La Vita a Fattoria la Vialla – “A holistic biodynamic view”
Castiglion Fibocchi close to Arezzo. It is Mid-September and the leaves start falling from the apple and pear trees, the last fruits are waiting to be harvested. We drive between an avenue of cypress trees, pine trees and olive groves with the warm sun in our back.
Our destination – The famous Biodynamic Fattoria la Vialla in the beautiful Chianti hills of central Tuscany. This Farm visit is a really special one for us and a childhood dream is going to become true.
We enter the area of La Vialla, our hearts start beating faster, so far both of us have seen the Fattoria only in their self-printed books and catalogues.
Is everything as harmonious as shown on the pictures printed on paper or is it just a marketing ploy?
To be honest, we were quite skeptical and in the beginning looked behind every corner to find anything that would show that it is not as holistic as they claim to be.
What we found? purring cats, bees, cow horns buried in the ground, employees celebrating, with a glass of wine, another successful day filled with guests.
It is lunch time and we walk up the hill to reach the core of the Fattoria. The small square (Piazzetta) is the spot were guests of the agritourism part and visitors meet and have lunch in a family atmosphere.
The smell of freshly baked bread and biscuits is running through our nose, we are hungry and exhausted from the long travel. One thing is for sure, from now on we will suffer no hunger no more at the lovely Fattoria.
What follows are 5 Days in one of the most romantic and beautiful areas in Europe. On a Farm where the values of Tradition, Family, Sustainability and a holistic view of growing crops and manufacturing food-products are on top of the agenda. But first things first.
What is La Vialla all about?
The Fattoria La Vialla is a family-run farm and wine estate, one of the most extensive in the Chianti area. Run by the 3 Brothers Antonio, Bandino & Gianni Lo Franco who took over the farm from their parents.
The farm is nowadays a role model for biodynamic large-scale farming. Every product from the around 1400 hectares of land is biodynamic . One half includes vineyards, olive groves, pastures, vegetable gardens, and farm fields.
The other is preserved as a forest and helps to offset the low amount of CO2 created from production. Next to that, the Lo Francos can be proud to be able to claim that their business is sustainably operated and carbon neutral certified.
Carbon neutral at La Vialla means that the farm is absorbing the same amount of greenhouse gases as they are admitting to the atmosphere.
It all started 40 years ago, back then biodynamic organic farming was not a known term in Italy. The Lo Francos where not always accepted by the farming communities with their “special way” of farming. This did not stop them from growing bigger in size and at the same time getting more sustainable every year.
Just like many other forerunners they had to prove that Biodynamic farming practices are not just baloney – and esoteric storytelling. This is why at the beginning of the 21st century they started including scientific evidence into their work.
Nowadays, La Vialla carries out research in collaboration with Universities in Siena, Florence, Pisa, and Milan with the aim of enhancing sustainability and preserving cultural heritage, including the land for future generations.
Their success proves them right. Today the farm has more than 160 employees, producing over 60 organic-biodynamic products including Wine, Olive oil, Pasta, Flour, Antipasti, Honey, Vegetables & Sauces, Pecorino cheese, and Salumi.
These manufactured products are known all over the world for their outstanding quality and taste. The unfiltered wines, for example, are one of the highlights and La Vialla was one of the first to introduce them to the market. At the beginning almost laughed at by the wine connoisseurs, nowadays highly awarded with several gold medals.
Change takes time and patience this is what the Lo Francos did recognize fast & since then live after.
Our Favourite Red wine is the Casa Conforto Chianti Riserva D.O.C.G. 2014 from La Vialla
You may wonder now what was the driving force behind going the more challenging way of creating their own little biodynamic empire?
“When we talk about climate protection … what many forget is the earth. Because only on a living soil can life arise, if the soil is dead, we have a huge problem.”
Gianni Lo Franco
This short and precise statement catches the spirit of the times. In a world where Mono-Cultural practices to increase harvest yield and efficiency are leading the farming world, we need people like the Lo Franco Family.
“Activists” who turn their backs on the financially more profitable way and, instead of exploiting mother earth´s resources at an alarming rate, explore new ways and methods on how to work together with mother nature – hand in hand.
What is Biodynamic farming all about?
It all starts with the soil, the “gold” for every farm out there. In Biodynamic farming, increasing the organic matter with natural substances ( and biodiversity) is key for the growth of healthy crops. Therefore, the farmers use “organic” ways in improving the soil quality. The biodynamic approach is with nature instead of against nature, always working on keeping a balance instead of using pesticides and chemicals for short-term gain as done in conventional farming,
“The most important thing in organic-biodynamic farming is the soil, which must be healthy and fertile.”
Bandino lo Franco
In Biodynamic agriculture, the farmer enriches the soil naturally and increases the organic substance of the land. As a consequence, the quality and taste of the products increase as well, according to Alceo Orsini (head Agronomist at the Fattoria). A wide variety of practices and species enrich the soil, rather than exploiting and depleting it. This is one of the key differences to Mono-Culture conventional farming.
La Vialla uses crops like beans and other wild plant varieties which act as a natural fertilizer (green manure), just in order to improve the soils organic content. Such methods establish a high level of biodiversity to enrich the environment. Crops like the wine grapes, for example, can use this fertile soil as a source of minerals for a healthy growth and high-quality taste of the grapes.
Research conducted by La Vialla in collaboration with the University of Siena has shown that the organic matter in the soil has increased around 2% in the last decade from biodynamic fertilizing. As a consequence, CO2 is fixed within the soil instead of being admitted to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases!
“In Biodynamic agriculture, the farmer enriches the soil and increases the organic substance of the land. As a consequence, the quality and taste of the products increases.”
Alceo Orsini, Agronomist
Horns, the moon and planets – The biodynamic way
But there is more to it than that. Manure and other fertilizing systems are used in an unconventional way, following the biodynamic methods and calendar. Cow horns are acquired from the Biodynamic Association to make preparations 500 & 501 (Horn Manure & Horn Silica).
At La Vialla around 3600 horns are used – 3200 of them filled with cow manure, 400 with silica ( finely ground quarz crystals)
For preparation 500, the horns are filled with manure, buried in the ground in autumn and left there for 6 months, to gather cosmic forces and the energy within the earth.
The substance inside the horns (at that stage with a neutral earthy smell and texture) is then dynamized inside a dynamizer – with a special stirring system (see picture below). After that, this natural fertilizer is used in the fields as a fantastic booster, with all the microorganisms it contains, thus keeping the soil alive and fertile, regulating the pH balance of the soil and stimulating seed germination and root development, in particular vertical growth, increasing the depth of root systems.
Other horns are used to make biodynamic preparation 501. The difference is that these ones are filled with finely ground quartz silica and buried in spring. It also goes in the dynamizer and then the Horn Silica preparation is sprayed on the plants in the fields to stimulate photosynthesis and help the maturation of fruits and vegetables.
Why do we need Biodynamic preparations?
Only with those we can achieve our goal: high quality food for our customers and a fertile soil, with which we return more to nature than we take from it.
What is Biodynamic agriculture?
Whereas other forms of sustainable agriculture are primarily concerned with producing food sustainably, biodynamic farming aspires to be transformative and seeks to maximize health and vitality. It thus constantly strives to embrace all life’s processes, to understand them better, and to improve the way we farm through an ongoing dialogue with Nature. For biodynamics, farming is not a means to maximum production, but an ongoing dialogue with Nature.
We consider the land we steward to be an ecological web of biodiversity; our role is to nurture this and help it reach its full potential, whilst balancing the needs of farming and growing with those of the natural world. (The Biodynamic Association UK)
“Biodynamic farming aspires to be transformative and seeks to maximize health and vitality”
The Biodynamic Association UK
Many Products of La Vialla are certified by the Demeter Organization which is the largest Biodynamic certification body in the world. The standards set by the organization are in line with the first Farm Standards written in Germany in 1928 following Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Course. When following the standards and implementing them on a farm, according to the rules of Demeter, the organization will provide the legal definition of “Biodynamic” through their certification mark.
La Vialla – A Role model for the Future of Farming
Sustainable farming for the Lo Francos means first of all biodynamic-organic farming. The use of pesticides and chemicals is unthinkable to the Brothers and one of the core values at the farm. But the entire production systems are continuously monitored in order to preserve natural resources. In addition, each batch produced is independently tested to assure the absence of any type of synthetic chemical residues.
Good to know:
Not all of the organic certified products on the world market are actually free of pesticides and chemicals. There are different certification bodies with different requirements and standards, which is important to know from a consumer perspective – pyrethrins and copper used give still cause for concern at certain organic farms (Detailed report at Pan UK).
“Chemical fertilizers or pesticides are unthinkable to us, they are the opposite of what we want to achieve as farmers.
I even think they should be banned. By law.”
Antonio Lo Franco
Sustainable farming includes also the use of resources like energy and water. How is La Vialla dealing with them in an environmentally friendly manner?
To close the circle of sustainability in a holistic farming view at the Fattoria, Energy is produced clean & renewable. The 4000 square meters of Solar panels installed on the farm in sunny Tuscany produce more energy than the whole production of La Vialla is able to use.
The 152 kW/h is equivalent to almost 124 tons of CO2 saved per year. Any excess energy is sold to the grid and contributes to the further expansion and developments of the biodynamic farm. These are very impressive numbers, and numbers do not lie.
The use of water is another very important factor in the sometimes dry climate in Tuscany. It is a scarce resource which has to be included in the sustainable cycle. Especially in regards to climate change, La Vialla is facing new challenges. The crops have to redefine their protection mechanisms and water intake – which they actually do, a crop continues to adapt to new circumstances.
In regards to irrigation, La Vialla makes use of a phyto- purification system to filter all the wastewater in a sustainable cycle. The natural purification process is activated by micro-organisms, wild flora and specific plants, such as common reeds (Phragmites australis), bulrushes (Typha latifolia) and rushes (Juncus). Another of the infinite, small but great “miracles” of nature, that turns the wastewater into clean water, which can then be used for irrigation This is one of the most affordable and least energy-intensive technology to produce pure water for irrigation so far!
La Vialla is sustainable, profitable and it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces – 3900 Tons per year. The holistic lifecycle is complete and there are no strings attached. A role model for every farmer out there who is willing to convert for a future of farming, which gives back to the soil instead of only exploiting it.
Besides that, the family farm is crafting amazing organic products which give you the taste of Tuscany directly on your plates.
Lastly, their short supply chain ensures always fresh and nutrient-rich products delivered right to your front door. All of this without any middlemen in between. (this helps to keep the price of these Tuscan products affordable).
At Truefoodsblog we are constantly searching for more sustainable alternative methods to our current food chain all around the world. Here in Tuscany, Italy we found a perfect example of a Family which was able to find the right balance between the healthy growth of their business while preserving their values – mission & vision.
La Vialla for us was not only an escape from University/City life into the peaceful Chianti hills. No, it was an experience which gives hope for a future in harmony with nature. A future where humans – earth and all species benefit from each other.
Recently, both our personal studies have focused more and more on permaculture as a future model for sustainable farming. What we found here at La Vialla was actually not so far away from it. Currently, Farmers just don’t convert to more sustainable methods because of the fear of financial difficulties.
If the demand for good, fair and organic food is growing and the legislative bodies are doing their job in supporting organic, biodynamic and permaculture farmers, there is a chance to bring change on a large scale.
This is why we will dedicate a big part of our work on education amongst consumers. To show them where their food is coming from so that the consumer’s daily decisions can be rethought – Because:
We, as consumers, have the chance to change the system!