Friday, July 30, 2021

Life And Death On An Umbrian Farm

 September 2013, from the archives.

I haven't been back to Italy since 2018, just before my motorcycle accident and now I am pinning my hopes on being able to take a trip in the Fall of 2022. My nephews' farm and bed and breakfast operation are today surviving the pandemic lockdowns and the swimming pool is built and they are taking reservations. Eight years ago all they had were plans, being observed by the older generation who grew up in post war Italy in an age of hardship:

I woke up Tuesday morning to the sound of a breeze blowing through the cherry trees outside my bedroom window, the air was fresh, the sky a little less gray and the fields stretching south from my I sister's hill top farm were dappled in the weak September sunlight pushing through between the clouds.

Below my bedroom windows my nephews are digging a swimming pool for their plans to have paying guests visit the farm, an ambitious plan that their father my brother in law views with a mixture of pride and apprehension.

This is, I thought to myself, quite the privilege, living the life even if temporarily of leisure amid the hustle and bustle of farm life. I get to see it up close, and as much as I was glad to get away thirty years ago, I was okay with being back here now. My sister Liz is ten years older than I and she is the elder of her twin sister by ten minutes so in some sense she is the matriarch of the family now our parents are dead. She has been a housewife married to the same man for close to forty years. They rebuilt this farmhouse where her husband grew up int their family home, Cerqueti Farm:

And there she is, the smiling face in the bottom left hand window surveying her world as she has for the past many decades, raising two boys and watching her husband till the fields and kill the pigs and raise the cows for market.

Her husband was not considered suitable by our rather snobbish mother and they were secret sweethearts from the age of 15 a full half century ago and despite their public reticence they are as much in love now as ever.

They labeled him a gold digger in the village because he was marrying the heiress of a landed fortune, five hundred acres of extremely hard work and a ton of inherited debt and no prospects. Today, after a lifetime of back breaking work he has handed over plans for the farm to his two strapping boys but he still raises livestock, the thing he has always loved to do as his boys expand and make their own plans for a "modern" farm. Vincenzo's idea of farming is to get up early, feed the animals, take care of the fields feed the animals watch the news and curse the politicians and then go to bed. I am not much of one to get up early on vacation but I did his evening rounds Monday night with him.

He found some wild boar piglets lost in the forest one day a few years ago and he brought them home, hand fed them and built them a pen. They were probably victims of hunters who love to kill these pigs for their rather gamey meat.

He let them out when they were adults but they just kept coming back to their home and one day this one came home pregnant. They know where they are well off he laughs, pouring their ground corn flour into their trough. Wild boar are as intelligent and tough as iguana in the Florida Keys. They are as destructive and lack all natural predators. Hunters are scared of them as thy will turn on an armed human and gore him to death if cornered.

Then it's down to the cow byre to feed the cows his sons don't want to deal with. They dislike the requirement to feed and water the animals every single daily day but he thrives on it. Vincenzo doesn't take vacations, he doesn't drink or play cards, he doesn't smoke, so his only vice is his livestock.

Most of his herd, reduced to three dozen from double that when he was younger he keeps on hundreds of acres of mountainside fenced in and free to come down and get hay and water or to stay on the hillside where he has a trough for them and they can forage as they please. He's says even in winter they frequently prefer to be up on the hill than in the shed that he has built for them at the bottom of the hill. The young ones and the pregnant cows he keeps in the shed.

This one, pictured above gave birth Tuesday night and Vincenzo and I went out in a rainstorm to help the newborn calf get its first meal. The new mother, afterbirth hanging down her hindquarters was kicking the calf away so Vincenzo tied up her foreleg and distracted her with hay while leading the calf to milk. I stood outside the pen holding the rope taut that kept her foreleg in the air and prevented her raising her hind leg to kick away her starving calf. It was all very elemental and satisfying when the calf finally pulled away and burped and the mother, released, started licking him.

The fact is he will go to the butcher in less than two years and will bring in six Euros a kilo, which puts your middle class urge to go "Aww!" in an unfortunate perspective. But that is life on the farm. My sister also called in the vet who spent twenty minutes and twenty five Euros removing a blade of grass from her pet dog's ear... So animal love has its place on the farm. As do tractors, viewed fondly enough that Vincenzo calls this his car.

It's the oldest and smallest in the fleet of five that they have but it's his and he uses it to look after his cows, moving feed around including bales of hay for the outdoor cows, by the light of the feeble glow of the headlamps.

It has been his entire life and my mother thought my sister could do better than marry the third child of a sharecropper who used to cultivate one of her farms. I guess she was wrong.

I rode shotgun on the tractor, an extremely uncomfortable place on the incredibly torn up road we had to take to his other stable of animals and there he went through the same routine twenty minutes later. Sweep the dirt, put out ground flour and hay and make sure the water drips are working.

He put out some pasta for the guard cat,

And admired his pigs which he himself will slaughter in January for his rather excellent home cured prosciutto and dried sausages, of which I am eating as much as I can while I am here. He told me the story of the European Union inspector who came by the farm to take blood samples of his animals to see if they were being fed artificial hormones. "I wanted to give him some artificial hormones up the back side," my brother in law said with a grimace. Damned government regulations.

He used to slaughter pigs in winter for money but new European regulations put a stop to that. Vincenzo, like everyone else I have talked to is fed up with the over reach of government in Italy. There are regulations for everything and it makes me laugh as I think back to the US Tea Party people who think we have too much government interference in the US.

It has been days of eating and talking, telling stories and thinking about the past which I find quite exhausting but rewarding. And it gives me much to think about and be thankful for. It's good to get off the rock and remember how most of the rest of the world lives.

Raising food, killing it and eating it. It doesn't get more elemental than that, agro-tourism and swimming pools notwithstanding.