Walter Guerra seems almost apologetic about answering my video call from his apartment in Bozen/Bolzano. “It’s always been my dream to own land,” he tells me as he explains how his summer vacation job as an apple picker for the Laimburg Institute invariably resulted in his ongoing career there as Head of the Institute of Fruit and Viticulture. “I didn’t grow up in a farmer family,” he tells me. His Italian grandfather had migrated to Bolzano from Veneto and took up work in the industrial zone. However, growing up, during his summer break, he would drive with his parents to Ahrntal, his mother’s native valley. Spending time with his cousins on the green land with cows, he was exposed to a hard German accent which no Bolzano resident would understand. Over an hour-long interview, he revealed fascinating aspects about the past, present and future of South Tyrol’s unique, mostly still family-owned apple farming industry. Edited excerpts follow:
Some months ago, in an issue of the Traminer Dorfblatt, I saw a spread that showed two photographs of the same farm, one from decades ago, when the owners were growing a range of things, including potatoes, the other showing the farm’s present—as an apple plantation. It’s a small example of the evolution of the apple farming industry in South Tyrol. Can you walk us through the history of this present?
Until the 19th century, agriculture in South Tyrol was primarily for feeding the family.. Gradually, it evolved and began to get specialized. One big push came from the development of the railway and later the highway, which facilitated cross-border transport and logistics, thus intensifying apple and wine growing. Farmers began to look first at the Alpine market, then at German and Italian markets.
In the past, you could only get apples from September to January. Soon, consumers wanted apples 12 months a year, so, by the 50s there were new developments in storage, from natural conservation to storing in appropriate rooms with controlled atmosphere in a low-oxygen environment, thus enlarging the marketing possibilities and ensuing demand. Those who were growing other fruits, like pears, switched to apples. There emerged a high specialization from the grower to the marketer. Now South Tyrol exports to more than 60 markets world-wide, which has obviously resulted in modifications to the product, especially in terms of quality. Can you guess what is the second-most important fruit in South Tyrol, in terms of acreage, and surveys?
Chestnut. While 18,000 hectares of land are used for apples, there are 500-600 hectares of chestnut trees, then comes cherry, with around 100 hectares. So chestnuts are today where apples were more than 100 years ago. They are not professionally grown, though we are researching possibilities at Laimburg. Between the 1930s to 1960s, the surface area for growing apples increased tenfold.
The Research Centre Laimburg was founded in 1975. Before that, all agriculture in South Tyrol was performed on the basis of farmer experience. Then, at a certain point farmers themselves decided they needed a research dimension. It’s been 40 years since the Institute has been supporting farmers.
Of course, there are problems and challenges with apple farming. Since we are growing crop intensively on a contingual surface, South Tyrol is a paradise for parasites. On the other hand, it is a highly specialized crop industry. More than half the world has been visiting South Tyrol to see how we grow apples. The Interpoma fair in Bolzano, begun more than 20 years ago, is where the apple world meets. The last edition had 20,000 visitors from over 70 countries around the world. Our strength is that we have this one single crop. But the fact is that we use just 2.5 per cent of the available surface for apples. So 97.5 per cent of South Tyrol doesn’t have apples. These apples are grown in areas where a lot of things are happening; there’s housing, bike trails, tourism, cities, urban life, swimming pools, kindergartens, or the high value villa of someone who decided to live on the countryside. Apples seem omnipresent, because we have a unique topography. I understand that there are people who look down into the valley and see hail nets and think, ‘oh, that’s ugly!’ But hail nets are part of apple farming everywhere. Just that in South Tyrol, they seem more obvious. But in Piedmont, where apples are also intensively grown, you don’t notice the hail nets due to another topographic constellation. You can see how there is potential for misunderstandings between farms and citizens who are not farmers and didn’t grow up on farms, and the tourism industry that wants a clean environment. But for example, there are still German guests who visit South Tyrol to watch the apple blossoms flowering.
Can you elaborate on the role of cooperatives in transforming the South Tyrol apple farming industry?
Before cooperatives were established, it was a buyer’s market. If you go back in history, what was the world like before cooperatives? You had a farm, and already when the apples blossomed, the buyer came and booked different varieties. Buyers were clever, as buyers are in general. They played around with small farmers. If, one year, there was a lot of crop, they could vary the price. If the farmer didn’t agree, they threatened to go to the neighbour. At the end of the harvest everyone was unhappy. So, farmers eventually realized it was wiser for them to come together. That’s how cooperatives began, and it’s quite unique to South Tyrol that apple farmers must deliver all their product to the cooperative, even the fruits on the ground. This is why we don’t have as much diversity in processing, because all the fruit goes to one globally acting entity.
These cooperatives are owned by farmers, who have shares in it, and have voting rights. This is one of the best means to still hold together so many small family-owned farms. Even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) came to South Tyrol in 2014 to study the unique cooperative system here, as a case study for other parts of the world.
Where before farmers were growing and storing and selling apples, now they only grow and deliver. Cooperatives do the rest. One year later, the farmer gets paid. It means he has to fully trust that the people involved in storage, marketing, and selling will do their best for his product. The whole process is segmented where you have different actors, where, in the past, you had one actor from beginning to end. No farmer can tell you the consumer preferences in India, for example. Just like no marketeer can tell you how to best irrigate your young orchard of apples. But there are now clever farmers and marketeers who try to learn from the other and try to be more vertically integrated, which is good. If a marketeer can understand why a particular year the apples are smaller, they can explain it better to the buyer. It can be argued that specialization was a necessary step in order for the apple industry to go further.
Has the South Tyrol soil profile changed dramatically after decades of intense farming?
The South Tyrolean pedo-climatic combination is very good for apples. Most of the soil is alluvional, because most of the growing area from the Vinschgau to Salurn is the Adige basin. As you may know, until the reign of Maria Theresia, most of it was wetlands. So you couldn’t grow apples or wine grapes in the plains of the valley then. The Adige brought a lot of light, well-drained alluvial soil with high organic matter.
Anything you plant on soil derives its resources from the soil and also returns resources to it. But we often need to re-invigorate soil, which is why we fertilize it. In our laboratory, we do soil analysis in order to make recommendations. Luckily, apple trees can be replanted in the same soil used to grow apple trees. Peach, on the other hand, cannot, as peach trees produce own phytotoxins. There are several ways to replant apple trees efficiently to mitigate fertility loss in excessively planted soil. One way is to plant the next orchard in the inner row. There are also new rootstocks that are more disease-tolerant, and there’s the possibility of making an inter-crop, too, though it’s not so much in use.
With our small farms of an average of 2.5 hectares each, it’s a challenge to a farmer to keep the land empty to allow for soil regeneration, especially if you live off farming. While we have other crops that are now being grown hydroponically or out of the soil in other areas, like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, the same can’t yet be done with apples. At the Institute, we are aware that attention to soil is very important, and our research emphasises soil health, preservation and power.
How is the Research Centre Laimburg preparing to meet the challenges of the future, especially climate change?
Over the last two years, both internally, and with external scientific help, with the support of our stakeholders—from politicians to cooperatives—we’ve outlined our mission for the next decade and have identified five areas of research focus. For instance, South Tyrolean farmers can help mitigate climate change by reducing the number of times they go into the orchard with the tractor, or by eventually switching to electric tractors. We’re working on a project called Smartland, which measures the water needs in real time, so growers can irrigate more responsibly.
Twenty years ago, we never imagined that apples and wine could be grown at 1000 meters. Now they are. Maybe in the lower valley we’ll find that other interesting crops grow better, like kiwi berries and inter-specific pears, hazelnuts, alongside other crops which might be complementary to our two main crops. The wine industry, however, has many challenges with climate change, since sugar levels rise in increasingly warm areas.
Our aim is to contribute knowledge to local diversification. From a global marketing point of view, I am sure that apples will still be the main export product in 2030. But, since we have about eight or nine million tourists coming, it’s possible to imagine selling to them, and enlarging the kinds of crops that can be grown to feed this small market.
Another focus is on investing in circular economies. Using more bull or cow dung as fertilizer. Using compost, not just as fertilizer, but developing technologies to generate energy from the heat arising from the composting process. We’re also interested in more sustainable planting systems that makes spraying more efficient and sustainable, like the multi-axial, two-dimensional system of growing apples.
Cooperatives already have instituted systems whereby the grower receives real-time information via an app. But my fear is of family-owned farms giving up on manual picking and moving into robotised picking. There are already many areas that pick wine grapes with machines. You see some labels of wine that have signs that say ‘hand-picked’. It’s strange to see, because I grew up seeing wine being picked by hand. It looks like a joke—we need our growers to still do something, not just sit and look at an app!
Does the institute also archive farmers’ inherited intelligences?
One example was project, Gene Save, between South Tyrol and Tyrol, from 2003 to 2008. We tried to find and collect old cultivars of apple, cereals and vegetables. We did memory banking, noting what a particular variety was good for. We re-cultivated cereals and got people to make bread with it. With the old apple varieties, we reached out to restaurants and gave them samples from our collections to innovate dishes. Though these varieties are not so good for the global markets, there is a place for them. We have 120 different varieties of apple in our collection at Laimburg. They have their own special names, with their own history. They are categorised, and we provide clean and true to type propagation material. We are constantly open to participating in initiatives that bring back our social-cultural heritage. We believe in preserving by using. We don’t want to be a museum. Every year we give grafts to kids from the school, so they can grow their own varieties. The other interest we have is in bringing together experiences and discussing them so we can make better recommendations to the grower. When a grower says they did something particular and it was successful, we collect these experiences and make this knowledge available to other growers.