La Scoscesa: tackling monocultures in Italy's wine region

Lorenzo Costa
Friday, 26th March 2021

La Scoscesa farm in Italy is a permaculture farm in the heart of a wine region, tackling a monoculture perspective. They're using traditional terraces alongside regenerative agriculture and permaculture techniques to create food and community.

La Scoscesa is a farm based in the Chianti area, in Tuscany, Italy. Many know the area for its wine. Few remember the region was inhabited since the etruscan era, 2500 years ago, and was until the ‘60s organised through a share-cropping system, that applied a coltura promiscua approach to land use; coltura promiscua, meaning polyculture, and polycultures are something we know very well in permaculture design. 

Here at La Scoscesa we left out the economic aspect tied to share-cropping, and studied the way they worked with the landscape and built up from there. The terraces are a legacy with that culture; working on a terraced landscape is an incredible opportunity and responsibility. In our observation the culture we perceive through the terraced landscape is a traditional indirect culture, born more than a thousand years ago and maintained until fossil fuels changed all the western world.

The farm is entirely terraced with five kilometres of dry stone retaining walls, with 130 metres altitude difference. La Scoscesa means steep, the name is clear when we get visitors on the farm. The land was abandoned for 35 years when we purchased it in 2014. 

We have research coltura promiscua, re-applying it with permaculture ethics and design. 

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The view over some of the terraces at La Scoscesa

We work with annuals and perennials, growing: olives, fruit, berries and vegetables, herbs, wild edibles, legumes and wheat.

I have always had a clear vision of the fact that working on soil fertility would have had an impact on the community, it was just matter of time. Regenerating the degraded land we work on, as well as the degraded land management in our area has always been our main goal. But when you start to work on land, specifically on soil fertility, you learn how this encounters community fertility. On a cultural level we are working with our local and broader community to re-establish a sense of place, with its story. Winemaking for which the region is famous, has made the whole area a monoculture in all senses. So tackling food production has brought us to community building.

This year wheat was our first year experiment. Sown and harvested by hand it has been a great experience, many elders in the community really were emotional seeing us growing wheat. We are the first doing it in nearly hundred years. We have three other farms stepping in to wheat growing and hope in three years to get to five hectares, creating a shared project on our territory to impact more the community. In 2021 we will sow wheat on three hectares. The most important achievement this year has been producing our first acorn flour; acorns are a direct legacy with the traditional cultures worldwide. Acorns have been a source of food for us more than grains and we are reconnecting with that food. It is an experiment for now, that puts us on a correct path.

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The gardens, a mixed system with trees, perennials and annuals

When we started farming on our land the soil was pH 8.1, calcium was double the level it usually should be and only 1.4 organic matter on high bedrock. That’s some soil to regenerate. We have started by adding organic matter, sourced on the farm or in neighbouring organic farms and chipping all the biomass we can collect. 

Our goal has been to enhance soil fertility. We focused in the last two years on applying Korean Natural Farming, techniques (KNF), and the results are evident. It is incredible how much can be achieved by replicating your local microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. Applying KNF on a farm level is nearly unique in Italy.

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Making IMO 4, indigenous microorganisms from KNF

Our second focus was dealing with rainwater. Firstly because it caused erosion and secondly because it is the basis for creating and enhancing ecosystemic fertility. We started digging small rainwater retention ponds, where they were needed to stop erosion, and where their presence would have been most effective. Since April 2018 we have dug sixteen ponds, varying from 10,000 litre to just 500, and have harvested over 860,000 litres of rainwater. The landscape is changing, most of the ponds are in a section of savanna like woodland, its abundance is changing.

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A newly dug and seeded rainwater retaining pond

As a farm we had access to UE funding and I still believe this has been the right call. For the first time, a permaculture designed farm made it to UE funding on a regional level, and we were accepted, even if we were promoting a completely different approach to soil, landscape, water and companion planting. Was it difficult? Yes, it was. Our issues with soil fertility, the regional level of discussion of our project, and the fact we had to completely regenerate an abandoned landscape has been challenging, but also regenerating, personally and locally. Since we have started this project, more people of the community are interested in permaculture design, agroecology and are starting to think of projects that could apply those approaches.

This is why our final goal has been to work on sharing knowledge. Books are a love I have had since I was a child. Stepping in to permaculture research was naturally based on reading and collecting as many resources in print as I could. We have now more than 1900 books on permaculture, ecological design, plants, geology, water, etc. These books are part of our farm library, and knowing how much books are the organic matter we need to build mind fertility, just brought us naturally to envision a farm library open to the public. We have been sharing books locally and through various regions in central Italy, for the past three years. Now we have at least 30 books lent out. The vision is to get the catalogue finally online from the beginning of 2021, and to create an association focused on the library, and make it official. If every project had a library that could share books locally or regionally, permaculture design could grow even more.

Lorenzo Costa is a permaculture practitioner and cofounder of La Scoscesa, one of the 20 finalists in the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize.

Useful links

Watch: Designing regenerative cultures with Looby Macnamara

Watch: Building soil with regenerative agriculture

Finalists for the 2020 Permaculture Magazine Prize announced

Also from Lorenzo:

How Italy is rebuilding after the earthquake

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