Everything Under the Sun, in Italy

November 17, 2006

In October, Ferry Plaza Farmers Market grower Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun Farm attended the second Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy as a representative of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market food community. His trip was funded by Slow Food San Francisco with proceeds from the annual Food from the Heart fundraiser at the Ferry Building.

The purpose of the conference, put on by Slow Food International, is to bring together food communities from throughout the world. Communities represented ranged from Dukati Black Goat Breeders from Albania to fruit growers from the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan. This week’s feature is an interview with Bill about his experience at the conference.

The Terra Madre website says this year’s themes were networks, agro-ecology and market access. Were these themes apparent?
The agro-ecology theme of the conference referred to the preservation of heritage products (livestock, vegetables, cheese, etc.), the traditional methods of producing them, and the cultural ties with the communities from which they come. These breeds and cultivation methods are often adapted to the environments from which the come and have less of an impact on the land.

The market access theme included those ideas aimed at the potential consumers of these products to promote appreciation and desirability, as well as the realization of how food dollars are a great shaper of not only economic systems but communities as well. The conference, through its workshops, gave many examples of small-scale agricultural projects throughout the world, and ideas for developing local markets for these products so they don’t have to compete in the global market. The education of consumers will be the driving force.

Where did you stay?
For the conference, I stayed at Madonna dei Laghi. I had no idea what that was before I got there. I arrived in the town on a train, found a bus, and the chuckling bus driver dropped me off at a church. It used to be a convent, but is now used as a retreat. It was actually a great place to stay, right on the banks of a beautiful lake, with the Alps as a backdrop. There was a group of about 25 people who stayed there, all very friendly and interesting. The few nuns who were still there served us breakfast and dinner each day. It seemed to be typical Italian cuisine, with pasta dishes first, followed by chicken or meat and potatoes, and salads of radicchio and endive (no arugula). Always good bread with olive oil, and soft cheeses. Always vino de la casa (house wine), which was very good.

I ran into a few people I knew from the market (Chris Cosentino from Incanto Restaurant, Rick and Kristie Knoll were at the same church), but there were people you would see once and then never see again the rest of the conference. I also met up with fellow farmers from around Winters and Davis.

I know that dried fruits and vegetables are a specialty and particular interest of yours–did you meet other people who dry fruits and vegetables?
I did not really find other people who did a lot of drying or dehydrating. That seemed to be an area where people were interested in what I do and how I do it.

What were the perceptions of farmers from other countries about US agriculture and agricultural policies?
It was interesting talking to various people both at the conference and where we stayed. Producers of certain specialty products in the United States complained of having to compete with the same products imported from abroad where they are subsidized by their governments (like olive oil, cheese, and Turkish dried apricots). Everyone I talked to from other countries complained about the US food products that seem to flood every available market. While those of us from California have many alternative markets available to us (farmers’ markets, CSAs, etc.) and can diversify our production to take advantage of them, in much of the country they do not have the same market opportunities and are therefore dependent on the global market. A real roadblock to the worldwide adoption of a Slow Food mentality may be the challenge of incorporating Middle America into a local marketing scheme.

Did you get ideas for new things to grow or make?
I did pick up some interesting ideas for things to grow and some growing techniques. Most of these ideas came from the interesting people I met, who were mainly the people I was staying or traveling with. There was a small farm and specialty fruits adviser from Tulare County I stayed with. He and I talked a lot about what he has learned over the years, and what I have been doing. He was a real treasure trove of useful ideas.

I also mentioned to a lady from Florida that I dry Prickly Pear cactus fruit, and she told me about dragonfruit, a trellised cactus she grows that has very exotic and expensive fruit. I’m looking for it.

At the Salone de Gusto (the large tasting and Italian products display associated with the conference), I found a booth with fresh plum-type tomatoes braided into a large bunch. They harvest the tomatoes in August, then hang them in the barn and they stay fresh enough for sauce and cooking through February. I will definitely grow them if I can find the seeds.

Did you visit any Italian farmers’ markets? What were they like?
The only farmers’ markets we visited were in Venice. As you walked through Venice, there would be one or two stalls in some of the piazzas. My impression was that these were not the farmers, since the boxes seemed to be from various farms (and countries). There was one big, bustling outdoor market in Venice where a lot of fresh fish was being sold, and some big displays of vegetables. Unfortunately, we were lost and late for a tour so we couldn’t stay, and never got back there.

Did you bring home any seed?
The biggest disappointment of the trip was not finding any seeds of new varieties to try. There were none as part of the products display, and I never saw (or recognized) any gardening stores to check out.

What was the highlight of your trip?
The opening ceremonies for the conference were like the food Olympics. There were 140 countries, and a representative from each marched in with their flag to place on the stage. There were speeches from Carlo Petrini, Alice Waters, and the President of Italy, among others. Very inspiring.

Learn more:
Terra Madre website
Slow Food International website