With a history as rich as its soils, the Vinschgau valley was once known as the Breadbasket of the Tirol, even supplying the Vatican and the British Royal Family with its exceptional grains, some of them grown at elevations of up to 1700 meters. The cutthroat competition of the international grain market eventually led to a plummeting of grain production in the area, until only a few seedsavers and stubborn farmers held onto a handful of seeds and fields dedicated to the valley’s traditional diet.

After raising three children, Edith and Robert Bernhard moved back to his hometown and assumed the task of collecting and sharing the region’s seeds, eventually building a storage facility or “seed bank” in their own basement. The couple also grows out hundreds of varieties of vegetables, grains, and herbs each year in six different trial gardens, including a spectacular display garden where they offer tours and workshops.

Their division of labor is marked by the soil surface: Robert cares for the health of the soil while Edith manages everything that springs forth. What began as lonely work has evolved into a true diaspora, a scattering of seed. Seed conservationists from across Europe seek out whatever advice and, of course, seeds they can acquire from these two pioneers. As apple production slowly creeps up the valley, pesticide drift threatens not only their livelihoods, but it also puts their entire collection of seeds at risk.

Seedsavers don’t think in terms of supposed instant fixes offered by pesticides. They think from the vantage point of years, generations, and even millennia—in the past and for the future. Edith is a Lebenskapselbewaherin (keeper of life capsules), a seed saver who preserves and catalogs the genetic material of vegetables, grains, herbs and flowers for later use.

As industrial agriculture quickly took hold in the Tirolean Alps, townspeople like Edith began saving seeds in their basements to preserve the genetic record of crops that had grown there for thousands of years.

This area used to be known as the “Granary of the Tirol.” A lot of crops grew here, from barley to oats, wheat to spelt, and most people baked in their own homes.”  

– Edith

“The European Union wants everything to be homogenous and look the same – but the old varieties have biodiversity,” she contends. How serious is the threat to biodiversity in this region? In the last century, 75% of crop varieties in the Vinschgau region have simply disappeared. Without people like Edith and her husband, Robert, many vital bio-regionally adapted crops that have developed here over thousands of years would be lost forever, which is a clear threat to a community’s nutritional security (Ernährungssicherheit) or a community’s ability to protect its food supply for generations to come.

When Garret Hardin, an evolutionary biologist, wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons”  in 1968, he showed how shared resources — like a public commons —are misused when individuals prioritize their needs over those of the community. This selfishness first diminishes then eventually destroys that precious, common resource. What will happen if one generation steals from coming generations by depleting seed banks, soil diversity, fertility, and promise … all through monoculture practices and the use of pesticides?

In the EU, over 400 pesticides are allowed: 77 of these are highly toxic. Who can guarantee how long these poisons persist in the soil and water?

“The cheaper our food, the less we ask the hard questions,” Robert notes. “A critical point for the future is that our children and grandchildren – the next generations – they will inherit poisoned earth with ruined soil. They have no foundation for healthy life if their soil is destroyed – and we don’t know how long it will take the soil to regenerate.”

In earlier times, towns defended themselves from invaders by building walls. How can these people defend themselves today when the enemy – pesticides – is carried in by the wind?

The greatest harm brought about by monocultures is the Verarmung, the impoverishment of the natural and cultural landscapes – through the disappearance of biodiversity. In monocultures that spray pesticides, one can’t find the diversity of animal and plant life above or below ground that used to be there. The natural balance is lost.”

– Robert

TRADITIONS NEED GOOD SOIL

Christoph Höhenegger is helping to lead a new movement of farmers who have rediscovered the region’s traditional grains in hopes of building both healthy soil and new organic markets for future generations.

After years of conventional dairy farming, Christoph sold his herd and began retracing the practices of his ancestors, first by gathering seeds from the Bernhards’ seed bank and other farmers, and then planting traditional grains steeped in local history, grains with shorter, thicker stems uniquely adapted to withstand the intense Vinschgerwind that blows down from the surrounding mountains.

Christoph and his network of concerned farmers are also developing new markets, which requires educating consumers. “It’s a different kind of grain from what most modern consumers are accustomed to,” Christoph explains. “The new grains [used in industrial food production] are bred for machines—they’re nice and round and easy to clean. Every grain is just like the other. The old varieties are a little longer and can’t be cleaned as easily because when you clean long grains, some may be sliced open. So there’s always a little of the hull left, making it look different when you go to buy it. Right now, some people aren’t ready to pay twice the price for it—but eventually, if it’s something good, something a bit older, they will. In the end, the food people choose to consume is a vote for what will happen in the future. When consumers ask for more organic products, that’s what farmers will grow.””

Beyond rebuilding local markets for these heritage grains, Christoph is also using new farming practices that re-build the soil itself. “When you have children,” he observes, “you want to leave them a healthy soil—it’s critical. Today it’s no longer a situation of owning the land and doing as you wish, extracting everything without replacing it. Instead, it’s good when you hold back a little and build up the soil, doing in one generation what it took nature 1000 years to accomplish.”

In rebuilding his soil, Christoph has encountered unexpected challenges. “Pesticides are a special chapter in our agricultural story,” he says. “These poisons shouldn’t have anything to do with our soils. The more you battle something, the more problems you face. New poisons and more research every year. It never works.”

It’s a story that repeats across the valley. When Eduard and Helga Marth inherited their farm, the “Migihof,” the inheritance included all of the skills needed to manage a small, diversified farm that could support the nutritional needs of their family and provide some supplemental income. But when Edith noticed her father-in-law spraying the roses near the vegetable plants as she was tending her young children, she also realized that pesticides had no role in traditional agriculture and no place on their farm.

The Marth family keep a few dairy cows, with whatever milk they don’t consume going to a local processor, and much like their ancestors they grow grains, potatoes, and an assortment of vegetables. They also grow old varieties of fruits in a traditional Streuobstwiese, a mixed orchard consisting of apples, plums, pears, apricots, and berries.

As apple orchards from neighboring towns slowly creep toward their village, the Marth family’s entire way of life is now under threat.

Ancient grains like spelt have been grown in Italy’s Südtirol region for thousands of years. In fact, seeds of spelt, Einkorn, emmer, barley and millet were found among the remains of Ötzi, the famous “Iceman” whose mummified body was discovered in the ice 5300 years after his death. Eduard grows and saves the seeds from these valuable heirloom grains to safeguard their genetics and preserve this region’s rich agricultural traditions, which is all the more reason that apple growers in the South Tirol must be held responsible for keeping their pesticides off neighboring grain fields, which include spelt, Einkorn, emmer and barley.

Good bread is very important for my family. We’ve baked our own bread for over 30 years. Bread can only be good if the grain is good, and the grain is only good when there are no pesticides in it.”

– Helga

The sourdough starter in the Schuster bakery is as old as Franz Schuster, one of two brothers gradually taking over their parents’ bakery. Franz grew up in the town of Mals and left to learn his craft but returned home to the local ingredients that he loved seeing grow in his valley and make their way into his artisan products. Rye, spelt, wheat, fennel, fenugreek, buckwheat—heritage grains and local herbs combined to create breads that three generations of Schuster’s have sold in their traditionally primitive forms, to the delight of tourists as well as locals. Trading those crops for apples and tainted grains makes little sense for the family, so they buy local and organic products as much as possible.

Schüttelbrot is a bread borne out of great adversity. People living in this remote, mountainous region depended on a range of food production techniques, ranging from the curing of meat to the preparation of breads with long shelf lives that were only baked two to three times per year. Today, Franz continues the tradition that is now under threat. “It’s always beautiful when I can see where a product comes from,” he says, “and when I know the farmer personally and see how the grain was produced.”

peering beyond the edge of their plates

Evelyne Piergentili is a mother who found herself retracing her family’s food traditions when she and her son both developed serious food allergies. With the help of her mother, who grew up on a subsistence farm in Mals where her family produced almost everything they ate, Evelyne was able to look over the edge of her plate and see the disappearing connections between food traditions and nutritional health.

I’ve learned so much unconsciously from my mother because she always had a garden and made so much of her own food,” Edith observes, “but I never really understood how important it was. My son and I are now trying to find our way back to these old roots, which is important because children are losing self-confidence in part because they have too little faith in nature. They need to reconnect with nature and learn from their communities about the disappearance of food and farming wisdom.”

Making those discoveries didn’t anchor her to the kitchen—to the contrary, finding the traditional foods made from local, organic products put Evelyne into close contact with people she might never have known. Her spelt bread comes directly from women at her town’s Wednesday farmers market. As for animal products, she only buys from farmers she knows and who can warrant the humane treatment of their animals. Her eggs comes from a nearby woman, and like her mother, Evelyne’s yard now includes a vegetable garden for her family.

Her personal journey to seek out healthy, ecologically-responsible food eventually led to Evelyne’s involvement in a local movement of concerned Mals residents, people who recognized the threat pesticides posed for their own food system.

NEXT: the story of how Evelyne and a group of “accidental activists” succeeded in their unlikely quest to topple Goliath.