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Fresh vegetables

South Tyrol's farmers are exploring new approaches to farming. Harald Gasser grows old vegetable varieties. Ever heard of purple carrots?

You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but Harald Gasser enjoys going the extra mile for his passion. Formerly a social worker, he now experiments with old and rare varieties of vegetables that hardly anyone is familiar with. Not even by name. Perhaps you have heard of them?

There was a time when Harald Gasser used to get sad, or even cry when working in his fields. For some reason, no one wanted his carrots. "I transported them by tractor in bulk to the compost heap," says Gasser. In the village, people made up strange nicknames for him.

Oh how things have changed. Today, he has to produce more than even he would like. Harald Gasser is a vegetable farmer who specialises in growing old varieties. To reach the Aspingerhof in Barbian/Barbiano above Klausen/Chiusa, you first drive steeply uphill, then downhill. The entire way up, you’re forced to wonder if this is really the right road? When Harald Gasser is working in the field, he has a view of the magnificent Trostburg castle on the other side of the valley. Far below him, the motorway through the Eisacktal valley twinkles colourfully.

Being a farmer needs to be fun again

He does everything by hand. "There are no machines getting in there," he says with a laugh. He and his partner Petra pricked out 14,000 onions last year, 400 per hour. “This is something I do that at night. I don't have the time during the day." As he works in the darkness, he observes the rare death's-head hawkmoth. And he always harvests mustard cabbage before sunrise, because at that time it is at its freshest.

Harald Gasser is what you might call a "new" farmer in South Tyrol. Waking up at the crack of dawn to milk the enormous udders of cows, putting the milk cans on the road to be collected by the dairy car, working at the ski lift and going to a factory for the day shift, then returning to the barn in the evening - this lifestyle is becoming less and less appealing to the offspring of seasoned South Tyrolean farmers. Being a farmer needs to be fun again! To achieve this, new ideas are needed as well as the energetic personalities ready to implement them.

Chinese artichoke, tiger nuts, iron cross bulbs...

In the Farmers' Association of South Tyrol (Südtirol Bauernbund), the agricultural spirit of optimism is being embraced and pushed forward. "We have intelligent, resourceful farmers," says Ulrich Höllrigl, Vice Director of the Farmers' Association of South Tyrol, with great satisfaction. For years, the Farmers' Association of South Tyrol has been trying to make supplementary opportunities for income generation more appealing to mountain farmers. The most promising ones seem to be the farm holiday model, refining produce on the farm and experimenting with niche crops such as vegetables, herbs, berries and, more recently, cereals. A year ago, an innovation desk was established where farmers can get advice. New cultivation options and business areas are being researched together with the South Tyrolean research institutes Laimburg and TIS.

First attempts in the art garden

The first ideas germinated in Harald Gasser twelve years ago. He ordered the seeds of 180 old vegetable varieties from Arche Noah,  the Austrian association for the preservation and development of crop diversity, and begged his mother for a plot of land on which to experiment. On 15 square metres of land, he laid out his garden, "an art garden in the shape of a snail with no labelling," he says with a laugh. Chinese artichoke, tiger nuts, wood sorrel bulbs... he had no idea what was sprouting up. Harald Gasser: "I buried most of it again or gave it to the pigs." For many varieties he didn't know what the fruits looked like. Tiny "knobs" appeared, he says, pointing with his thumb to the fingernail of his index finger. "I still had an awful lot to learn."

Seven years of patience

His parents were a great help in providing him with practical experience. "You have to spray," said his father. "You have to water," said his mother. Harald did neither. He was determined to find the best ways of doing things by himself. He  became convinced that if the plants were not watered much when they were young, they would develop deeper roots and extract valuable minerals from the soil. In addition, he was confident that non-sprayed vegetables taste better, because the bitter chemical substances are missing. Today, on 3,000 square metres of land, Harald Gasser now grows 400 mostly forgotten varieties of vegetables. "With some varieties, it took me seven years before I harvested them for the first time.

Experimentation, that's what matters most to him. For a while, Gasser was not bothered about who would buy the products.

According to Ulrich Höllrigl of the Farmers' Union, nowadays farmers also have to think about marketing. For many, this is a major problem because many farmers are not natural entrepreneurs. "Fortunately, South Tyrol has a good cooperative system," says Höllrigl. It is not possible for every farmer to cover the entirety of South Tyrol alone. Nevertheless, more and more farmers are trying to get in touch with their customers, offering their seasonal products at farmers' markets or selling directly at the farm. Höllrigl: "Selling at markets or on the farm itself is costly and time-consuming, but the farmers are satisfied with the result." In doing so, farmers are fostering relationships with their customers. Local products are in high demand as long as they are affordable and look attractive.

Top chefs don't have their own cows

Harald Gasser's vegetables have blemishes on them and yet they are still comparatively expensive. His customers include many of the celebrity chefs in South Tyrol and beyond, who are also constantly on the lookout for seasonal, regional and unusual ingredients. Herbert Hintner from the Restaurant Zur Rose in Eppan/Appiano, with whom Gasser is in close contact, was the first. In the meantime, the word has spread about his vegetables among top restaurateurs. The chefs explain exactly how they would like their vegetables. Each one has slightly different ideas. The Aspingerhof farm caters to these demands.

"I don't have any cows," Anna Matscher, celebrity chef at the Löwen restaurant in Tisens/Tesimo, once explained to Harald Gasser on the phone. He had sent her lettuce leaves that were far too big, and this was her way of letting him know. The chefs themselves don’t care if the vegetables don’t look perfect. Arturo Spicocchi, until recently head chef of the Stüa de Michil at the Hotel La Perla in Corvara, who initially mocked the appearance of the vegetables that were delivered, says today: "The gnawed looking carrots were the best I've ever eaten." Private customers, on the other hand, often find the produce to be somewhat lacking aesthetically. Harald Gasser knows this from experience, which is why such customers prefer to buy their vegetables in the supermarket.

That being said, however, products like those from Harald Gasser will never be sold in the supermarket. South Tyrol's farmers do not produce mass-produced goods. The farms are small, and most of them cultivate fields the size of two to five football fields. "The farmers have to aim for the high price segment. But that also means that they have to produce according to the highest standards. And they have to do it constantly," says Ulrich Höllrigl of the Farmers' Union. This is a challenge that very few of the 20,000 South Tyrolean farmers can meet in the long run. Ulrich Höllrigl knows this too: "In future, dairy farming, fruit growing and viticulture will continue to be the mainstays of South Tyrolean agriculture."

Plants quarrel just like people

Small mountain farmers in particular are looking for new ways to cultivate and sell their produce. This goes for young farmers as well. Farms no longer yields enough to feed several generations. Many children of farming families learn other professions, go to university, return to the farm as inheritors at some point and want to do many things differently. Höllrigl: "They wonder how they can achieve a decent standard of living as farmers."

To be different, to stand out. Harald Gasser turned this concept into his philosophy of life. For a long time he worked as a social worker in a school. He never planned to work as a farmer. Now he is both, growing plants that are encouraged to be a bit different, imperfect. His vegetable garden at the Aspingerhof farm looks like a garden of weeds. Gasser is an advocate of mixed cropping, having long tested which plants thrive together side by side. “Plants quarrel just like people do,” says Gasser. He sounds calm as he explains, but he wasn’t always this way.

When things were bad at Aspingerhof farm and Harald Gasser was stuck with his vegetables, Herbert Hintner ordered 150 kilos of tomatoes and a lot of other vegetables from him in one go. "What did you do with so many tomatoes?" asked Harald Gasser later. "I threw them away," said the chef, "but otherwise you would have given up." Harald Gasser gives a knowing laugh. He is right of course, he would have.

Text: Gabriele Crepaz
Photos: Alex Filz
Video: Andreas Pichler
Year of publication: 2014 - Stories from South Tyrol