Panorama view of Italian farm

Exploring Food Systems in Southern Italy

By Linda Porter and Brenda Noah, Marion County Master Gardeners

Olive tree, one of several Italian crops

Photo courtesy of Linda Porter

Visitors to Italy often return praising the food, wine, and hospitality of the people. The Florida Master Gardeners who recently enjoyed the Exploring Food Systems in Southern Italy trip got a deeper insight into the agricultural processes behind those delectable dishes. The Mediterranean climate is considerably drier than that of Florida, but there are a number of similarities that make typical Italian crops suitable for Florida.

We visited farms producing pomegranates, apples, lemons, and, of course, olives and grapes. The pride and enthusiasm of the farmers for their way of life was evident as we were shown the latest equipment and scientific techniques in use alongside more traditional methods. The interest in organic and sustainable farming is strong. Quality of the harvest is very important.

We were so impressed by our visit to the Cairo and Doutcher Farm near Lecce. Mr. Cairo himself showed us his extensive greenhouse operations where he grows a variety of plants for use in his own fields and for sale as nursery stock. Severe weather, particularly wind and hail, are a major concern in the area, so much of the plant material is grown under cover. We were introduced to the idea of “protected agriculture,” a theme that was repeated throughout our travels. We enjoyed a generous farm to table lunch with fresh pomegranate juice, squeezed to order. The pomegranate variety, “Wonderful,” is enormous, juicy, and very flavorful. The fresh product is so much better than anything sold in a bottle. Learn more about growing pomegranates in Florida at https://crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/pomegranates/

Harvesting apples in an Italian orchard.

Photo courtesy of Linda Porter

One of our favorite stops was the apple orchards near Alberobello. The farm has 15,000 apple trees in a fairly compact area. The trees are planted just a few feet apart, in rows, and are espaliered into a conical shape for ease of picking. We were encouraged to pick apples ourselves as we followed our guide. While the farm grows several varieties of apples, we saw mainly the Gala apples and a new variety called Red Love. The apple juice and apple cake we were offered were so refreshing.

Olives and their products have been a significant part of Mediterranean culture since prehistoric times. Unfortunately, olive trees in southernmost Italy have been afflicted by an insect-spread plant pathogen called Xylella fastidiosa. The European strain of this bacterium has not been found in the United States, but, unfortunately, the insect vector is a leafhopper commonly found in Florida. We saw olive trees documented as being more than 2,000 years old still growing near oil processing workshops built by the ancient Greeks. Learn more about pests of olives at http://nwdistrict.ifas.ufl.edu/phag/2016/10/14/potential-pests-and-diseases-of-olives-in-florida/

We visited a lemon grove clinging to limestone terraces above the astonishingly beautiful Amalfi Coast. The terrain is almost unbelievably steep, with chic restaurants and pricey villas below the road and rows of lemon trees perched above. The Amalfi lemons are huge, grown organically, and sweet enough to eat out of hand. The fruit is so heavy that they are grown under and through pergolas to support their weight. We learned about the “flying farmers,” who run along the tops of the pergolas to harvest the lemons. Only the nimble need apply! We were given lemonade and samples of limoncello, a delicious lemon liqueur.

We returned to our Florida homes with new insights on what we can offer our Master Gardener Plant Clinic clients as food-producing plants. I predict a wave of new plantings of pomegranates and olives state-wide!