Patti Chiari - an interview with a Sicilian agronomist

Fri, 04/30/2010 - 05:28

Words by Pat Eggleton - Pictures by Pat Eggleton and Vittorio

Vittorio is a student of mine and he has an interesting job which I thought you’d like to read about:

Vittorio, can you tell us about your company?
Yes, it’s an international seed company with about 5,000 employees all over the world. In Sicily we have a team of five people: Two are researchers and they work with plant geneticists. Another person is in charge of developing new plant varieties and two of us work in Sales. The scientists are specialists in species like aubergines, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, lettuce, melons and watermelons. We export seeds to the Italian mainland and around the world.

Do you work from your office or do you travel?
I’m always travelling. I start my working day at about 7 am and I drive out to see my clients who are farmers and growers. I check the plants grown from our seeds in their greenhouses and give them advice. I have to check all the plants for diseases.

What sort of diseases are you looking for and what are the signs?
Well, there’s an insect called bemisia tabaci, also known as whitefly, which attacks tomato leaves. It infects the tomato with a virus called tomato yellow leaf curl [TYLCV]. Then there are parasitic nematodes, which attack the roots causing plant death and low or poor production.
On carrots I look for alternaria dauci [carrot leaf blight] which you find in winter when it’s cold and wet. There is also a disease called oidium. You find white spots which are fungal spores on the leaves.

Why does your company develop new varieties? Is it for appearance?
No, it’s always for nutritional reasons or to develop disease-resistant varieties. For instance, we have developed a carrot with some resistance to the diseases I just mentioned. This enables the grower to avoid or reduce the use of pesticides. We have also developed some elongated, cherry and date tomato varieties. Our varieties are not genetically modified, by the way.

I want to ask you more about carrots because the Sicilian carrot is special, isn’t it?
Yes, Sicilian carrots are early and they are the first crop of the new year. The carrots aren’t ready in other parts of Europe. Our carrot season is March until May and at the end of it the rest of Italy harvests its carrots.

Isn’t there something about the Sicilian soil that makes it suitable for carrots?
That’s right. We have what we call red Mediterranean soil. It’s a mixed soil with red sand in it and it’s clayless. Our soil gets hot early in the year. Carrots are cultivated in south-east Sicily because the soil is so near the sea. The Sicilian carrot has a very sweet taste.

I know. I love them! Can you tell us about greenhouse cultivation in Sicily?
Greenhouses in Sicily cover about 8,500 hectares of land and they are concentrated in the south-east of the island in a stretch of land from Agrigento to Pachino, comprising Agrigento itself, Caltanissetta, Ragusa and Siracusa. 80% of these greenhouses are in Ragusa Province.

What species are grown in these greenhouses?
Melons, watermelons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and cucumbers. We have different kinds of tomatoes and these are: cluster tomatoes, ribbed beef tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, date tomatoes and plum tomatoes in three sizes – large, medium and mini-plum. We grow red and yellow peppers and elongated and round aubergines. But in Siracusa and Trapani they still grow lettuce in the open air.

I’d never seen a round aubergine till I came here. Tell us about the melons.
In spring and summer you only find the yellow melon in Marsala [Trapani] and Palermo. It’s called the “giallo di Paceco”. There’s another melon grown near Palermo and in Marsala called the “piel di sapo”. This is the melon that is candied for use in pastries such as cannoli with ricotta.

Trapani melons are incredibly sweet, aren’t they? I thought I’d gone to heaven the first time I tasted one!
Yes, they are famous.

Vittorio, how is the Italian agricultural sector faring during the recession?
In Italy everyone is talking about the industrial and economic crisis but no one talks about the agricultural sector because it is not well represented politically.
Yet many families still have to make a living from this kind of work. The wealth created by Sicilian agriculture from the 1960s onwards saved the whole agricultural sector in Italy. But this is forgotten now.

Why did Sicilian agriculture start to create wealth in the 1960s?
In the post-war era Sicilian agriculture worked to an old system based on traditional means of production which were seasonal. This way of working brought in very little money.
Then, when Italy had its economic boom in the 1960s, people’s tastes changed and so did their way of eating. In the late 1950s someone had the idea of introducing greenhouse cultivation into Sicily and the first one was built in Scicli [Ragusa]. This allowed the island’s growers to produce foods that were thought of as summer crops for the winter and they were able to export them to all parts of Italy and, later, to other countries.

I thought people ate seasonally in Sicily. Are you saying that they don’t any more?
People in Sicily don’t eat strictly according to the season like they used to but some crops remain seasonal, for example, prickly pears, lotuses, oranges, mandarins, clementines, figs, miniature pears, watermelons, pomegranates and quinces.

Vittorio, that was very interesting and I’ve learnt a lot about agriculture in Sicily. Thank you for talking to Italy Magazine.

Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.

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