Organ­ic pro­duc­tion tick­les the taste­buds

The fam­i­ly-run organ­ic farm Bio Alber­ti com­bines tra­di­tion­al farm­ing with mod­ern pro­cess­ing tech­niques – and pro­duces goods both for the near­by vil­lage and the glob­al mar­ket­place.

Imag­ine all that is good about Ital­ian food: The best pas­ta, beef, olive oil, puls­es and risot­to. A wide vari­ety of prod­ucts – and yet one farm in the rolling hills of Umbria pro­duces them all. Wel­come to Bio Alber­ti, a fam­i­ly-run organ­ic farm that is enough to make your mouth water.

For the region, this is a big farm: 560ha, much of which is in a rota­tion of cere­als, puls­es and grass leys, along­side more ancient olive groves. Organ­ic for the past 21 years, this farm is a pleas­ant com­bi­na­tion of ancient and mod­ern: Tra­di­tion­al farm­ing prac­tices meet mod­ern pro­cess­ing tech­niques, while the bur­geon­ing busi­ness both regen­er­ates the tiny stone-built vil­lage around it and reach­es out to the glob­al mar­ket­place.

This is a true fam­i­ly enter­prise – it’s been in the fam­i­ly since 1940, pass­ing through the hands of Gui­do and Pao­la Alber­ti towards their chil­dren, Andrea and Benedet­ta. “My father stud­ied agri­cul­ture at uni­ver­si­ty and is an agron­o­mist – he knows a lot of stuff which I have to learn,” admits Andrea. “But I stud­ied eco­nom­ics and busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion at Rome Uni­ver­si­ty, and I’m doing the inter­na­tion­al sales, trav­el­ling to Lon­don and oth­er places as well as work­ing on the farm. It’s nice, because you’re not doing the same thing every day.”

Andrea Alber­ti stud­ied in Rome, trav­elled through Europe and now looks after the farm, which has been fam­i­ly-owned since 1940.

Olive oil taste test

Benedet­ta han­dles the Ital­ian sales, and recent­ly trained as an olive oil som­me­li­er in order to improve the qual­i­ty of the farm’s olive oil. “It’s more dif­fi­cult to pro­duce than a field crop as you can’t con­trol the pests and dis­eases – some years you don’t get any crop at all as you don’t want to sell a bad oil,” says Andrea. “Yields vary wild­ly from one year to the next, but we are try­ing to improve the qual­i­ty and con­sis­ten­cy.”

The farm has 4000 olive trees, the fruits from which are hand-picked and cold pressed local­ly with­in 48 hours to pre­serve their qual­i­ty, but we press them with­in 12 hours. “You should choose your olive oil like you choose wine – you need a dif­fer­ent oil for fish than a sal­ad, and we have four dif­fer­ent vari­eties. We sell extra vir­gin olive oil through a dis­trib­u­tor to the UK, France, Nor­way, US, Chi­na, and Czech Repub­lic – around 40% of our sales are over­seas and 60% domes­tic.”

Due to a mix­ture of good mar­ket­ing and a respect for the envi­ron­ment, the fam­i­ly has adopt­ed a range of tra­di­tion­al farm­ing prac­tis­es, includ­ing grow­ing monoc­cocum spelt – the old­est cere­al in the world. “It was grown in Roman times, and has a small grain with a low yield, but it is good for risot­to and an alter­na­tive to wheat flour. We start­ed out by grow­ing 1x1m tri­als for a project with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Peru­gia and now we grow 20ha of it.”

Co-crop­ping wheat

Andrea also grows a lot of tra­di­tion­al wheat vari­eties – but not by them­selves. Instead, he prefers to co-crop them in the field. “It’s bet­ter to mix in the field than in the mill – it out­com­petes the weeds and you can get bet­ter yields.” One such mix this year is a third each of Ver­na, Gen­til­rosso soft wheat and durum wheat – the result­ing flour is ide­al for breads, piz­zas and pas­tas.

The busi­ness sells through its own web­site as well as through retail­ers, whole­salers and restau­rants, and a jew­el in its crown is Sen­a­tore Cap­pel­li, an ancient durum which was redis­cov­ered only a few years ago. “We used to pro­duce a lot in south­ern Italy, and although it has low­er yields than mod­ern vari­eties, at around 2-2.5t/ha, it makes a great pas­ta – you can real­ly see the dif­fer­ence in the colour alone,” says Andrea.

It’s bet­ter to mix in the field than in the mill – it out­com­petes the weeds and you can get bet­ter yields.

Andrea Alber­ti

Giv­en its organ­ic sta­tus, the farm has a strong rota­tion includ­ing lentils, chick­peas, chick­ling, bor­lot­ti, black and can­nelli­ni beans, and mil­let. “We use the same drill for them all, but each year we try dif­fer­ent tech­niques. Last year we drilled the lentils one month ear­ly to see if they’ll be any bet­ter, while with the spring-drilled mil­let we left the autumn regrowth and har­rowed before drilling,” says Andrea.

“We also use the same com­bine for every­thing but we need to clean it care­ful­ly.” Cere­als are cut around the end of June, while the legumes are cut in July. “At the moment we don’t have sep­a­rate clean­ing machin­ery for gluten-free legumes, so that will be the next invest­ment.”

Around 250ha of the farm goes down to a herbal grass mix, which is either grazed or cut for hay to feed the 200 Chi­an­i­na beef cat­tle.

Pro­cess­ing and pack­ing

The grain store sits along­side the small pro­cess­ing facil­i­ties, with 10 silos for dif­fer­ent prod­ucts and tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled stor­age at 18°C. All of the prod­ucts are pro­duced local­ly and packed by hand.

In keep­ing with its organ­ic sta­tus, the farm hosts 50 bee­hives for a local bee­keep­er. It also has access to irri­ga­tion through two lakes, although the cere­als and legumes gen­er­al­ly don’t require it, giv­en that Umbria is one of the wettest coun­ties in Italy, earn­ing it the moniker ‘the green heart of Italy’.

Around 250ha of the farm goes down to a herbal grass mix, which is either grazed or cut for hay to feed the 200 Chi­an­i­na beef cat­tle. This ancient breed is prob­a­bly best known for its use in the recipe Bis­tec­ca alla Fiorenti­na (Flo­ren­tine steak) which use a thick-cut porter­house steak, cooked rare and flavoured sim­ply with salt and pep­per.

We believe in organ­ic for our food, and feel it’s real­ly impor­tant for the envi­ron­ment – we hope it will be the future for our peo­ple.

Andrea Alber­ti

“We calve all year round and keep two dairy cows as suck­lers as the Chi­an­i­na don’t pro­duce much milk – the calves just suck­le the dairy cows direct,” says Andrea. “We’ve got two bulls and fin­ish the prog­e­ny at around 20 months old off grass – we don’t feed any con­cen­trates.”

In a bid to close the loop, the fam­i­ly plans to open a restau­rant in the tiny vil­lage of San Venan­zo, where they already run farm-stay accom­mo­da­tion. “There are only 24 inhab­i­tants in the vil­lage; we’ve got five agri­t­ur­is­mo apart­ments and are ren­o­vat­ing the dilap­i­dat­ed old house too. We believe in organ­ic for our food, and feel it’s real­ly impor­tant for the envi­ron­ment – we hope it will be the future for our peo­ple.”

Fur­ther infor­ma­tion