December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Getting dirty and educated

By |2019-09-18T13:12:51+02:00September 13th, 2019|"In Provincia", Food & Wine Archive|
Life at an agriturismo can be bucolic, but its real-life connection to the rigors of farm life is open to question.

aking up at the crack of dawn to the stench of manure and mosquitos buzzing in your ear may not be your idea of a vacation, but for thousands of tourists, it’s bliss. Enjoying a weekend at an agriturismo (tourist farm) is precisely what so many Europeans choose to do with their free time.

Agricultural tourism is a growing segment of the tourist market. It involves eating, farming, cheese-making, and, of course, relaxing in one of the many scenic locations to be found in the Italian countryside – mostly in the idyllic regions of Tuscany, Piedmont, Puglia, and Veneto. Millions of visitors spend tens of millions of euros every year to experience countryside living. Yet, one nagging question remains unanswered: Are farmers manufacturing “authenticity” to appease audiences hungry for a bygone era in which sheep grazed on open pastures and country maids, decked in frilly skirts, hand-picked vegetables?

Guests usually want a swimming pool. Rarely will you find a farmer in one, however.

The answer isn’t simple.

Just after the end of World War II, large numbers of Italian farmers abandoned their land for more lucrative jobs in cities. To stem this mass exodus, Italy gradually began investing money to open its farms to tourists.

Researcher Margherita Ciervo writes that the effort needed to reproduce a “real” farm experience can sully the soil, air, and water sources. So, when a small rancher can’t pay the bills, and she changes her land into something more palatable to city-folk, that farmer is losing valuable food-growing property while also compromising her own status as a grower. She does all this to become what, in essence, is a glorified tour guide.

Farmers who intend to duplicate rural practices for guests run up costs that far exceed those of their regular cultivation practices.

I once visited a farm in the mountains overlooking the Amalfi Coast, where we foraged for herbs and plants while learning about edible flowers and weeds. It was here, at Metafarm, that I first became aware of the over-cultivation that has threatened wild plant growth, forcing one farm owner to get creative. “When a path has been plucked of all of its weeds and herbs,” explained Metafarm’s owner Giacomo Miola, “I have to change the course and find different trails to take guests, [ones] that have new growth.” But what happens when there are no new trails left? And what does this farmer do when he has nothing more to offer tourists?

When visitors come to farms, they are enacting what social scientist Claude Fischler calls the “back-to-nature myth.” People are tired of living in concrete jungles, full of noise and air pollution, traffic, and boring desk jobs. They want to return to a fantasy past, where they can frolic in fields and eat cheese made from the milk of happy cows. But this isn’t really the life of a farmer – nor has it ever been.

Agriturismo farmers run up costs that far exceed those of their regular cultivation practices.

The backbreaking work of milking cows, plowing fields, and picking olives is a 12-hour a day job, and maintenance of an entire farm is a year-round commitment. Whereas tourists are free to leave their weekend of wine, walks, and whimsy behind.

In Tuscany, researcher Roberta Sonnino interviewed local farmers about their desire, or resistance, to transform their farms into agriturismi, an increasingly popular move in the region. One owner in the town of Belloro said he would be forced to reorganize his farm and “get rid of the animals and dirt” so tourists would be spared having to see a real working farm.

Farm work is not glamorous. It involves cleaning animals, fertilizing land with manure, and getting (and staying) dirty for days at a time. These tasks have to be made easier for tourists, who are really just consumers paying for attractive experiences.

When farm visitors go home, rejuvenated by their rural vacations, they are eager to share what they’ve learned. There is no shortage of reviewers who take to online tourist sites, like Yelp or Trip Advisor, to boast about their “real farm” experiences. Sue M. penned a Yelp review saying how much she enjoyed eating and drinking on a “homely and authentic farm.” Karen C. insisted that everyone should “experience the ‘True Italy!’”

But what does authentic mean? Isn’t every working farm authentic?

Giving guests a chance to pick their own herbs, make their own pasta, and feast like kings is often offset by having to endure tipsy visitors who burn the bread and overcook the ravioli. Patience may be an agriturismo owner’s most vital virtue.

These tasks have to be made easier for tourists, who are really just consumers paying for attractive experiences.

On the positive side, tourist farms cause far less environmental damage than cities.

What might help is a redefinition of farm tourism. What if visitors could make the same trip but come away knowing more about what really goes on at a farm? What if instead of cooing at cute baby animals, people were taught how to milk a cow safely and properly fertilize a field?

Farmers want the public to better understand rural life for what it is: a messy, smelly, and often hectic place in which plants and animals are born, live, and die — so that human beings get to eat. As one farmer put it, “Everybody wants to be a gardener, and nobody wants to get dirty in the fields anymore.”

So let’s expand the scope of our collective visits to the idyllic countryside to include a working understanding of farmer livelihoods. Let’s get dirty in the fields. And maybe, when we return to our stressful urban lives, we can look back on our “authentic” farm experiences knowing that they were much closer to reality than the fiction we once believed.

About the Author:

Nora Hartmann is a freelance writer.