Farmers on Small Italian Islands Restore Ancient Groves and Local Production

Growers on Giglio Island and Capri are restoring centuries-old olive trees to revive a fading culture and protect unique island landscapes.

Carlo Alessandro Lelj Garolla, coordinator of Oro di Capri in an olive grove in Anacapri (Photo: Umberto D'Aniello)
By Ylenia Granitto
Jan. 31, 2024 00:16 UTC
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Carlo Alessandro Lelj Garolla, coordinator of Oro di Capri in an olive grove in Anacapri (Photo: Umberto D'Aniello)

Italy’s small Mediterranean islands are trea­sure troves of nat­ural and cul­tural won­ders. Some, now known as pop­u­lar hol­i­day des­ti­na­tions, were once set­tled by peas­ants who prac­ticed sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture. Until the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, it was com­mon to find expanses of cul­ti­vated olive groves and active olive presses on most inhab­ited islets.

L’Oro di Capri cre­ated a bond that unites the pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil with the safe­guard­ing of the region and the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the com­mu­nity.- Carlo Alessandro Lelj Garolla, coor­di­na­tor, L’Oro di Capri

Yet, when tourism boomed and the local econ­omy changed, they were grad­u­ally aban­doned. Today, some island farm­ers in the Tyrrhenian Sea are reviv­ing the cul­ti­va­tion of olive trees and pro­duc­tion of extra vir­gin olive oil with a par­tic­u­lar focus on recov­er­ing ancient trees and restor­ing soil and land­scape.

We made the first har­vest in 2021,” said Francesco Bancalà, who pro­duces Olio Goffo on Giglio Island in Tuscany.

See Also:Tuscany Announces Funds to Prevent Olive Grove Abandonment

I had been think­ing for some years of run­ning a farm with my fam­ily, but there was a bit of inde­ci­sion because we already had another job,” he added. Eventually, I found great sup­port in my wife Stefania Pellegrini and my cousin Emanuele Bancalà, and with them, I started to restore our almost 300 olive trees.”

One of the seven islands of the Tuscan arch­i­pel­ago, Giglio cov­ers 21 square kilo­me­ters and is located nearly 16 kilo­me­ters off the region’s south­ern coast.

Fewer than 1,500 peo­ple live year-round on the island, char­ac­ter­ized by hilly ter­rain, steep ter­races that slope toward smooth, pale gran­ite cliffs, and a few sandy beaches much sought-after by vaca­tion­ers dur­ing the warmest months.

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Emanuele and Francesco Bancalà in the groves of Olio Goffo (Photo by Federico Burgalassi)

An olive mill has been oper­at­ing on the island until the mid-1990s,” Bancalà said. Our ances­tors landed on these coasts between 1560 and 1570, and after­ward, they were most likely engaged in olive farm­ing.”

Indeed, today, we are tak­ing care of trees that have been passed down to us from our great-grand­fa­ther, who pro­duced olive oil,” he added. The com­pa­ny’s name is a trib­ute to him; Goffo is the nick­name by which he was known in the vil­lage.”

Agriculture, pri­mar­ily viti­cul­ture, has always been vital for the econ­omy of Giglio, which was also home to a pyrite mine that pro­vided work to more than 300 islanders from 1938 to 1962. Then, in the 1960s, tourism started devel­op­ing and grad­u­ally sup­planted the other activ­i­ties – for sev­eral years, only some vil­lagers con­tin­ued cul­ti­vat­ing the land.

Over the past two decades, a renewed enthu­si­asm for farm­ing began to spread on the island. In the early 2000s, some entre­pre­neurs rein­tro­duced Ansonaco (the local dialect for Ansonica) wine, made from an autochtho­nous white grape, onto the mar­ket.

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The producers behind Olio Goffo are working to restore centenarian olive groves. (Photo by Federico Burgalassi)

In 2017, a local coop­er­a­tive installed a lat­est-gen­er­a­tion olive mill used by local grow­ers to pro­duce olive oil for domes­tic con­sump­tion.

After hav­ing recov­ered our plots, we started ask­ing fel­low vil­lagers if we could man­age their lands through a rental agree­ment,” Bancalà said. Our work has been highly appre­ci­ated, and sev­eral own­ers of olive groves ended up ask­ing us to take care of their trees.”

Today, this has become an impor­tant project for us since most olive trees are cen­turies old and rep­re­sent a true her­itage,” he added. At the same time, we pre­serve the ter­races and man­age the land sus­tain­ably, using only organic fer­til­iz­ers.”

Usually, the team car­ries out a dras­tic reform prun­ing of the trees to restore their veg­e­ta­tive-pro­duc­tive bal­ance after years of neglect. They take two or three years to become pro­duc­tive again.

We have cleaned up some plots where the olive trees could not even be seen since they were sub­merged by veg­e­ta­tion,” Bancalà said. Moreover, some trees can grow eight meters tall. We prune them all accord­ing to the poly­conic vase sys­tem and make them lower, up to a max­i­mum of three meters. Those reformed a cou­ple of years ago are start­ing to bear fruit again.”

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Stunning sea views turned Giglio from an agriculture-based to a tourism-based economy. (Photo by Federico Burgalassi)

Leccino is the most wide­spread vari­ety in the orchard, and some ancient Nocellara del Belice trees can also be found – orig­i­nally from Sicily, this vari­ety was most likely brought by sea­far­ers in past cen­turies and has taken root well.

The team now man­ages 750 trees and has planned field vis­its to eval­u­ate the con­di­tions of four new plots to take over in the com­ing weeks.

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The oper­a­tions are not easy due to the steep slopes and irreg­u­lar­ity of the ter­rain,” Bancalà said. It is impos­si­ble to use vehi­cles, and the har­vest is done by hand. Since some trees are even ten min­utes walk­ing dis­tance from the main road where we park the van, car­ry­ing the bins full of olives can be quite stren­u­ous.”

Last year, the fruits were crushed at the state-of-the-art Frantoio di Montalcino in the main­land province of Siena. After the har­vest, the olives were loaded onto a ferry for a one-hour trip to Porto Santo Stefano. Once dis­em­barked, they took a fur­ther jour­ney by road of an hour and a half to reach the facil­ity.

Despite the dif­fi­cul­ties, includ­ing the weather issues of the last few years, we main­tained high-qual­ity stan­dards and achieved great results that repay all the efforts. Added to this is the aware­ness of the land­scape and envi­ron­men­tal value of our work,” Bancalà said.

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Francesco Bancalà tends to a newly-planted tree on the Tuscan island of Giglio. (Photo by Federico Burgalassi)

Capri is located roughly 200 nau­ti­cal miles south, one of the five islands of the Campanian arch­i­pel­ago on the edge of the Gulf of Naples. With its 10 square kilo­me­ters, it has almost 14,000 inhab­i­tants who live in two munic­i­pal­i­ties: the homony­mous town of Capri in the east and Anacapri in the west.

Our asso­ci­a­tion was formed to pro­tect the island’s olive groves,” said Carlo Alessandro Lelj Garolla, a land­scaper agron­o­mist and the coor­di­na­tor of the asso­ci­a­tion L’Oro di Capri. This safe­guard­ing action fur­ther ben­e­fits those who par­tic­i­pate in the pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil.”

The project began in 2012 when Gianfranco D’Amato started ren­o­vat­ing a plot of land and hired the com­pany run by Pierluigi Della Femmina to restore some dry stone walls. Today, they are the asso­ci­a­tion’s hon­orary pres­i­dent and pres­i­dent, respec­tively.

One day, while walk­ing in the restored plots at the end of the work and com­ment­ing on the great results of the restora­tion, we came up with the idea of recov­er­ing all the aban­doned lands of the area and the olive trees grow­ing on them,” Lelj said.

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L’Oro di Capri’s team harvests recovered olive groves in Anacapri. (Photo: Giuseppe Rosato)

We began by announc­ing the project to the com­mu­nity,” he added. The ini­tial skep­ti­cism quickly turned into a real com­mit­ment. Locals and reg­u­lar vis­i­tors grasped the pro­jec­t’s impor­tance and now actively sup­port it.”

The olive tree and the vine were once sta­ple crops in Anacapri. Villagers also used to grow veg­etable crops, legumes and cere­als to feed their ani­mals. In the past cen­turies, when most of the island’s inhab­i­tants were sub­sis­tence farm­ers, olive oil was used to barter for other goods and ser­vices.

The econ­omy of Anacapri has always been based on agri­cul­ture,” Lelj said. The access to the sea is too per­ilous to guar­an­tee safe and con­ve­nient fish­ing, and this has favored the rural work.”

Olive groves are wide­spread along the coast, from the Grotta Azzura (widely known as the Blue Grotto) in the north­west to the light­house in the south­west, at an alti­tude between 30 and 200 meters above sea level.

As tourism boomed in the mid-1960s, many islanders ded­i­cated them­selves to tourist activ­i­ties flour­ish­ing in the east of the island, result­ing in a lack of gen­er­a­tional turnover in agri­cul­ture.

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Efforts are underway on Capri to reinvigorate the island’s historic olive oil industry. (Photo: Umberto D’Aniello)

So far, we have suc­ceeded in recov­er­ing about 30 hectares of groves, and we usu­ally man­age to restore one or two hectares every year,” Lelj said, spec­i­fy­ing that they not only clean up the land, prune the trees and main­tain the ter­races but also plant new olive trees.

We added approx­i­mately 700 trees to replen­ish the sparser orchards,” he said. We have cho­sen the vari­eties indi­cated by the prod­uct spec­i­fi­ca­tion of the Penisola Sorrentina PDO, whose pro­duc­tion area com­prises the ter­ri­tory of Capri, namely Minucciola, typ­i­cal of the island, along with Rotondella, Frantoio and Leccino.”

lmost all the recov­ered olive trees are cen­turies old. Currently, the Italian National Research Council (CNR) is car­ry­ing out a project for the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of these ancient trees. The newly pub­lished study revealed that some of them has a unique genetic iden­tity now in the process of being cat­a­logued.

After con­sult­ing with Angelo Loconte, who helped us to pro­duce a pre­mium prod­uct, we decided to press the fruits at Fattoria Ambrosio, a state-of-the-art mill in Cilento,” Lelj said. Then, at the end of the har­vest day, we bring the olives by ferry to the main­land, and they are crushed in a mat­ter of hours.”

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Olive groves recovered by the association L’Oro di Capri in Anacapri. (Photo: Umberto D’Aniello)

Today, the asso­ci­a­tion has 50 mem­bers who pro­tect the land­scape and pro­duce olive oil for their con­sump­tion. Eight of these grow­ers have cre­ated brands being dis­trib­uted on the mar­ket.

Several projects are under­way with a par­tic­u­lar focus on chil­dren and teenagers. Among these is the col­lab­o­ra­tion with the munic­i­pal­ity of Anacapri to give fam­i­lies with chil­dren wean­ing a sup­ply of extra vir­gin olive oil.

We are con­stantly work­ing with schools to pro­mote envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion and qual­ity aware­ness,” Lelj said. We take the kids to pick olives dur­ing har­vest and visit the orchards through­out the year. We also planted olive trees with them. Moreover, we orga­nize olive oil tast­ing work­shops with the cater­ing school stu­dents.”

Furthermore, the asso­ci­a­tion par­tic­i­pates in the European Union’s Erasmus Program through the com­pre­hen­sive school of Anacapri with other European minor islands. The par­tic­i­pants visit the olive groves and attend the activ­i­ties orga­nized by the asso­ci­a­tion.

Olive oil pro­duc­tion under­lies a large-scale project that includes sev­eral actions, from the edu­ca­tion in respect for the envi­ron­ment to the pro­mo­tion of healthy lifestyles,” Lelj said. Indeed, L’Oro di Capri cre­ated a bond that unites the pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil with the safe­guard­ing of the region and the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of the com­mu­nity.”


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