Return to the origins, to the purest and most uncontaminated essence. A process of listening, reflecting and meditating awareness that can stimulate new ideas, decisions that subvert, disrupt an order to re-establish another: closer to one’s uniqueness, to one’s heart, more in need of an intrepid and constant courage to challenge each other. This is how Chiara’s choice was born and evolved when at a certain point in her life she decided to open the Casa Vallona organic farm. Respect for the perfect and wonderful harmony that marks the rhythms of nature, dialogue with it, regenerating a lost biodiversity, therefore taking care of the earth in order to leave it “better than I found it” as she stated and which summarizes one of the key concepts at the heart of sustainable development. And then the welcome, the attention to detail, the atmosphere of serenity that authentic and simple things emanate, the genuine flavors of the past, the importance of pursuing and spreading sustainable practices that can sensitize many people in deciding to embrace this path is necessary for the well-being of the Planet and of every living being that inhabits it. This and much more is Casa Vallona.
How was your farm born?
Before opening this business I worked in an office in Milan for a large company. In some respects I liked it, in others I felt that my creative side almost never came out. Sometimes a little voice inside the head wondered: how do I want to live? How do I see myself every day of my life? Enduring the chaos, the noise, pursuing a career and earnings seemed to me like things in which the essence of life escaped completely. In 2015, therefore, I decided to start conceiving my own project in practice. In fact, I had been fantasizing for some time about the recovery of a family farmhouse in Monte San Pietro in the metropolitan area of Bologna, and dating back to the Middle Ages. A farmhouse, inhabited by many people until the second postwar period, with a stable, barn and much more space where you can fully experience country life. I participated in a call launched by the Garrone Foundation which selects 15 young people under the age of 35 each year who are given a well-rounded training on entrepreneurship in the Apennines: marketing, commercial aspects, communication, a full immersion that also includes the themes of failure hydrogeological, hunting, all aspects that you face when starting a business in a mountain place. It was a wonderful result to be able to participate and “create” my life plan. I grew up in the Apennines and my deepest essence has always been linked to this world. My best memories are related to the afternoons after school when I went to the woods with my grandfather: a sandwich, and fruit juice, a homemade snack … This was freedom for me, as it is now.
How did you concretely apply this training and how is the activity structured toda?
To understand how to enhance ten hectares of land, it took a lot of study and a lot of research into contacts with people who did sustainable and ethical agriculture. I began to understand that there were immense worlds: one of these is ancient wheat, that is, the wheat that was widespread before the advent of agrochemicals and the boom in industrialization of seeds; bees also played a fundamental role right from the start. I have always tried to listen to nature high and I was influenced only by my goal: to leave the earth better than how I had found it. So I developed Casa Vallona in three macro areas: a multifunctional agricultural production inspired by the agricultural model of my ancestors to produce the things useful for daily life such as the cultivation of cereals, fruit, the vegetable garden, the vineyard trying to learn as much as possible. on everything that could revolve around the needs of a home. Today I produce natural and ancestral wines, wheat beer, ancient wheat flour and dried pasta, biscuits and other baked goods for the farm, honey, vegetables and fruit, jams and compotes of old forgotten varieties. Then there are the b & b and farmhouse in exposed stone and brick, cellars that have stood still in time, wood ovens, red stone wells, turrets, barns and stables. A refuge with breathtaking views of woods, vineyards and hills as far as the eye can see, where you can rediscover the pleasure of a slower daily pace. And then the cultural sphere. Musical, gastronomic and seasonal events, book presentations, exhibitions, self-production workshops and cooking experiences. I am currently focused on the ecological regeneration of places and I am implementing an agro forest project of ancient fruits. This path has become an opportunity for shared teaching with students from all over the world.
You talked about essence. How did you find it in this new dimension of life?
I see it in the growing wheat, in organizing to collect it, go to the mill, grind it, turn it into bread and then eat it, enjoy it at home and with guests. For me this is the essence. In the end, if we think about it, what does the human being need? A place to shelter, food and the affection of loved ones. In my previous life I lacked this pragmatic aspect which is the basis of peasant life. The history of this place is made up of so much effort, so much sweat that the farmers felt rewarded with the fullness of producing something good, of taking it to the market, of seeing happy people. I have found this simple peasant essence even now with the advantage of being highly supported by technology. Here I can feel the fullness with little. Before, I bought so many things that I didn’t even need. Now I have fewer things but they enrich me and satisfy me more.
Paradoxically, today this sustainable approach to nature, which has always been practiced by the farmers of the past, is considered innovative. What kind of productions, sustainable interventions have you introduced into the farm?
The use of ancient wheat is one of these choices. The grains I use take little from the soil and have deeper roots, they don’t need fertilizers. They need nothing but to be sown, then left there and forgotten. I also tried hard sowing but with poor results so I found other ways. As with the vegetable garden and orchard, I had to go through a series of failures before embarking on the permaculture that I am still studying. Everything I’ve done so far has taught me so much to accept making mistakes. The vineyard is another further world to be discovered. I tried to keep listening to those who already had experience, but always returning to my goal. If you have an axiom that guides you, you can quickly eliminate everything that does not pursue it. So right from the start it was clear to me to say no to chemical fertilizers and pesticides that impoverish the earth and kill those who live there. Then I introduced aromatic herbs that help the survival of bees and pollinating insects including butterflies. I began to carefully rebuild an ecosystem that is as biodiverse as possible, starting from a place where not even a bee buzzed when I arrived. Five years later, there are now many new plants here: blackthorns, brooms, hazelnuts, laurels, rows of lavender, rue, rosemary, thyme, oregano, savory and when spring arrives it’s a riot of bumblebees, beetles and butterflies … It is truly a sight to see this whole life.
What are the biggest difficulties you encountered in carrying out the project?
Bureaucracy is clearly one of them. You need to know a lot and have trustworthy people because it is truly a jungle. Another challenging thing was embarking on such a huge project. To date, the most important challenge is to evolve in an organized and structured way. I would like to include other people who can embrace this project and make it grow with me. To date this is the most demanding challenge. I haven’t invested in human resources yet because I didn’t know how it would go. I wanted to do it in 2020 but then the pandemic came and I stopped everything. With Covid, many of my colleagues found themselves having to send home people they had been collaborating with for years. In 2021, however, I want and hope to take this step. I think it is important to continue to grow and give an important imprint to teaching.
What news have you introduced with a view to offering training that raises awareness on sustainability issues?
This year we will become a school of permaculture and the dissemination of good practices thanks to Luca Burani, an agronomist who studied these important issues in Australia. We would also like to found a cultural association to further spread the values of environmental sustainability. From self-production for the home and for the person to agro-ecological systems that can work in small / medium areas. We would like to be able to provide advice to the person who has a courtyard and wants to have more biodiversity as well as to those who are a farmer on the weekend or for a job. So help, accompany people who wish to make this transition towards sustainability with us. 2020 was a catastrophic year that led me to have even more courage, to do more. I asked myself: now that I have arrived here and that I am making this place I hope better than how I found it, what can I do? The answer I gave myself was: I want to plant more trees, I want to create an edible forest, a place where man tries to imitate nature and collects its fruits. If you think about it when we make an orchard or a vineyard we never imitate nature but we reproduce a system that we have designed to be productive and comfortable. We always have an anthropocentric vision because we have to bring home a result. The edible forest undermines the concept that man is at the center of everything and puts the need for the earth back at the center. Even if it does bring about apparent confusion. If we enter a wood, which is one of the most uncontaminated places par excellence, we notice that it does not have only a row of maple, apple or cherry trees but these varieties are mixed together. Although it may seem like a chaotic condition, it is actually harmonic because the roots, the leaves, the plants talk to each other. This all makes sense. A plant that does not like the proximity of another plant will never grow luxuriantly. It is different if two plants are in synergy with each other because their chemical composition strengthens each other. We would like to give more fertility to the land, more shelter for insects, try to live with roe deer and wild boar, leaving wild plants they can feed on, create natural corridors that can be a shelter for them. It is not a system that includes only man but the whole microcosm that populates these hills. I would also like to dedicate more space to accommodate small groups who wish to have experiences in the company while maintaining a small, well-kept, familiar dimension which is one of the most beautiful and appreciated sides of Casa Vallona.
It is as if you were going to restore a balance between human beings and nature that has been subverted in recent years. What moves you to work for sustainability, for nature? Why did you make this choice?
Surely it is the will to continue being a better person. That is why I was talking to you about “essence”. Our life is a short moment compared to the millions of years of this planet. In my opinion it is important to find a purpose that aims to improve the place where we are. Have the serenity of having been good people, of having done good. Although what I am doing may not be enough to change all that we have done wrong on this planet, the fact that I have contributed with that grain of sand to a better world, to a better, fuller existence for me and for who is around me, is essential.
In your opinion, what is the key to being able to involve even the most reluctant people to take this path of sustainability that is inevitable if we want to give humanity a future?
Those who still think that a sustainable future is avoidable has a very narrow vision. I also think that we need realities, bodies that give more technical help. The last experience I had was with the Emilia-Romagna Agricultural Consortium. The peasants see him as a holder of knowledge but he himself is detached from the change taking place. I was looking for protection for the trees, because the first years of life are eaten in the lower part of the stem by wild animals. I asked this Consortium if there was an alternative to plastic protections given that we are in an era in which we want to eliminate plastic or at least reduce it. The answer was no. I independently had to search the web for an “enlightened” company that produced these protections with different materials. I found one made from biodegradable pine fiber cardboard that comes from France. Why don’t we have this kind of development in Italy? Now companies are being created that fortunately are increasingly eco-sustainable but when you turn to those who should be holders of higher knowledge or in any case should have a slightly broader vision, there is no minimum alternative proposal. Same goes for seeds. They say that the biological one is the same as the others. It is not so. Non-organic seeds frequently have pesticide wetting or pulverization that is harmful both to those who live in the subsoil and to pollinators, because at the time of sowing it rises into the air and settles on the surrounding leaves or flowers. I, who am an ordinary town, have to explain to the employee who sells a product for agriculture such a basic technical and environmental aspect? People should be able to get a global overview of who supplies them with products. They should inform them about all possible variations. For example: do you want to use this type of plastic product to protect your trees? Ok, but you must inform me that it pollutes, disperses pieces into the environment, the material is not biodegradable. If you buy the alternative, you spend the same price but then you can forget about it. It will not end up in your field, it will not become waste but fertilizer for the earth. If you have this kind of information you can choose from there. But if they don’t even give you this chance, it’s clear that it becomes an enormous effort. You need to be aware of using the tools. In my opinion, this is the first huge obstacle that comes even before opening one’s mind.
Companies like yours can be models to inspire both for those who do this job and for citizens. A virtuous circle that also starts from dialogue and experience.
When you tell people that there is an alternative, you stimulate curiosity because the human being is naturally curious. In the small you can do a lot and in doing you set the greatest example. When they see that a place creates beauty and is long-lived it means that something good is doing it. People become curious, they deepen and from there I believe that beautiful things can arise. Another mantra is copying. We begin to copy without fear who is better than us because if you copy well you all win.
What would you recommend to a young person who wants to open a sustainable business in this historic moment?
I would say it is the right time. From what my experience is and what I see, the courage and passion, doing things with the heart, are already half success. Obviously I would say that nothing is easy. Maybe it never was. Thinking also about the historical moment in which the business takes place is fundamental: at this moment everyone’s mood is low and money is scarce, many people have lost their jobs and we are facing an epochal economic crisis. All the more reason, people are craving authenticity right now and I hope that doesn’t change. There is plenty of space for those who want to start a business and align themselves with this by doing it with the heart.
It is perceive the desire for authentic things and for a closer contact with nature which, in addition to being good for the spirit, is also good for health. How much has yours improved since you lived in Casa Vallona?
From 18 to 30 I lived in the city and the fine particles killed me. I was later diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. I had allergic rhinitis, laryngitis, fevers, all ailments for which I was always in the pharmacy. I felt constantly in battle. In fact, I remember the third day I arrived in Milan: I had a fever of 39, my body probably reacted to pollution and already having respiratory problems, it went haywire. This was my world in those years. To date I no longer go to the pharmacy for this kind of problem. I take honey, propolis, lavender essential oil produced by me and which I always carry in my bag. Since I have less stress and I breathe the hill air, I think the level of my immune defenses has risen and I have never had respiratory problems again.
Your stories reveal a very strong bond with nature that you have already broadly transmitted. But when asked directly, how would you describe this bond?
Nature has put me in front of a love relationship. It is a relationship very similar to a relationship. Idealizing it would mean not wanting to look at it in all its entirety, not accepting the evil it can do us and its greatness, its vastness. I can improve this place by planting trees, nature gives me fresh air, shelter from the heat, contemplation, beauty, poetry. As in a love relationship, the exchange can be beautiful, it can be constructive and make you grow. At the same time it can be destructive because the very nature that gives you shelter manifests itself with the wind and torrential rain, escaping our control. Nature remains something mysterious that frightens us just as the person we love frightens us if we realize that our happiness depends on his actions. As in any love relationship, there are ups and downs. Last night the celestial vault was full of stars, I observed her in love like the first time. Then when I have to get up early or be late at night I think: “But who makes me do it?” The truth is that I couldn’t be without her.
Cover photo Eugenio Soliani