This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
"Who does the earth belong to?" I ask myself as I drive through the countryside between Bagno and Ripoli, just south of Florence, Italy. I am headed for Mondeggi, where in 2014 a group of people occupied an old agricultural estate on public property in order to oppose its privatisation.
When it was established, these 200 hectares of land—practically an entire hillside—were in the grips of degradation and abandonment. It was the result of the long mismanagement by an association from the Provence of Florence (today Città Metropolitano), which for decades accumulated debt, mistreating the terrain and squandering resources, until it was liquidated in 2009. The calls of academics and meetings with the administration were not enough, and Provence's intent was and still is to sell the entire area.
I grew up nearby and know that the place carries an emotional value for the local population. As children, we would go to the Villa Mondeggi for the spring festival and get lost in the lemon orchards. The eldest among us came here to be married. Then, little by little, it receded from local life, while the fields filled with ruins and the villa emptied, until you remembered Mondeggi only when you passed in front of the stone dog that guards the driveway entrance.
The occupation kicked off with a big festival in June 2014. And it continued inside with the debate between Genuino Clandestino and the Terra Bene Comune committee, becoming in name and in deed the "Farm Without an Owner."
While the auctions were empty, the earth had begun to produce again thanks to the occupants, most of whom are between 25 and 35 years old. Today, a few years later, people can once again come to Mondeggi in order to buy bread, olive oil, vegetables, wine, beer, and honey. In the meantime, the occupants have been sued. Their trial will begin soon, but they keep the effort up and carry on with the difficult and delicate work of reminding people what a public asset can look like.
To see where we're at now, I met up with the farmers who have no boss. There are about 15 of them who live and work here, and they guided me through the farm's daily operations.
Alessio is an agronomist who's been taking care of Mondeggi since 2013, since the first assembly at the Agraria di Firenze collective, where the project was born. He lists some of the first work the team did: "We redid the roofs, secured the street, bought equipment, and created a system to collect rainwater. Our concept is that we want to leave the earth in better condition than how we found it."
Today, I'm out collecting olives with the others. "There are over 10,000 olive trees. The previous management here used an experimental 'mechanised harvest' technique on them. The plants became too large to be profitable, so they abandoned them. When we took over, they'd been abandoned for seven to eight years, and it took some time to sort them out," Alessio says, adding: "We don't advocate for a return to prehistory. See, we have 25-metre nets and we use facilitators, but mechanisation lowers the quality of the food and reduces the workforce, which is the opposite of what we want."
Last year, the Farm Without an Owner produced 40 quintals of olive oil, which they either sold on site or entered into the distribution circuit Rimaflow. The sale of oil is a delicate subject due to the protests from the part of local producers: Mondeggi's oil is sold at a lower price than other organic oils from the area, because it's not confronted with taxes and bureaucracy. "I tell them that the revenue from the oil doesn't make us rich," says Alessio. "But that it mostly serves to systematise the street and the fields, and to grow the Mondeggi Bene Comune (Public Asset) project. Also, we'd gladly pay the taxes if they made us legal! But above all, [I tell them] that we're not their enemy—their enemy is the 3-euro oil sold in the supermarkets. Instead of making war [with other] the small vendors, we should be building a wall against the colossal ones."
Duccio takes care of the bees and also studied agriculture. When he arrived at Mondeggi, he'd already been a beekeeper for five years. "We all work outside of [the farm]: [Some of us] prune olive trees, [others do] agronomical consulting, and we bring them together to sustain ourselves." There are about 50 hives, each of which produces an average of 20 kilos of honey a year, depending on the weather. Beekeeping is also one of the subjects at the Scuola Contadina, an annual educational initiative that connects teachers with people who want to learn agricultural trades in Mondeggi.
Daniele's background is in social sciences and co-ops, and he ending up becoming interested in rural development and agronomics. One of his jobs at Mondeggi is to grow saffron. "We started in 2014 with the bulbs that a man from Val Camonica brought here. Those took root, and today they're growing in an area of about 500 square meters, where three varieties coexist—two from Sardinia and one from Tuscany." Aside from domestic consumption, saffron (like the other products) is sold through the markets, in particular one that's affiliated with the Genuino Clandestino network, which operates every Friday in Florence.
Meanwhile, bread is being made in the kitchen. Elena and Valentina form loaves of bread and prepare baskets for the final phase of leavening. They use a dough that's heavily hydrated and made from grains they planted in the estate's fields. "We have 20 hectares dedicated to crop plants," Elena explains. "But considering the rotations, we cultivate ancient grains in four to five hectares every year, and we keep one hectare for barley to make beer. We used starting seeds from the Semi Rurali network."
Bread is made twice a week, in 30-40 kilos per batch, but Elena and Valentina explain that might increase in the near future. "We're working on refurbishing a barn so it can be used for a workroom. It's spacious and already tiled, so it would allow us to better control the temperature, which would help facilitate the leavening." For the moment, they're using a wood stove they built themselves. Elena has just lit the flame, and she's kindling it by adding some dry branches.
Valentina is studying naturopathy, and in addition to making bread she also tends to the herbal workroom, which produces soaps, oils, and creams. "At our stand in the market, at first we only sold the weeds I'd collected. Then, little by little, it filled up, and the products have helped change [the public's] opinions on the project. The people who said at the beginning that we were all talk now come by every week to buy our bread. Of course, in the meantime, we became more organised and there was a sort of natural selection of staff. The people who were the most motivated remained."
On top of the olive oil, saffron, bread, and herbs, there's also a large vegetable garden and a vineyard, which features Sangiovese grapes almost entirely. There's also a part of the olive grove that's farmed directly by locals from the neighbouring countryside, where each family takes care of 35 olive trees and the oil obtained is divided by those who worked on those trees—that's called the Mota Project. Several volunteers were enjoying lunch alongside the fields when I passed by.
So, who does the land belong to? The landlord registered in the Provence's Land Registry would respond to me with "the legality of the law." But it's a law that often ignores its responsibility towards the planet, and that makes us humans do strange things. It makes us believe that the people who—with our money, and while operating under the adjective "public"—are still innocent after letting this land waste away for decades, and instead pursue those who transformed beat up earth into bread and oil. Moreover, it's bread and oil you can go and buy anytime you're in the mood to climb the hillside and pass through a terrain that, at least for now, is also mine.