How climate threatens lemon farming on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

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Amalfi, Italy (CNN) — Above the green hills of the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, an agile farmer flies among lemon trees overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Balancing between one wooden pole and another, the young acrobat defies gravity, bending down to pick lemons and carry them in boxes that weigh more than 25 kilograms (55 pounds) between vertical gardens more than 400 meters (1,312 feet) above the ground. .

A strong scent of rosemary surrounds it, combined with jasmine, sage, and, of course, the unique sour scent of citrus. The sound of the waves below covers the hum of the traffic and the noise from the tourists in the main square of the UNESCO-protected town of Amalfi.

“It’s not blood, but lemon juice runs through my veins,” said Gigino Aceto, an 87-year-old farmer whose family has been growing lemons here since the 1800s.

From dawn to dusk, Aceto’s life revolves around lemons. He sleeps in his lemons and eats lemon food. He was raised among these plants.

“In the old days of my parents, the lack of space and intimacy, love was made outside, under the citrus trees,” he said with a smile.

Uppercase letter

Small fruit: Amalfi lemons are known for their large size.

Small fruit: Amalfi lemons are known for their large size.

Federico Angeloni

Lemons are the beating heart of this complex, biodiverse landscape, which has been undisturbed for centuries. But Aceto is one of the last guardians of this humble tradition threatened by technology, social change and climate change.

The great Sfusato or Amalfi lemon is grown in the area that runs along the Tyrrhenian Sea between Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. One lemon can weigh up to three kilograms.
About 2,000 metric tons are now harvested every year around the Amalfi Coast, according to local statistics, but studies show that these lemon areas have been in decline for over 60 years. gone

“In Amalfi alone, the lemon lands have decreased from 72 hectares to 48 between 1954 and 2015, although the forests and urbanization have made great progress,” said Giorgia De Pasquale, an author and researcher at the University of Rome Tre, looking for ways to protect the family. lemon growing industry.

De Pasquale is working to obtain the status of “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System” for the lemon groves of Amalfi – a designation under a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization program.

“The process in Amalfi is the same as on the coast,” he said.

A medicine for everything

With its light-yellow color, strong aroma, sweet texture and sweet skin – which can be eaten like an apple – the Sfusato has become an important ingredient in the traditional cuisine of the area.

It is used in pasta dishes, sauces for salads and grilled fish, desserts – not to mention the famous Limoncello liqueur of Italy. And because of its properties – it is rich in vitamins C, B, E, potassium and magnesium – the inhabitants of the coast have found many uses, from cleaning clothes to natural medicine. .

“The first thing we do when we wake up with a headache is put a lemon peel in our morning coffee,” explains Aceto. “When we cut ourselves, we run to get a lemon to clean up.

Brought here in the Middle Ages in trade with the Arabs, lemons were used by sailors, especially in Northern Europe, to fight scurvy. They worked together to fight cholera in Naples in the 1950s.

But it is not only the food and medicinal properties that make Sfusati important in the area. The traditional agricultural system – a remarkable 15th century example of man and nature working together – has proven to be resilient to climate change.

Carving the wild cliffs overlooking the sea, the arrangement of the lemon trees avoids some of the worst problems of the area, namely the soils washed away by the rains and with fireworks.

“Farmers provide a system service to the entire country, protecting the coast from landslides and other disasters,” said De Pasquale. Without this agricultural industry, he added, the land of Amalfi and the entire coast would be lost, deteriorating every year.

‘It’s a disaster’

Lemon groves fill the steep slopes.

Lemon groves fill the steep slopes.

Federico Angeloni

Arranged in layers, the lemon trees are separated by walls three to seven meters high made of Macere – a local limestone resistant to soil pressure and impervious to rain. Even today, it is possible to go to the forest on foot or on mules.

A terracing system uses the force of gravity to direct rainwater to irrigate plants.

Posts of local chestnut wood are used to create a scaffold around the lemon trees to stand and allow the “flying farmers” – as they are called by the Italian writer Flavia Amabile – to walk. on trees for cutting, harvesting and storage. The plastic sheets protect the lemons from the outside wind and create an ideal microclimate.

“Everything works well with the land,” said Aceto’s 57-year-old son, Salvatore. However, he said, farmers are still struggling with man-made problems, not the least of which is the heat wave blamed on climate change.

“With frequent fires in the summer, it’s a disaster,” he said.

“Conservation of land is a collective effort. Lands are connected to each other. But today they are abandoned or become rest houses and empty structures.”

The low income and high costs of the traditional agricultural system pushed the Amalfitans out of the land, causing the walls to collapse. Tourism, which is reaching dangerous levels in the parts of Amalfi, has given them another source of income, perhaps easy.

“Work is hard here, unlike in the valley, but no one wants to do it again,” says Salvatore Aceto, his Neapolitan accent firm. “At the same time, they use simple methods, like cement [or] lime, which damages the soil, preventing soil erosion.”

A dead picture

In Minori, a town on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Stanley Tucci compares what he calls the best lemons in the world.

There is a risk, he says, that when his generation stops cultivating the land, the knowledge accumulated by local communities over the centuries could be completely lost.

“Most of the tourists who come to Amalfi don’t see this system on the other side of the highway,” explained De Pasquale, leaving the farmers cut off from the pouring tourist money. to the country.

In an attempt to solve that problem, Salvatore and his brother Marco, 56, created Lemon Tours, an agricultural tourism company that promotes the knowledge of the Sfusato and revives the traditions used by farm.

They lead groups of up to five people, spending hours among the lands that were built more than a thousand years ago, teaching them culinary skills such as cooking a lemon Scialatielli dish or sampling local honey.

“It’s easy to get a picture of the Amalfi Coast, but we don’t bow down to tourists and change our business,” said Salvatore. “We’re farmers, and that’s what we show.”

“By 5.30, my clothes are dirty, and my knees are tired. It’s a job that destroys you. These two faces of Amalfi – what you want tourists to see,” he said. , pointing up the slopes to the city. below. “And the real thing, the real life of the farmers.”

“Underneath it became something else.”

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