06 February 2011

Living Well On A Low Footprint - in Tuscany

Reposted in full from ZeroFootprint Foundation, 9 June 2010

'Global warming, apocalyptic movies about the future and discussions about the environment can sometimes be a drag. It often seems so dire that one wants to try and ignore the facts and carry on in our unsustainable ways, leaving the problem to future generations.

It doesn’t have to be so - and there is no better way to believe this than to experience it first hand.

Well, here I am in Tuscany at La Petraia, a farm that has been inhabited since the Etruscans called it home 2700 years ago. It’s current re-incarnation - the work of a dedicated, talented, Canadian couple with a vision - is an amazingly beautiful 175 acres in the heart of Tuscany’s Chianti Classico wine district.

Their vision is to create a farm that is truly sustainable and they grow 90% of their food, make their own wine, bake their bread in a wood fired-oven (the flour when they run out of their own comes from the Veneto region just 70 kilometers north) and source almost everything from locals. This is not the 100 mile diet - it is the 100 meter diet!

The bed frames and linens are made by a local families that have been in the businesses since the 19th century; the mattresses are stuffed with sheep’s wool sourced from the nearby Casentino Mountains. The candle holders come from “far” away - Milan.

They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables, watered with drip irrigation methods that waste little. They raise animals to feed their guests. This is not a vegetarian haven and you don’t have to wear Birkenstocks to enter. Women guests are admitted even with makeup in heels and shaved underarms.

One of the most interesting things I saw yesterday was the production of pork and how low a footprint it can have in this blessed part of the world.

The property sits on a hill with a view that is virtually identical to what it was 500 years ago - you can see Siena in the distance. The hills are covered with dense forests of oak and chestnut trees. To raise the pigs they have circled a large area of forest with a fence and the pigs roam the forests. 70% of their diet comes from what they can forage. There are relatively few pigs so it is all very happy here. The meat is produced with relatively low footprint in a sustainable fashion. They also have happy chickens that wander around outside and eat organic feed - same for the ducks, geese and rabbits. This makes everybody happy - the guests, the animals and the environment. I saw the chickens all voluntarily cuddling on their perch at bedtime.

The food is spectacular, the creation of Susan, the visionary and chef. She has a dedicated staff of apprentices from North America, learning how food should be sourced, prepared and eaten. Michael, the other half of the vision, takes care of managing the farm, deciding on where each fruit tree, vine, vegetable and stone should be placed - even where the winery should go. In his spare time he runs a hedge fund. And both have impeccable taste.

Clearly this is an expensive experiment. I see them as pioneers learning how to adapt our modern life-style and desire for conveniences, to one that has all the benefits but none of the extreme downside we are producing today. It is a pilot project, a work of love, but one that proves that sustainable living can be amazing. It is a model that one can learn from and adapt elsewhere. It shatters the myth that high-end needs to mean high footprint. And it doesn’t have to be only for the rich. The locals who work for Michael and Susan live simple versions of this same lifestyle.

This is what good sustainable living should be all about - beautiful, tasty and light on the world.'

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