How climate change is threatening lemon farming on Italy’s Amalfi coast

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Amalfi, Italy (CNN) — Atop the green hills of the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, an agile farmer leaps onto a terraced lemon tree overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Balancing between one wooden pole and another, the not-so-young acrobat defies gravity, picking lemons and carrying them in crates weighing more than 25 kilograms (55 pounds) between orchards perched more than 400 meters (1,312 feet) above the ground. .

A strong aroma of rosemary surrounds it, mixed with the unique bitter scent of jasmine, sage and of course, citrus. The sound of waves below drowns out the sounds of car traffic and tourists in the main square of the UNESCO-protected town of Amalfi.

“No blood, but lemon juice runs through my veins,” says 87-year-old farmer Gigino Aceto, whose family has grown lemons here since the 1800s.

From dawn to dusk, Aceto’s life revolves around lemons. He sleeps in his lemon garden and feeds on lemon food. He was also conceived among these plants.

“In my parents’ old days, the lack of space and intimacy meant that love was made outdoors, under the citrus trees,” he says with a smile.

Huge fruit

Low-hanging fruit: Amalfi lemons are known for their large size.

Low-hanging fruit: Amalfi lemons are known for their large size.

Federico Angeloni

Lemons are the beating heart of the area’s complex, biodiverse ecosystem, which has persisted for centuries. But assets are among the last custodians of this sensitive tradition now threatened by industrialization, societal changes and climate change.

Large Sfusato or Amalfi lemons are cultivated in an area that stretches along the Tyrrhenian Sea between Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. A lemon can Weight up to three kilograms.
Around 2,000 metric tons are currently harvested each year around the Amalfi Coast, According to local statisticsBut surveys show that these lemon grove areas have been declining for the past 60 years.

“In Amalfi alone, lemon terraces have decreased from 72 hectares to 48 between 1954 and 2015, while wild forests and urbanization have progressed significantly,” says Giorgia Di Pasquale, an architect and researcher at the University of Roma Tre, who is looking for ways to preserve the family. is Lemon growing businesses.

De Pasquale is working to get the status of “Agricultural Heritage System of Global Importance” for Amalfi’s lemon groves – a designation under the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization programme.

“The process in Amalfi is the same as the whole coast,” she says.

A cure for all

With its pale-yellow color, intense aroma, juicy texture and sweet skin — it can be sliced ​​and eaten like an apple — the sfusato has become a staple of the area’s traditional cuisine.

It is used in pasta dishes, sauces for salads and grilled fish, desserts – not to mention Italy’s famous limoncello liqueur. And because of its properties — it’s rich in vitamins C, B, E, potassium and magnesium — coastal dwellers have found countless uses, from cleaning clothes to natural medicine.

“The first thing we do when we wake up with a headache is add some lemon peel to our morning coffee,” Aceto explains. “When we cut ourselves, we run to lemons to sanitize. If we feel sick, there’s nothing lemon spaghetti can’t fix.”

brought herDuring trade with the Arabs in the early Middle Ages, lemons were used by sailors, especially in northern Europe, to combat scurvy. They also played a role in the fight against cholera in Naples in the 1950s.

But it is not only the nutritional and pharmacological properties that have made sfusati so fundamental to this area. Traditional agricultural systems—a remarkable example of man and nature working in harmony dating back to the 15th century—have proven resilient to the vagaries of climate change.

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Sculpting wild cliffs overlooking the sea, the well-manicured architecture of lemon trees curbs some of the area’s worst problems, including landslides caused by rain and forest fires.

“Farmers provide a systemic service to the entire area, protecting the coast from landslides and other environmental disasters,” says de Pasquale. Without this agricultural activity, she adds, the landscape of Amalfi and the entire coastline would disappear, deteriorating year after year.

‘a disaster’

Lemon trees fill the slopes.

Lemon trees fill the slopes.

Federico Angeloni

Arranged vertically in tiers, the lemon groves are separated by three-by-seven-meter walls made of mesere – a local limestone resistant to soil pressure and impervious to rain. Even today, the grove can only be reached on foot or by mule.

A terracing system uses gravity to direct rainwater to irrigate plants.

Local chestnut wood poles are used to build a scaffold around the lemon trees and allow “flying farmers” — as they have been called. Italian writer Flavia Amabile — Tree walking for pruning, harvesting and maintenance. Plastic sheeting protects the lemons from coastal winds and creates an ideal microclimate.

“Everything works in perfect harmony with the land,” says Salvatore, Aceto’s 57-year-old son. Still, he says, farmers continue to battle man-made problems, not least the warming blamed on climate change.

“With frequent summer fires, it’s a disaster,” he says.

“Maintenance of the land should be a collective task. The terraces are interconnected. But today they are either abandoned or turned into holiday homes and illegal structures.”

The low profitability and high costs of traditional agricultural systems have pushed more and more Amalfitans off the land, causing the walls to crumble. Tourism, rising to problematic levels in parts of Amalfi, has given them another, perhaps easier, source of income.

“It’s hard to work here, not like in the valley, but no one wants to work hard anymore,” says Salvatore Aceto, his accent strong Neapolitan. “At the same time, they use cheaper methods like cement [or] Lime, which damages the landscape, prevents drainage and causes landslides.”

A dying art

In Minori, a town on Italy’s Amalfi coast, Stanley Tucci samples what he calls the best lemons in the world.

There is a risk, he says, that when his generation stops cultivating the land, the knowledge accumulated over centuries by local communities could disappear entirely.

“Most tourists who come to Amalfi are unaware of this system around the main road,” Di Pasquale explains, adding that farmers are cut off from tourism dollars pouring into the region.

In an effort to solve that problem, Salvatore and his brother Marco, 56, have created Lemon toursAn agritourism venture to raise awareness about sfusato and revive the traditions used to cultivate it.

He leads groups of up to five people, spending hours on terraces built a thousand years ago, teaching them culinary skills such as cooking a dish of lemon cialattielli or processing local honey.

“It’s convenient to have a certain image of the Amalfi Coast, but we don’t pander to tourists and distort our business,” said Salvatore. “We are farmers, and this is what we show.”

“At 5.30 in the morning, my clothes are dirty, and my knees are tired. It’s a job that wears you down. These are the two faces of Amalfi — the ones you want tourists to see,” he pointed up the slope towards the town. Curry says. below. “And the real, real life of farmers.”

“Below has become something else.”

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