Letter from an Agronomist Colleague
to his Parents
in Australia

Dear Diane and Robin:

Was good to talk to you the other day, and as promised I am writing about an Olive Development Project I was involved in.

A couple of Spring seasons ago while working on a development project, uncovering the mysteries of Turkish horticulture on its sunny south coast, surrounded by ancient city ruins dating back to about 2000 years B.C., I got to know our FAO/World Bank Cooperative Programme mission leader, who told me of his personal development Project in Tuscany where he has an old farm house that he and his family have been developing over recent years.

We talked on matters relating to improvements he could make to his country estate. It consists of about two hectares of isolated countryside covered in Chestnuts, Cherries, Oaks, Olives and Figs on a spur of land with Etruscan tomb-like structure carved into the ancient volcanic rock (now more commonly used for storing garden tools than dearly departed loved ones). At the base are cool perennial streams.

The family and I have subsequently become good friends with Chris who invited my involvement in this Project. I was delighted. We treated the whole affair as one would if preparing a development project for the World Bank (that is, we went through the classic project cycle of identification, preparation, appraisal and implementation - implementation completion report is still to follow). It may seem like a bit of overkill for an expansion of his olive grove by only 13 trees (plus one for our balcony), but indeed it was an expansion of about 20% and therefore significant. Most of the agronomic aspects I covered while Chris did the financial analysis. We collaborated over estimates of inputs. One of the inputs was the labour required for the planting of the trees, and I conservatively estimated that it would take about two hours to plant a tree (includes associated work, like carrying the tools and tree to the site, installation of irrigation, etc.). Well - we FAO/World Bank experts got our estimates wrong.

There were three of us standing on the rainy wind swept slope that was to be the site of the olive grove. Chris, myself and a 67 year old Tuscan peasant, Pietro, who was helping us with the implementation of the Project. Pietro, the architypical Tuscan peasant farmer, is short with a spreading mid-rift, incredibly strong, and displays a pleasant and happy disposition, partly accounted for by his habit of drinking about a litre of home made wine for lunch each day.

We faced the prospect of digging the holes for the trees each in his own individual way. Chris with enthusiastic innocence, I with enthusiastic innocence tempered with some wisdom acquired by planting many trees in the past, and Pietro with wisdom.

Here I digress to give some background on Tuscans, which bears particular relevance to Pietro, who I came to know during the course of that day as a most extraordinary man. Visiting Etruscan sites demonstrates similarities between modern Tuscans and the Etruscans of the VI. to III. centuries B.C. The carved figures of the ancient sarcophagi and frescoed profiles of Tarquinia show non-Italic physical characteristics similar to today's Tuscans, prompting archaeologists, geneticists and molecular biologists to investigate the connections between them. It seems likely that DNA from ancient burials will show that the Etruscans and modern day Tuscans share common genetic features not shared by other Italians. This is not surprising, the Tuscans have a saying - born in the Tufo. Most buildings are made of Tufo, and agriculture is in and on the Tufo. Tufo is probably the most distinguishing feature of the landscape. It seems to me that the Darwinian process of natural selection would result in the people of the Tufo developing characteristics conducive to living in the Tufo. It certainly appeared that way with Pietro.

We each commenced to work. Pietro was the only one of us who truly knew the nature of the task ahead of us. Once the surface couple of centimetres of top soil had been scraped away it revealed the Tufo, and it was into this rock that we proceeded to dig holes of one metre in volume for each tree (this being the traditional way of planting trees in Tuscany).

My estimates for the labour requirement for tree planting were out by a factor of four. Each hole took one man day to dig, but worse than merely being out in labour estimates, Pietro excavated his hole with an ease developed over many years, perhaps generations, while Chris and I struggled and suffered over the same task. Next day I could hardly walk, let alone dig another hole. Fortunately, when we had recovered, our respective work commitments saved us from further embarrassment with Pietro as we had to return to Rome and places abroad while Pietro was left to dig the other ten holes (which he no doubt did with consummate ease) during the following weeks.

Now the trees have been planted, the irrigation system has been installed and the aching muscles have recovered, and I look back on the Project with fondness and a feeling that I was not working alongside a modern day Italian but an ancient Etruscan who was born in the Tufo.

That's all for now, I'll write again soon.


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