We’re back on Chiara’s mushroom farm at the foot of the Italian Alps, where forest farm life goes on regardless of the lockdown. She is determined to get her on-farm processing facility up and running for this season. During the Covid-19 crisis she’s been even more socially isolated than usual, giving her time to muse on the deeper meanings of the “ford”: the site of her farm, but also a metaphor for agroforesty and agroecology.
The chaotic first months of 2020 have unexpectedly made me appreciate the name of our farm more deeply: Azienda Agricola Guà. The area around our forest garden is called Guà, meaning “ford” in the local dialect (guado in Italian).
The Rimon canal that flows just west of our field was once a sinuous stream flowing on the eastern plain of the Sarca River. This fertile agricultural plain was reclaimed over the centuries. The canal was straightened and widened after World War II for hydroelectric and irrigation uses. We can imagine that the land that holds our forest garden today was in the past a good spot to ford that sinuous stream when traveling up and down from the Cavedine village to work in the fertile plain.
So far, so good. I really enjoy the historic perspective of the territory and I like to have some of that within our farm’s name. At first we liked the sound of the word “guà” because it is short and rounded and fits well in our logo. During these present times of crisis though, some deeper meanings in the farm’s name have emerged.
Farm Life goes on during Lockdown
This year we had some strange, hectic weeks between the end of winter and the blossoming of spring. However when national lockdown measures were imposed on the 11th of March the daily routine didn’t changed that much for us. We could still move from home to forest and fields thus we kept going undisturbed with the shiitake inoculation process of the 600 logs for next year.
The sudden Orwellian transformation of society did not mean a lot of free time for reading more books or doing all the nice work we always wanted to do on the house. I believe this was not the case either for the majority of people. After the first days of breathtaking sci-fi like declaration of emergency, when it became clear that this is a long-term complicated situation, many people experienced difficulties and frustration.
Being cut off from our limited social life definitely gave us more time to think and discuss. I don’t know if this could be referred as a social distancing counter effect – we even found the time to discover the hidden meaning of our farm’s name.
Agroforestry was our Best Way to Ford that River
If I were an early Sarca valley settler and my objective was to cross the river in order to reach the opposite side I could either build a bridge or cross at the ford. Build a bridge and I could cross the river exactly where I want and – when the bridge is ready – it would be very easy to use it back and forth. But I would need to utilize lots of inputs in order to get to the result. Moreover, I wouldn’t be sure that my hard work could withstand every situation, especially if I built it quickly without considering all the complex geomorphological and hydrological aspects. So if I chose the first option, I would have to mobilize lots of resources in order to do it exactly where, how and when I want.
If I decide to cross at the ford, I would have to adjust my needs and patiently walk along the river, carefully observing the surrounding environment to find a good spot to ford. This would surely require a lot of effort, a good deal of courage and some failed attempts as well to be successful. However this process would still get me to the other side of the river and with the advantages that I would have used very few inputs, and that I would always be able to adapt to the changing circumstances by looking for better fords, if I needed to cross back and forth.
I hope this metaphor doesn’t sound too obscure!
In a nutshell here at the Guà farm we totally feel in the ford!
If the river stands for the agri-food system, we needed to cross it; leaving behind the status quo of the conventional power dynamics and aiming towards better lands. We could have gone for many other “bridge” options, but we have been looking around and found that agroforestry was our best way to ford that river.
I am realizing that agroecology is not the dream land on the other side of the river but it is the ford itself. It is an effortful process towards better systems whose actual configurations are under constant redefinition.
Recognizing that we are and might well forever be in this metaphorical ford, our challenge is then to thrive in it.
From Forest to Fork
Moving back to real-world events, for us the biggest impact of the COVID situation was an indefinite delay in the works we were about to start to convert the old ruin into our processing facility. This was a major problem. Economically we need to be able to dry our mushrooms instead of selling them fresh. We managed to tackle this problem with a temporary solution. We were lucky enough to find a room in our house which, with some minor adaptation work, we can convert into a drying facility, and start processing our products this season.
At the moment this is translating into a huge burden of intricate bureaucratic papers. Meanwhile though the temperatures are rising and the first shiitakes of the season are showing up, re-energizing us for the big improvement we are about to make. This will be only a temporary solution and we have very little space for processing. However we can’t wait to start selling online our dried products – made by us every step of the chain from field (or forest!) to package.
The first shiitakes of the season popping up
Cross the Rivers and Thrive in the Fords
To conclude let me get back once more to the ford metaphor. I find it can apply in many situations. In Italian the word is often used in negative terms, as being stuck in the ford (as I recently read in a headline referring to Europe, for example). We probably are all in a ford, but I believe we can find some better meaning in this.
In recent months, I have told myself many times how lucky I am and how I have made the right choices in recent years. This gives me strength and great motivation. However sometimes this recognition also comes with a subtle melancholy. The incertitudes about the future of humanity are revealing bigger and bigger. Nevertheless, we have to – at least metaphorically – hold on tightly to each other and patiently find the resilient solutions to cross the rivers and to thrive in the fords.