Organic farming bears fruit (and veg)!

Author
Sarah Meraner
Date
13.03.2020

Organic farming bears fruit (and veg)!

Two very special vegetable growers in the Val d’Ega

While each is from a different generation, the lives of Anna-Maria Gall and Michael Pfeifer are not so very different: they grow old, rare vegetable types – naturally and sustainably. We paid a visit to each of these vegetable growers in the Val d’Ega.

Anna-Maria and her wild garden

In a small road that branches off the way to the village of Gummer, on a mountainside, exists a small and sunlit world of wonders: the garden of Anna-Maria Gall! For 34 years she has lived on the Kronlechnerhof in Nova Levante, where she has turned her passion into a profession. An untamed mixture of countless vegetables and herbs thrives on her field. “There is no point looking for any order here,” she laughs, adding: “Nature is wild and that’s how I prefer it! Herbs and vegetables grow side by side with me, with each keeping the pests away from the others – so they complement each other perfectly!” Anna-Maria herself does not know exactly how big the cultivated area actually is. She simply turns a part of the meadow into a space to grow vegetables whenever she needs it. A huge greenhouse is home to tomato plants, while a small wooden shed contains passion fruit and young plants. Sweet potatoes sprout in a giant pot and strawberry ground cherries creep next to courgettes – “They can be used like husk tomatoes and they look just like them! They have a very intense taste”, she explains about these cherries. Also particularly popular with customers are pumpkins. From artichokes, dozens of lettuce varieties and Jerusalem artichokes to cabbages, spinach and tiger nuts, everything imaginable thrives here – and more besides, as Anna-Maria is well-known for the very old plant varieties found in her garden, rarities that she has been cultivating for fifteen years. She usually finds them in barter markets and then grows them herself. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the plants themselves grow, shooting into the air, forming flowers and seeds until new plants grow in the soil. This also allows them to choose the place that suits them best. “It can happen that a particular variety will simply not thrive one year. But you always learn something, namely how you can do better next year. For example, in the summer I can forget it with cabbage, as it always only starts growing here in autumn – just as it should”, she says, admiration in her eyes. “I don’t actually have to do all that much ... I only use cow manure on my plants – and most of them thrive from year to year on their own!” Anna-Maria acquired her wide knowledge of plants through numerous conversations in barter markets, on guided tours and courses.
If any vegetables are left over, Anna-Maria simply processes them one way or another, preserving them, drying them, making soup seasoning out of them. Of course this is not all for her own use: she has a number of loyal customers who like to buy naturally grown vegetables from the Val d’Ega – usually private individuals and one or two guesthouses in the village. Anna-Maria also works with two passionate chefs from upscale restaurants in the village, supplying them every week with a wide range of vegetable rarities and herbs. “The chefs especially like my little salad vegetables and other types, so I have to make sure that they always stay small. But I don’t actually do this to sell things. It’s just my hobby!” she beams, walking through the blossoming, fragrant shrubs in her garden – her very own world of wonders.

Michael and his Technicolor field

Michael Pfeifer from the Eisathhof in Nova Ponente is only 21 years old, yet he has his gigantic vegetable patch well in hand: there are around 500 types of vegetables, cereals and herbs here. Carrots in all colours, herbs growing between lettuce heads, an entire greenhouse just for tomatoes – this young permaculture farmer grows about 50 varieties of tomato, including white, yellow and even very dark ones. Like Anna-Maria, he also has a penchant for old vegetables. “I really enjoy rediscovering old vegetable varieties – my grandparents can even remember some of them. I often wonder how it is that an entire vegetable variety can become almost forgotten in the course of 60-70 years! But many of the old vegetables are simply too awkward for the modern food industry to grow, store and process – such as salsify, mountain spinach or evening primrose”, says Michael. Quality and diversity are the most important aspects of his work.
Unlike Anna-Maria, however, Michael’s cultivated area is very tidy, with small paths leading past the colourful beds. Everyone has their own way of growing vegetables. This young vegetable grower inherited his gardening genes from his father – he started growing and selling vegetables at the age of 17. Even as a child he would organise “vegetable contests” with his friends to see who could grow the best. Nowadays a renowned Michelin-starred restaurant and another award-winning restaurant in the Val d’Ega are Michael’s sole customers – with the exception of his family, of course.
Again and again Michael tries out new vegetables: this year it is the turn of the sweet potato. A third of what Michael grows consists of cereals: emmer, spelt, rye, sweetcorn, oats and wheat. He applies the principles of permaculture: “I didn’t in fact know what permaculture was; I actually was unconsciously practising this sustainable concept of agriculture and horticulture from the very beginning”, he says. “Recognising nature’s cycles and working as closely as possible with them is a matter of course for me.” Thus experimentation takes priority over studying when it comes to growing vegetables: “Sometimes the vegetables don’t like the place I’ve chosen for them – so I have to plant them somewhere else the next time. I have also learned that I have to focus on nature when growing: some vegetables have to be protected from the annual showers, while the rains give other varieties, such as beets or carrots, much more flavour as they produce more aromatic substances when faced with external attacks. That’s why I have planted mixed crops, because the aromas of one plant will fend off pests from another plant and vice versa.” Michael does not water his plants either, but rather mulches the soil with cut grass, allowing humus to form while the earth remains moist. It takes a lot of patience, he says, but he doesn’t mind.
His large vegetable plot measures 2,000 m2: his father will help him out, especially when matters are very labour-intensive. “I get up at five in the morning and go to bed at eleven o’clock at night in spring”, he says of the time of year when most of the work has to be done: ploughing, mulching, planting – all by hand. He harvests all the root vegetables in winter – carrots, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes, for example, then puts them into wooden boxes, covers them with damp sand and thus naturally preserves them. “It works a treat!” says Michael proudly. 
At home, too, this young man from Nova Levante also practises a natural way of life and processes his vegetables for his own use: “It is vital to know what the produce tastes like and how best to treat it.”
In the next few years he wants to switch to a horse-drawn plough and away from ploughing with the help of a tractor, as at present. This would be more sustainable and authentic, he says, and thus more his style. Indeed it would!

Sarah Meraner

is responsible for Digital Storytelling at clicktext, the South Tyrolean agency for corporate content and blogger of “Geschichten im Kopf [Stories on my mind]”. Making use of every one of her senses to experience the world, she can tell us all about it in words, stories and images.

The Italian version of this text is the work of our translation wizard Serena Schiavolin, responsible for Italian content at clicktext, who brings a typical Italian touch to our stories!