Sarah's family is originally from the Marche; her father, Amico, with his brothers Umberto and Bernardo, moved to Poggio Alloro in Tuscany in the 1950s, and they were originally sharecroppers, or mezzandri, on the farm. But that postwar decade heralded major change for rural Italian families as the sharecropping system—the mezzandria—under which most of the farm families operated, was dissolved. Prior to that, as in sharecropping systems everywhere, including the United States, the land was owned by (usually) absent landowners or farming corporations, with the laborers allocated a portion on which to grow food for their own subsistence, and for market.
Under this archaic system, many families were kept below the poverty line, and in Italy, the mezzandri were particularly disadvantaged. Postwar land reform arrived in 1951 but had different effects across Italy: In the southern Orcia region of Tuscany, the farmers were given parcels that were too small to support the traditional mixed farming, and so most were combined to accommodate large-scale, chemical-supported, monocultural cereal production.
In the north, the story was different; the mezzandri simply left the land in search of higher-paid jobs in developing urban industrial centers. Their departure left an opening for entrepreneurial spirits and big investors to acquire vacant farms and turn to production of wine. Brunello grapes were already highly regarded, and the robust red wine Brunello di Montalcino was on wine connoisseurs' lists. The increased investment opened the gates to Tuscany becoming recognized as one of the world's leading wine-producing areas. This was quickly followed by artisanal olive oil production and the rise of small fattoria, or production farms, built by families like the Fioronis who were able to capitalize on these markets.
Tuscany has always been a popular tourist destination, and now with epicurian polish added to its unrivalled art and historic foundations, the region seems to be more populated by tourists than by Tuscans. Yet that is what has helped small farm operations like Poggio Alloro to survive, through their own talents and ingenuity and assistance from the state-supported agriturismo program.
By 1971, the Fioroni brothers were able to purchase Poggio Alloro, which at the time consisted of 50 acres of poor stony soil and a tumbledown house. Today, the farm is some 250 acres and the farmhouse has been rebuilt and enlarged in the process. As Amico Fioroni explains, the farm is 100 percent organic, and has been so for many years, and is 90 percent self-sufficient. Production includes their excellent Vernaccia already mentioned, along with some sound red Chianti and, for the coldest months, grappa, a bracing aquavit made from the remains of the wine-making. The family also produces a grassy organic olive oil from the silver-leaved olive trees that shade one field. Amico, who does not speak English but does speak gardening, is able to make non-Italian speakers understand that although operating the farm organically may be more labor-intensive and the production levels slightly lower compared to industrial operations further south, being organic brings a quality to Poggio Alloro's produce that more than compensates, and helps to make it one of the most successful agriturismo destinations in Tuscany.
Guests at Poggio Alloro can be as active in the farm's day-to-day life as they want; depending on the season, they can help with the grape harvest, gather the olives for pressing, or, under Sarah's guidance, take a cooking class to learn the secrets of a true cucina Toscana. And also may get inspired to find ways to create similar, affordable, agriturismo-type destinations at the increasing numbers of small, family-run organic farms across the United States. Anyone who has participated in hands-on vacations will agree that the authentic experiences to be enjoyed create memories that last a lifetime.
Just as the Italian government supports its small farmers in their drive to extend their businesses, perhaps our USDA supremo needs to take a look at supporting our farmers' efforts in this direction as his next agricultural initiative?