Taking on the stewardship of hundreds of olive trees when you've spent most of your working life in front of a computer (in my case design, photography, digital project management) is problematic. Farming on a small scale is typically not very mechanized and so quite physical . This can be a challenge for sedentary types. But the real problem is that you have no idea what you are doing. You need a teacher.
And with several hundred trees on multiple sloping hectares, you need manpower. No matter how well-equipped you are, in groves like ours planted with trees as old as ours a lot must be done by hand and it's a grind. A beautiful grind, for sure, but as the days lengthen, as the lymph starts flowing and the grass gets growing, unless working the groves is ALL you do, this is not a one-person job.
The two men who worked for my dad from the early 2000s until he became too sick to care about Poggiosole's acreage are older salt-of-the-earth types who had returned to farming after spending most of their working lives inside (vs outside). A lot of what they know was passed to them as youngsters from their fathers or grandfathers: men who worked the land 100 years ago, when working the land was still considered an alternative to factory or office work. Well-intentioned? Yes. Hard-working and heartfelt? Yes! But ask them to explain a practice, or suggest to them that something might be done differently, question even one of their methods, and things could get tense. Unlike my dad, who was almost 70 when he first set foot on Poggiosole and trusted his guys more or less blindly I need to understand, because I want, alongside whomever is helping me, to do and do right.
Enter Vittorio Ancillotti, a very tall 30-year-old gardener and tree pruner from the nearby city of Empoli. I met Vittorio through a local gardener named Emiliano, also under 40, who was too booked to help me on a regular basis, and was anyway more a lawn-and-ground-cover guy than a tree guy. I learned from Emiliano that there is a whole generation of young people who have studied forestry or agriculture and who speak of their work in a totally different way to the men my dad had employed (the new generation also expects a higher wage). When I showed Emiliano our outer olive grove and asked him who might help me with it, he suggested Vittorio. So around this time last year I asked Vittorio and two other candidates to each prune forty to fifty of our outer grove trees. I pruned alongside them, occasionally asking questions about what they were doing or advice regarding what I was doing. Vittorio seemed to me a happy combination of competence, teaching ability, and thoroughness. The trees Vittorio pruned didn't necessarily look the best, but they were re-formed (his term) according to a method he could clearly articulate and they were thoroughly re-formed. Clean and done, not something I'd have to revisit and retouch. I asked Vittorio to prune an additional 100 trees, and since last spring I've designated him Poggiosole's "master pruner".
When we launched our Kickstarter campaign last month, I listed Vittorio as a collaborator. In the campaign's final days, I cut together a short video (link also embedded in the hero image above) which shows Vittorio and me sitting or walking in Poggiosole's outer grove and discussing the nature of olive trees and some pruning basics (Vittorio advocates the polyconic pruning method). Our Kickstarter proceeds, up to the funding goal at least, will go about two-thirds towards a compact tractor and one-third towards the cost of Vittorio's labor this year, budgeted at around €9000. Well spent, I believe.