REVIEW: A World of Presidia and Values of Agrarian Landscapes
Food with a view
Two handsome books offer nourishment for the armchair traveler

Reviewed by Laura Sayre

Details:

A World of Presidia: Food, Culture & Community
Slow Food Editore, 2004 (distributed in the United States by Chelsea Green)
$20.00 (paper)
ISBN 88-8499-085-8
179 pp.

 

Values of Agrarian Landscapes across Europe and North America
Renewing the Countryside, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Centre for Agriculture and Environment, 2005
$34.95 (cloth)
ISBN 90-5439-147-2
144 pp.

June 2, 2005: A World of Presidia and Values of Agrarian Landscapes make a wonderfully complementary pair: both books are the product of international cooperation; and both combine rich photographs with compelling stories to build support for sustainable, traditional agricultural systems. While Values of Agrarian Landscapes takes a sweeping, wide-angle view, A World of Presidia brings you in close, focusing on the faces, textures and colors of particular agricultural products. Together, the books paint a vivid picture of the agricultural heritage we stand to lose if contemporary trends hold their course.

The latest book to emerge from the Slow Food Editore, A World of Presidia is arranged by continent and country. Altogether there are 65 projects--known as presidia (plural of presidium, a Latin word meaning garrison or fort) in the Slow Food lingo--in 30 countries profiled. Not surprisingly given Slow Food's Italian center of origin, the largest group of stories is from European countries, although the collection from South America is also extensive and one feels confident, given the success of the presidia model, that the handful of projects in Africa and Asia will soon proliferate.

The book itself is fascinating, and no mere coffee-table book—it rewards a close read as well as a casual page-through to admire the pictures. Even the most sophisticated foodies will surely find new material here: the white strawberries of southern Chile; the fruit of the Umbu tree in northeastern Brazil; the spindle-shaped smoked sheep cheese, called oscypek, made by farmers in the Tatra Mountains of Poland; the distinctively flavored oil pressed from the kernels of the argan tree in Morocco. For each of these foods and more, the Slow Food editors provide a short description of the production process, the producers, the threats they face and the strategies the presidium has developed to meet those threats. A running footer lists the production area, the number of producers, the supporting agencies or groups and contact information for the presidium coordinator.

A World of Presidia does a stunning job of conveying the complexity and intricacy of locally evolved food systems, and the corresponding delicacy of finding ways to protect and support them. In keeping with the decentralized structure of the Slow Food movement, the presidia vary widely in organization, focus, scale and strategy. Common themes include a focus on establishing and improving product quality, the sustainability of production methods and the identification of higher-value markets. Although part of the goal of Slow Food is to foster international collaborations and support for small-scale producers worldwide, there is a conscientious effort to allow presidia to develop as producer-led initiatives rather than as missionary projects imposed from the outside.

One of the remarkable aspects of the book is that in several cases the stories feature the same plant or animal—coffee, vanilla, cocoa, pigs, rice—as they have been altered and adapted to specific areas. This is the fascinating thing about our infinitely diverse collective food culture, that its richest examples include not just indigenous developments but also gradual, fruitful exchanges and mixtures of every kind. The description of a presidium centered on Brazil nut production in the Pando Altopiano region of Bolivia includes a note about a reciprocal professional development exchange that took place between an Italian pastry chef and a group of Pando nut gatherers who make traditional Bolivian sweets. This is just a small, contemporary instance of a process that has been central to food culture for hundreds of years.

Like A World of Presidia, Values of Agrarian Landscapes is one of a series of publications, in this case from the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and its spin-off entity, Renewing the Countryside. Working in partnership with other regional non-profits and government agencies, Renewing the Countryside assembled beautifully illustrated large-format books profiling rural development initiatives in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and the Four Corners area, and they are at work on several more.

The present project is something of a departure from their usual format, moving beyond the United States and focusing on geography, rather than economy and community, as a key element of sustainable agriculture. Values of Agrarian Landscapes is divided into eight chapters, with each chapter devoted to a landscape type—lowlands, wetlands and floodplains; uplands and mountains; boreal landscapes; semi-arid landscapes; etc. General observations about each agro-ecological landform are followed by two to four examples described in some detail. A half-dozen short interviews with individual farmers (in Sweden, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Minnesota and elsewhere) are also included, and provide some of the best reading in the book. Although the bulk of the text is in English, the photo captions are also printed in German, Spanish and French. (One small complaint with the Slow Food book is that its photos lack captions altogether.)

Like the Slow Food book, Agrarian Landscapes uses separate text boxes to summarize the challenges facing the farmers, landscapes and products profiled and the strategies underway to preserve them. Not surprisingly, many of the farming systems in both books face similar threats worldwide—from urbanization and lack of economic viability to farm consolidation, loss of biodiversity, and aging rural populations. Many of the proposed solutions, both public and private, also echo from one region and one publication to the next: the formation of farmer cooperatives, identity-preserved marketing schemes, agritourism, conservation payments and a variety of other agri-environmental policy initiatives. In Europe, government agencies are taking the lead in seeking policy solutions to the loss of agricultural diversity, while in the United States most of the efforts originate with private, nonprofit groups. (One point the Renewing the Countryside book makes painfully clear is how far ahead the Europeans are in articulating the ways in which existing agricultural policies have themselves threatened the survival of our common agricultural heritage.)

If the two books sound similar themes, they also offer contrasting points of view. Whereas A World of Presidia links farming methods to details of food processing and consumption—oil pressing, cheese- and sausage-making, feasts and festivals—Values of Agrarian Landscapes emphasizes the role of traditional agricultural systems in creating wildlife habitat and providing other ecosystem services. (Interestingly, there is one story featured in both books: the winemaking of the Greek Santorini Islands, where millennia-old stone field terraces help catch scarce precipitation and control erosion on the steep terrain.) In keeping with its aesthetic perspective, the Renewing the Countryside book also stresses the value of well-managed agricultural landscapes as recreational resources, highlighting governmental efforts to incorporate hiking and biking trails into agricultural reserves and to compensate farmers for maintaining landscape features like shelter belts and wetlands. In the Île-de-France, we learn, a Green Plan was inaugurated in 1994 to protect 300,000 hectares of green space between 10 and 30 kilometers of central Paris.

Again like its Slow Food counterpart, Values of Agrarian Landscapes includes unexpected as well as famous examples. Indeed, one gets the sense that the landscape taxonomy of agro-ecosystems is still being developed. The book refers, for instance, to the "pastured cereal pseudo-steppes" of central Spain, where traditional agricultural systems combine dryland cereal and legume crops with long- and short-term fallow and grazing of native grasslands. Each of these elements plays a role in creating habitat for migrating birds, many species of which are threatened in Europe as a whole. The final chapter of the book is devoted to the agricultural landscapes created and maintained by low-intensity migratory livestock systems, or "transhumance." These landscapes and ways of life face even greater challenges than settled traditional agricultural systems, since in addition to low profitability and suburban development they frequently also have to contend with international border restrictions, the rights of private landowners along their routes, and biosafety concerns like the transmission of livestock diseases.

A sustainable agriculture is one that is just, healthful, and human-scaled. As the authors of Values of Agrarian Landscapes point out in their concluding policy recommendations, many—but not all—of the regions featured are economically and ecologically marginal, qualifying for "Least Favoured Area" designation within EU agricultural policy. These are areas of rich biodiversity, stunning beauty and deep history. They may be difficult to farm, but in many if not in all cases they are better cared for by farming than by passive environmental "protection." Taken together, A World of Presidia and Values of Agrarian Landscapes illustrate the vital interconnections between what we eat, how we farm, and what our world looks like. It is a message that urgently needs to be heard.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.