The Art of Permaculture in Central Italy

The advice of a friendly neighbor inspired the founders of the Italian company Carma to choose a sustainable path to success.

Boston Ivy on Carma's mill allows light in the witner and provides shade in the summer. (Photo: Carma)
By Lisa Anderson
Sep. 6, 2023 20:05 UTC
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Boston Ivy on Carma's mill allows light in the witner and provides shade in the summer. (Photo: Carma)

Developing a suc­cess­ful organic per­ma­cul­ture regime takes time, but the pro­duc­ers behind Carma have achieved an award-win­ning for­mula.

The cen­tral Italian pro­duc­ers earned two awards at the 2023 NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition – Gold and Silver for a pair of medium-inten­sity blends.

We believe that in the long run… (per­ma­cul­ture) will be (prof­itable). But if you want to make money quickly, my sug­ges­tion is to invest at the New York Stock Exchange. The suc­cess of a phi­los­o­phy has no price.- Giulio di Gropello, chief exec­u­tive, Carma

The time it took them to reach the NYIOOC is in line with their com­pany name, which became their iden­tity and a goal after the com­pany was founded in 2000.

The three founders named their new busi­ness Carma fol­low­ing a neigh­bor’s advice to do things calmly, or in his words con carma… molta carma.

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The trio had big plans, but their neigh­bor was telling them not to be in a hurry because, in nature, good things come to those who take their time.

Carma founder and chief exec­u­tive Giulio di Gropello told Olive Oil Times they are very selec­tive in the extra vir­gin olive oil qual­ity con­tests they choose to enter.

The basic idea is really to have our work eval­u­ated by out­siders to con­firm the cor­rect pat­tern of our phi­los­o­phy cor­rob­o­rated by the analy­sis that we make of our prod­ucts,” Di Gropello said.

It is impor­tant for us to have a reli­able out­side orga­ni­za­tion eval­u­ate the result of our efforts,” he added. In this respect, we have ana­lyzed the NYIOOC’s work over the years and estab­lished that their feed­back would be impor­tant for us.”

However, sus­tain­abil­ity is more than a mar­ket­ing strat­egy for the founders of Carma, who adopted a per­ma­cul­ture phi­los­o­phy from the out­set.

We ana­lyzed a report by Greenpeace over 35 years ago. We knew what was com­ing,” Di Gropello said, refer­ring to cli­mate change.

The founders decided on the per­ma­cul­ture route based on their belief that nur­tur­ing the nat­ural envi­ron­ment handed down by their ances­tors would make a small impact on cli­mate change but serve as a promi­nent exam­ple to oth­ers.

We use very lit­tle fer­til­iz­ers, which are obvi­ously organic,” he said. But also on the pack­ag­ing, we use only nat­ural prod­ucts such as paper and glass, no plas­tic wher­ever fea­si­ble.”

We know that send­ing our prod­ucts all over the world pro­duces car­bon diox­ide,” Di Gropello added. So even if we start with very low emis­sions in the pro­duc­tion stage, once the prod­ucts reach their final des­ti­na­tion, car­bon diox­ide has been pro­duced.”

As a result, the com­pany restricts the num­ber of clients it sells, instead opt­ing to send larger vol­umes to fewer des­ti­na­tions to reduce emis­sions.

Climate change is a fact; nature will cope, but we must make the max­i­mum effort to reduce emis­sions,” Di Gropello said. The same phi­los­o­phy applied to the con­struc­tion mate­r­ial that we use in our hos­pi­tal­ity project.”

In prac­tice, we never touch the land where our olive trees are located,” he added. We never touch the nature sur­round­ing the plan­ta­tions, main­tain­ing the diver­sity. We reuti­lize all the branches pruned from our olive and other trees by frag­ment­ing them and leav­ing these in the land to fer­til­ize it.”

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The com­pany also uses the solid byprod­ucts from the olive milling process – olive pomace – as a nat­ural fer­til­izer for the trees.

We nat­u­rally have a very fer­tile land, although it takes many more years than using – even organic – fer­til­iz­ers,” Di Gropello said.

Carma also relies on don­keys to cut the grass, opt­ing for a nat­ural sym­bio­sis instead of fos­sil fuel-pow­ered trac­tors.

They clean and fer­til­ize the land nat­u­rally,” Di Gropello said. The trees are much hap­pier, and so are all the fauna and flora on the prop­erty.”

He added that the company’s groves are more fer­tile as well. We believe that, in gen­eral, the whole process is more har­mo­nious, a pre­req­ui­site to mak­ing a great prod­uct,” Di Gropello said.

Along with pro­mot­ing sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture, Di Gropello indi­cated that the company’s per­ma­cul­ture prac­tices are reflected in their extra vir­gin olive oil, which reached 500 micro­grams of polyphe­nols per kilo­gram for the first time in 2022.

He explained that all prod­ucts bought from exter­nal sources to improve the qual­ity and health of land and trees impact car­bon diox­ide lev­els.

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Traditional olive cultivars grow in the central Italian groves of Carma.

If you can obtain the same result with no exter­nal inter­ven­tion nat­u­rally, although it takes time, it will be bet­ter,” Di Gropello said.

Di Gropello’s vision for Carma was inspired by a paint­ing he saw many years ago in an art gallery in London.

When Di Gropello was work­ing there as a stock­bro­ker in 1978, he used to visit art gal­leries over week­ends. He was par­tic­u­larly inspired by a paint­ing by artist J.M.W. Turner called Italian Landscape, prob­a­bly Civita di Bagnoregio, which por­trayed an extra­or­di­nary and untamed land­scape.

Di Gropello decided to visit Civita di Bagnoregio in Italy’s Lazio region as soon as pos­si­ble. When he vis­ited a few years later, he met the Pizzo fam­ily, who owned a ruin that they used to shel­ter their ani­mals and har­vests.

The Pizzos sold the ruin to Di Gropello while they con­tin­ued tend­ing to their Leccino trees on the adja­cent prop­erty. Di Gropello ren­o­vated the build­ing, and the Pizzo fam­ily worked on their goal to become extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­ers.

Di Gropello learned about olivi­cul­ture from the Pizzos. Their youngest son Gianluca assisted Di Gropello with mak­ing extra vir­gin olive oil.

Di Gropello real­ized that con­trol­ling the pro­duc­tion process was essen­tial to pro­duc­ing supe­rior-qual­ity oil. He would need his own olive mill, but this would only be eco­nom­i­cally viable if he owned more trees.

The oppor­tu­nity pre­sented itself in 2000 when aban­doned land with about 600 trees came up for sale nearby. Together with the young Pizzo and Henry Charles Scio (who pulled out a few years later due to time con­straints), Di Gropello founded Carma.

Di Gropello’s dream of Carma’s olive press became a real­ity. Our mill has been built under­ground to take advan­tage of the nat­ural tem­per­a­ture,” Di Gropello said.

The façade faces the west and is made from trans­par­ent glass blocks, invented by renowned archi­tect Renzo Piano, who designed the Maison Hermès, a build­ing in Tokyo, using the same bricks.

Carma’s olive mill is cov­ered with Boston Ivy, an Asiatic plant that is green in sum­mer, red in autumn and dor­mant in win­ter. So when we har­vest, the mill is full of light, and we do not need elec­tri­cal light­ing. In the sum­mer, we do not need air con­di­tion­ing,” Di Gropello said.

Today, Carma has 7,000 trees in Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany, and some of their trees are cen­turies old.

Our cul­ti­vars are typ­i­cal of cen­tral Italy, mostly Leccino, Frantoio, Moraiolo, Maurino and some autochtho­nous vari­eties where the name has been lost over time,” Di Gropello said.

Out of this, we pro­duce a monocul­ti­var, two blends and a super blend every year,” he added.

Ten years after Carma was founded, as a means to have the qual­ity of their extra vir­gin olive oils eval­u­ated, they started sub­mit­ting sam­ples to be ranked in respected extra vir­gin olive oil guides.

In 2017, they started par­tic­i­pat­ing in inter­na­tional extra vir­gin qual­ity con­tests, win­ning their first award at the AVPA Paris con­test.

Di Gropello said they believe being listed in olive oil guides and win­ning awards does not make a big dif­fer­ence from a com­mer­cial per­spec­tive because con­sumers eval­u­ate a food prod­uct based on fla­vor.

But for us, it is very impor­tant to have an out­side spe­cial­ist point of view,” he said. Extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duc­ers are always con­vinced they are pro­duc­ing the best prod­uct. We believe that there is always a mar­gin for improve­ment.”

Carma cel­e­brated its 20th anniver­sary in 2020, com­mem­o­rat­ing Di Gropello’s love for art and the envi­ron­ment. The com­pany asked three artists to cre­ate twenty art­works and to choose three projects focused on sus­tain­abil­ity to donate the pro­ceeds of the sales of their works.

Di Gropello described the project as suc­cess­ful; all the pieces sold, and the cel­e­bra­tion also proved the eco­nomic sus­tain­abil­ity of Carma’s per­ma­cul­ture phi­los­o­phy.

We believe that in the long run – all farm­ers have a long-term view – it will be,” he said. But if you want to make money quickly, my sug­ges­tion is to invest at the New York Stock Exchange.”

The suc­cess of a phi­los­o­phy has no price,” he con­cluded.


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