Restoring Abandoned Olive Trees at Leonardo da Vinci's Home

A startup focused on restoring abandoned olive groves has adopted three hectares of trees around the House of Leonardo, with plans to expand.

Nov. 15, 2021
By Paolo DeAndreis

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Efforts are under­way to restore the long-aban­doned olive trees located around the birth­place of Leanardo da Vinci in Montalbano, Tuscany.

The recov­ery of the trees and many other aban­doned groves in the cen­tral Italian region is the goal of a recently founded agri­cul­tural startup that focuses on restor­ing his­toric olive orchards.

We decided to start this project because there are so many aban­doned orchards. Official data show that in the whole of Tuscany, there are around four mil­lion trees that need to be recov­ered and restored.- Tommaso Dami, founder, Ager Oliva

Olive trees have grown in Tuscany and Vinci, a small town just west of Florence, since their intro­duc­tion in the Fifth or Sixth cen­turies CE. For the past 1,500 years, they have become an inte­gral part of Tuscany’s econ­omy and cul­ture.

See Also: Rehabilitating Olive Trees in Aragón to Stem Spain’s Rural Exodus

When Da Vinci was born in 1452, olive trees dot­ted the sur­round­ing coun­try­side and were con­sid­ered to be a valu­able fea­ture due to their low num­bers and the oil they pro­duced. A few of the trees that cur­rently share the gen­tle Vinci slopes with vine­yards likely pro­duced olive oil eaten by the poly­math.

Since the 15th Century, the num­ber of olive trees and other crops in the town has steadily increased. After falling into a state of aban­don­ment, hun­dreds of sup­port­ers of Ager Oliva have invested in the recov­ery of the olive trees.

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In exchange for their con­tri­bu­tions, Ager Oliva gives them the olive oil pro­duced by those trees. In addi­tion, the com­pany labels the bot­tles with the name cho­sen by the con­trib­u­tor, maps them on their web­site, releases an adop­tion cer­tifi­cate for the trees and allows sup­port­ers to visit them when­ever they like.

How Ager Oliva solved the prob­lem with the aban­doned groves of the Da Vinci birth­place is increas­ingly being repli­cated around Tuscany.

Many choose to adopt an olive tree and to give the adop­tion as a present to their loved ones,” Tommaso Dami, an econ­o­mist, olive farmer and Ager Oliva’s founder, told Olive Oil Times. We decided to start this project because there are so many aban­doned orchards.”

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Tommaso Dami

Official data show that in the whole of Tuscany, there are around four mil­lion trees that need to be recov­ered and restored,” he added. That is why we worked on a busi­ness plan that allowed us to pro­gres­sively expand our area of inter­ven­tion.”

In the first year of oper­a­tions, the com­pany has seen the num­ber of its restored olive trees jump from 600 to 1,200, with a grow­ing num­ber of requests com­ing from own­ers who can no longer take care of their groves, a well-known phe­nom­e­non through­out Italy.

Abandonment is mainly due to an age­ing gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers, the reduced prof­itabil­ity of small-scale olive oil pro­duc­tion and the grow­ing chal­lenges pre­sented by cli­mate change and dis­eases.

The recov­ery inter­ven­tion in the Vinci orchard is quite rel­e­vant,” Dami said.

Over time, other plants grew around the trees and some­times on the trees them­selves, with branches often entirely cov­ered.

We start with the mulcher in the area sur­round­ing the trees, then we pro­ceed with the help of small equip­ment, such as grass trim­mers to clean around the trees,” Dami said. From that moment on, we inter­vene by hand to remove all extra­ne­ous veg­e­ta­tion.”

Once the clean­ing is done, our agron­o­mist decides which organic fer­til­iza­tion strat­egy to adopt and how to pro­ceed to get rid of pathogens,” he added.

Some of the trees have grown so tall over the years that they have become increas­ingly com­pli­cated to restore.

Sometimes we have to inter­vene on trees that are more than 10 meters tall, which is too high to be man­aged cor­rectly,” Dami said. Once restored, trees are pruned accord­ing to the poly­conic vase train­ing sys­tem.”

The tech­nique accel­er­ates the return of the trees’ abil­ity to yield fruit, accord­ing to Italian olive tree prun­ing cham­pion Riccardo Macari.

With this approach, we encour­age the pro­duc­tion of veg­e­ta­tive branches in the lower part of the canopy while facil­i­tat­ing har­vest and the imple­men­ta­tion of all the other agro­nomic prac­tices dur­ing the year,” he told Olive Oil Times in a 2017 inter­view.

We respect the plant’s equi­lib­rium and devel­op­ment” by pro­mot­ing the devel­op­ment of fruity branches, rather than suck­ers and water sprouts, he added.

The restora­tion process also pro­duces plenty of olive wood, which Dami said can be a logis­ti­cal chal­lenge to give away.

It is not as easy as one may think,” he said. It really is a lot of wood, and, up to now, we have not been very lucky in find­ing inter­ested par­ties.”

Dami hopes some pizze­ria with its wooden stove will soon come to the res­cue.

Throughout the restora­tion process, Ager Oliva strictly uses organic and bio-ele­ments pro­to­col.

All of our activ­ity is organic, which is the best option, of course, even if recov­ery times might be a lit­tle longer and inter­ven­tion might cost more,” Dami said. You can’t go there with some chem­i­cals, spray them around and solve the prob­lem.”

You have to take care of the trees, com­bat the fruit fly, and often spray organic com­pounds on the trees every three weeks dur­ing spe­cific bio­log­i­cal cycles,” he added. That is our top pri­or­ity, to have a sus­tain­able farm­ing activ­ity, both eco­nom­i­cally and envi­ron­men­tally, respect­ing the ter­ri­tory, the land and the peo­ple who live there.”

The grow­ing num­ber of olive tree adop­tion sup­port­ers can choose the plant they want to adopt and pay €49 or €59 per year to recover one olive tree, with the exact sum depend­ing on the state of the tree.

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Ager Oliva’s managing team

We were founded online, but since we started, we hoped to host an event among the olive trees,” Dami said. Last year, just a few months after we started, we were about 100 peo­ple hav­ing bruschetta and tast­ing excel­lent extra vir­gin olive oil in a restored orchard.”

Some of these early adopters con­sider their trees as fam­ily mem­bers; some are adopt­ing more than just one tree while some com­pa­nies adopt many of them,” he added.

The com­pany has dis­trib­uted 1,200 liters of extra vir­gin olive oil to its mem­bers in the cur­rent har­vest­ing sea­son.

Our pro­jec­tions are to dou­ble the num­ber of adop­tions in the com­ing months and end 2022 with at least 3,000 adopted olive trees under Ager Oliva man­age­ment,” Dami said.

However, he admit­ted that it would not be easy to go wher­ever an inter­ven­tion is needed.

If we look at areas such as Lucca or Florence, we have one mil­lion trees there that would need restor­ing, hun­dreds of thou­sands near Arezzo and 20,000 or 30,000 in Pistoia,” Dami said.

We hope many trees in pub­lic lands, which are today on sale for very high prices incom­pat­i­ble with the mar­ket, will be pro­gres­sively given to ini­tia­tives that can bring them back to pro­duc­tion,” he added. Many of those trees are his­toric orchards. It is a pity to see them aban­doned.”

Some local munic­i­pal admin­is­tra­tions may share Dami’s sen­ti­ment. They are work­ing to change the tra­di­tional approach.

Florence recently launched an ini­tia­tive to allow pri­vate cit­i­zens or asso­ci­a­tions to adopt one or more olive trees in the area by for­mally com­mit­ting to tak­ing care of them. Once assigned their trees, adopters are enti­tled to pro­duce their own extra vir­gin olive oil.

The Tuscan regional assem­bly also has recently adopted a res­o­lu­tion that paves the way for new restora­tion oper­a­tions to take place in aban­doned fields and olive groves in the region.

One of the things we are look­ing at is to safe­guard and pro­tect bio­di­ver­sity,” Dami said. We are now crowd­fund­ing an ini­tia­tive to bring sup­port irri­ga­tion to those olive orchards where that is fea­si­ble. With the ris­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures and the last­ing sum­mer drought, plants and their envi­ron­ment will greatly ben­e­fit from spe­cific tar­geted irri­ga­tion inter­ven­tions.”

The lack of water in our region greatly affects yields,” he con­cluded. During sum­mer­time, we have seen orchards los­ing up to 60 per­cent of their olives because of heat­waves.”





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