May 6, 2012
Well, I found myself on an impossibly steep slope in a foreign country observing an unfamiliar form of agriculture for the second time this year. This time it was the Alte Adige (or as local farmers there would probably say, the Süd Tirol). The crops were not that unfamiliar to a Michigander: vineyards, fruit orchards and the occasional sheep pasture. You can see a fair amount of that right at Appleschram, the farm where Thornapple CSA is based. But you won’t see a slope like you will in the Alte Adige, and you won’t see the terraces that have been built to cope with it. You also won’t see apple trees that have been trimmed and staked to grow on a single plane like topiary ( the better to get up and down those terraces without falling down the mountain, you see). I still don’t see how those sheep negotiate the slopes without falling, but I guess they don’t suffer from vertigo the way that I do.
Diane and I happened to be staying right on the premises of the Landwirtschaftsmuseum at Castle Brunnenburg, right outside of Dorf Tirol and in the shadow of Castle Tirol, so it was a great opportunity to learn about a way of farming that has been around for a very long time. Current thinking among archeologists of the region holds that people were living at pretty high altitudes in this region long before they settled the now-fertile and more densely populated Adige River valley. They know this because they have learned that Ötzi ‘s last meals consisted of fruit, meats and einkorn, so it seems pretty likely that people had figured out how to grow stuff in the Süd Tirol more than 5000 years ago. If longevity makes for sustainability, then I guess this qualifies as sustainable agriculture.
Of course, Ötzi ‘s people were not tending vineyards (as far as we know), but the recorded history of winemaking in the Alte Adige extends back to Roman times. Today there are wonderful varietals we never hear of back in the states: Legrein, Schivia and some very acceptable Grenache and Muscato. They also make some of the best grappa I’ve tasted. If you don’t know about grappa, do the Wikipedia thing and educate yourself.
Unlike the Romans, today’s wineries in the Alte Adige can’t seem to make a serious go of it without copious applications of fungicide. As one wanders along the mountain trails near Castle Tirol, the ominous roar of sprayers breaks the mountain silence. One turns one’s head upwards, always upwards looking for the fog rising out of the mountainside. It is as if some puncture has broken the skin of the volcano, allowing steam to gush horizontally out of the mountainside before forming into a plum that first rises above the vineyard, then settles downward. You don’t really want to be downwind from one of these episodes.
I mention this partly because it’s so reminiscent of my earlier report from an impossibly steep mountainside. Like before, I’m not sure what to make of it, except that the winemaker I was able to speak to would much rather be practicing what the locals there call “bio”—pronounced “Bee Oh.” It’s what we call organic. So much so that he’s experimenting with some new varieties said to resist the fungal diseases that occasion spraying, even though it will probably cost him four or five years of production.
As for that Bee Oh, if you think that someone’s deodorant has stopped working, it can’t be mine. I’m not wearing any.
Oooh! Sorry for that one. When I was a kid my Dad bought one of those highfallutin’ new contraptions called a stereo record player. This was long before anyone had heard of organic farming or Bee Oh. I realize that many people do not know what this is, but I have the suspicion that most readers of the Thornapple blog do. At any rate, having bought the player, he needed some records. I think in those days, you were kind of limited in what you could find that was available in “Stereophonic Sound”. Along with the obligatory Mantovani and the Dukes of Dixieland, he had one called “Hi Fi Fun in the Tyrol”. Polka music, if I recall. I’d include the obligatory Thornapple Blog song-lyric, but this record is one of the few things you can’t actually find on the Internet these days. The back was generic but the front had a colorful photo of Tyrolean dancers in lederhosen. I’m here to testify that you can still buy lederhosen at the market in Merano, and you can even see the occasional tourist hiking in them on the high trails above Brunnenburg Castle.
Too bad about that fungicide, though.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University