February 08, 2018


Before the group of 25 Italian farmers arrived at Stanislaus State on Feb. 5, they were tourists, making overnight stays in Las Vegas and San Francisco, and the hats and new t-shirts the Italians wore spoke to how much fun they were having.

But the moment the farmers reached the University’s sustainable garden, where they were greeted by about 20 Stan State agriculture students, the business side of the trip immediately began to peek through the fun element. After all, they were here to learn, and the farmers’ group was here on a government grant to learn about the sustainable farming practices applicable to their own region.

There were Muscat table grapevines, as well as pluot, cherry and peach trees that needed pruning. And since there also just happened to be no shortage of the tools needed to do the trimming, the farmers clicked into work mode with a combination of knowledge, speed, precision and purpose that amazed the students.

“I’m learning how to prune just watching them,” said Jose Ortiz, an Oakdale High graduate who transferred to Stan State from Modesto Junior College. “This is really cool. They’re showing me a lot of things I wouldn’t even be thinking about if I came out here and tried to prune a tree myself.”

In short order, the tools were handed to the students, who took over the task under the attentive eyes of the Italian educators.

Their visit to Stan State was coordinated by Dr. Costanza Zavalloni, a professor of plant science in the Agriculture Department, part of the College of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Zavalloni, a native of Italy, worked in agriculture research before coming to America and earning her doctorate at Michigan State University.

“I’m watching the Italians and my students and I can see that they’re having a good time and they’re not only learning, but they’re amazed at what they are learning,” Zavalloni said. “A couple of the students already have told me that they had no idea there was a proper way to prune a tree. And there’s not just one way to prune a tree, but it’s done differently in different parts of the world and that all have their reasons for doing it that way. A lot of it has to do with the differences between the regions, and if we didn’t have these visitors, my students never would have seen how they do this in Italy.”

The majority of the group lives and works in the Emilia-Romagna region of central Italy, where the climate is very similar to that of the Central Valley and thus the farmers frequently are at the mercy of the weather. The visiting farmers raise a wide variety of products, most notably wine grapes, kiwi, apricots and peaches, but a few raise the young swine that become the region’s world-savored prosciuttos, and at least one of the visitors is a cheese maker who specializes in the region’s exclusive and authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano.

“It was very interesting being with the students, and coming out to the farms has shown all of us that we deal with many of the same problems, not just the lack of water,” said Imario Montebello, who has fruit trees and produces grapes for the region’s famed Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) in the town of Soliera, about 25 miles northwest of Bologna. “The more we talk, the more we realize that all of us are wondering the same things about the future of farming, specifically, where do we go now? Things are tough now for farmers and they aren’t going to get any better, so it’s important for us to talk to the farmers here, to talk about the common problems, and perhaps we can come up with common solutions.”

Turlock was the base and Stan State was the first stop on the group’s three-day tour of the region. They spent an afternoon at 400+ acre Frantz Nursery in Hickman, where co-owner Mike Frantz told them about how water is obtained, stored and used, and how the nursery’s irrigation runoff is collected and reused.

The following day, the group visited experimental nurseries in Tracy and Modesto, then drove north to Lodi to visit wineries and meet with wine growers at the Lodi Wine Commission. Their final day in the area was spent at a Turlock Irrigation lateral project outside Hilmar, followed by a visit to Duarte Nursery in Hughson and to Ferrari’s farm almond ranch in Ballico, where because of the unseasonably warm weather the first blossoms were out.

“We all were very pleased with how we were received at the University,” Montebello said. “There is only one regret, and that it that we didn’t have enough time here to really do anything at the University and at the farms. Maybe we will put it on our schedules to do this again, and now we know the way to get here.”

But that was to be expected, Zavalloni pointed out. After all, this was only the first of what she hopes will be many visits to our region from Italian farmers. The goal, she said, is to open a dialogue that will help solve many of the sustainability issues shared by both fertile growing regions.

“For example, in Italy they prune trees so they can do all the harvest from the ground, which saves on labor costs. And who knows if this region will have to start doing the same if labor becomes too expensive? Maybe the growers in the Central Valley will be forced to adopt many of the methods that they use in Italy.

“Overall, this visit is all I could have hoped for, and I hope this becomes an annual event.”