TERRA MADRE – The Straus Family Goes To Italy

There is a diversity of food products out there that will stun and amaze you

We want to tell you about an extraordinarily amazing event we attended in October in Turin, Italy. Albert, Michael and I, Vivien Straus, were invited to attend an event called Terra Madre. 5,000 small-scale farmers, nomads, cheesemakers and fishermen from 128 countries were invited by Slow Food International, an organization that is working to build, support and maintain alternatives to large-scale industrial food production.

Farmers from countries we’d embarrassingly never heard of came in native costume bringing their crops and sharing their stories. There were men from Kyrgyzstan in tall white felt hats sampling out Yak ‘vodka’, milk and butter, a woman from Burkina Faso in West Africa sharing her dried caterpillars, and more vegetables, grains and animals shown in reality or in pictures than we ever knew existed.

There is a diversity of food products out there that will stun and amaze you. It makes you realize how limited our vision of food is.

For four days workshops, were held where farmers told the outlay of their farm, their history, their challenges and their passions. We were given headphones. Translators worked around the clock in seven different languages. We milled around between workshops, introduced ourselves and tried to communicate and connect.

Besides the farmers, one very interesting aspect of the event was to see the support of the Italian government. The government sponsored the trips of many of the farmers from less-developed nations. The government put up much of the financial support for this event including flying and housing and feeding many of the participants. Participants stayed in the homes of local farmers in and around the town.

The Minister of Forestry and Agriculture for Italy spoke to all of us without a written speech, speaking from his heart, damning GMOs and gave passionate and soaring support for small farmers. It was something we rarely experience in the US, where policy and business work together to promote and support large-scale farming.

The final speaker of the four days was Prince Charles, an organic farmer himself, who spoke of the need to bring both the organic farmers and the small-scale farmers together.

As we stood in awe of where we were and the once-in-a-lifetime connection we as farmers were making (like the UN of food with REAL farmers), we wondered what lessons we should be taking home with us.

I came away with a few thoughts. One is how wonderful it is to have farmers talk to each other. It’s a rare thing. Farmers are usually loners and keep their practices and problems to themselves.

I thought again how important it is to protect the diversity of the land and our crops. We must work with nature. Farmers and food producers have thousands of years of experience in working with nature and not against it. We must take advantage of that. We should have farmers set policies and not politicians and economists. Scientific research must work with farmers. We should listen to the skills and knowledge that farmers protect and pass on.

And finally, I’ll share one conversation that I had. I was standing next to a farmer from Zimbabwe and I introduced myself. He was a tea and jam producer. He said to me, “We have never seen people like you before. White people.” That in itself, stunned me. Then he continued, “We have always been seen as ‘Poor African Farmers’. Now, here we are, getting respect.”

I suddenly realized that there was a reason to be here. That we were here to support and encourage each other; to realize we are all in the same boat with our own unique struggles.

I replied to this man, “Well, we don’t have water on our place. We need to drill for it.” I meant to show him how we are more alike than different. His eyes lit up. “Oh! You don’t have electricity either?” Okay. So, maybe we’re not completely alike. But one thing is for sure. We all love and respect the land.

Vivien Straus runs the Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy in western Marin County, just north of San Francisco

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