON OF CSA
A CSA is a “direct partnership based on the human relationship between people and one or more producers”. This is the official definition of CSA, adopted by the URGENCY network, the international network of all forms of regional and local solidarity-based partnerships for agroecology (LSPA). It was adopted in September 2016 when the third European meeting of the CSA was held in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The CSA are a widespread reality in Europe. According to an URGENCY study of 2015, there are 2.783 CSA in Europe, and they produce food for almost half a million people (474.455). The first CSA in Europe dates back to the 1980s, while in Italy the first CSA was founded in 2011.
Today, there are only 18 CSAs registered in Italy. The phenomenon is therefore still in its infancy. ‘However, there are experiences that do not identify themselves as CSA, they do not know this acronym, they do not know the international CSA movement, but in fact they are CSA’, says Alessandra Piccoli, researcher in Sociology at the University of Bolzano, demonstrating that the path to the diffusion of this model in Italy is still long. Piccoli is also the coordinator of the Numes Project which has been involved in mapping the experiences of CSA in Italy. In 2019 an informal network of Italian CSA has been established and has shown the need to get to know each other better, to understand and investigate how each reality is organized.
The diffusion of the CSA model has also accelerated after the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2021, indeed at least four CSA were born in Trento, Modena, Turin and Ravenna, including Cresco. The lockdowns have opened many eyes to how important it is to control food and raw material supply networks, and have brought back focus to the food sovereignty, one of the main principles of a CSA. According to Piccoli, the prospects of the phenomenon are very good. In Germany, for example, after 2007, when a network was established and its work strengthened, there was a surge in CSA that went from 15 to almost 200.
If you want to set up a CSA, you simply start from a budget: an estimate of the production of fruit and vegetables for the following year and of all the costs, seeds, land rent, equipment and above all the salaries of those who cultivate. This is what Pietro and Lorenzo do. At the end of 2020, they calculate the costs and the production they can obtain from their 7500m2 of vegetable garden, from a land where they grow small fruits and from an open field cultivation of potatoes and rye (all in all it does not reach one hectare). Then they divide the sum obtained into 80 quotas to offer to those who want to join the community. The members of the community not only receive a box of fruit and vegetables every week, but they are also called to participate in CSA's events and initiative and to contribute with their time, for example helping Pietro and Lorenzo harvesting or in other activities like accounting. It seems like a simple mechanism, yet it is revolutionary. The CSA is a planned economy that completely overturns the foundation of the market economy. Firstly, the community shares the risks associated with an activity strongly influenced by extreme weather and climate change. If the crop is lost due to a bad agricultural season, the damage does not fall only on the farmers. They will continue to get their salary. On the contrary, if the season goes particularly well, the whole community will benefit from it, with more fruit and vegetables in the boxes. Furthermore, the concept of profit is completely outdated and market fluctuations do not affect production in the slightest.
In December 2020 Pietro and Lorenzo launched their proposal for the territory. They do it through a video on social networks and posters spread throughout the valley. The only limit imposed on participation is geographical: no more than 30km from the Cresco fields. This choice has allowed them on the one hand to involve towns with a larger population such as Savigliano, Saluzzo and Cuneo, but at the same time to greatly reduce their catchment area. The majority of CSAs are born near city centers, to attract as many people as possible. Cresco, on the other hand, is in a mountainous and sparsely inhabited place. ‘We were really, really surprised by the response’, say Pietro and Lorenzo.
The delivery of the boxes would only start in May. In mid-February 2021 Lorenzo and Pietro already had all the quotas to cover the budget, plus ten other people on their waiting list. ‘The perception we had is that our proposal responded to a desire that went beyond the need to have a weekly box of fruit and vegetables, grown well, grown locally and whose producers are known, but that responded to a desire to do something with other people. Food and cultivation were a bit of an excuse to bring people together in a peculiar territory like that of an Alpine valley’, says Pietro.
It is not only food sovereignty that animates the CSA, but it is also the desire to feel part of a community. As Alessandra Piccoli states, ‘depopulation increases with the crumbling of the sense of community. If from a human point of view, we succeed in building a strong community truly committed to the care of the land, as in the CSA, we re-tie a bond between the people and with the territory. This represents a push to stay or to come back’.
May this be the very way to combat growing depopulation in our internal areas?