South Tyrol is full of apples. An area larger than 18,000 hectares is covered with plantations. They stretch along the Etsch river for more than 100 km, from Salorno in the south to Bozen, to Meran and until Mals in the Upper Venosta Valley. Nowhere else in Europe you will find a bigger closed apple-producing area than here in South Tyrol.
The trilingual province of South Tyrol used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became Italian after WWI, was annexed by Nazi Germany and given back to Italy after WWII. In 1972, it gained the status of an autonomous Italian province with the approval of the UN General Assembly.
The autonomy from Rome means that 90% of the tax income stays in South Tyrol. Before the independence, South Tyrol’s alpine valleys were poor and underdeveloped. With the new money, much needed infrastructure investments and an agricultural modernisation effort took place. Within a few years, it became the land of golden apples, quality wine and flourishing tourism. Today, South Tyrol is the richest province in Italy and among the richest within the European Union.
I learned all this from Sebastian Marseiler whom I met on 29 October in Meran. Sebastian grew up on a mountain farm in the Upper Venosta Valley, near the Swiss border. He is a living encyclopaedia on South Tyrol, author of many books on the history and life in the Alps, as well as a producer of TV documentaries. He is the curator of a permanent exhibition on the clever irrigation network built centuries ago by bold locals to bring the water from the glaciers to the otherwise dry and unproductive valley. Long-time before the tax money came, those water channels - called Waale - enabled the first wave of agricultural development in the otherwise arid Venosta Valley. Grain-fields were cultivated everywhere and Val Venosta became the regional breadbasket, famous for its high-quality rye.
Things started to change again as temperatures began to rise, Sebastian told me. Since the turn of the millennium, the climate is now warm enough to grow apples higher up in the Venosta Valley. On top of the favourable climate, economics and the traditionally small parcels in the Upper Venosta Valley played in favour of the change, too. Indeed, rich apple farmers from lower down in the Etsch Valley started buying up the land, offering prices per square meters that quickly rose 10-20 fold than what they used to be. Understandably, for many local smallholders this increase in the value of the land was a good reason to sell it. With the new ownership, more profitable plantations started to creep up higher and higher in the valley.
The encroachment of apple monocultures went hand-in-hand with an intense and - quite literally - widespread use of pesticides. With the constant wind blowing down the valley, the pesticides reach far beyond the trees they are intended for. People say it is impossible to avoid the chemicals when they are being spread across the fields in the valley. A few years ago, the people of Mals said enough is enough and a started a successful movement against the use of pesticides.
The movement started in 2013, initiated by doctors, pharmacists, concerned citizens and organic farmers, with the blessing of the Abbey Marienberg. In a consultative plebiscite, over 75% of the population of Mals voted in favour of the proposal for a pesticide-free municipality. The next local elections saw those candidates and parties win that supported to proposal. Now Mals is probably one of the first village in the world that inscribed the principle of a pesticide-free municipality in its bylaws.
Cycling up the valley I met Armin, an apple farmer in Prad am Stilfserjoch, not far from Mals. Armin is a conventional farmer but he is considering switching to organic, following the practice of some of his neighbouring farmers. He has sympathy for the choices made in Mals, he said, but also thinks that only focusing on sustainability in the agriculture sector is too selective. In his opinion, the entire valley should go green, including tourism and transport, incentivised by the right public policies. “To do it right”, Armin went on, “we need to talk to each other across sectors and cooperate, not play against each other.”
And I thought that he and Sebastian would probably agree on many things, including’s Sebastian’s vision of the entire valley being pesticide-free, organic and energy-independent. One entire valley producing truly sustainable food and offering tourism in harmony with nature. If not in one of the richest provinces in Europe that relies on its beautiful landscapes for tourism, then where else?