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Young farmers apply ancient agroforestry practices in the heart of Sardinia

Goats enjoy the shade and forage under the oaks and chestnut trees of Sardinia, Italy. Photo by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay

  • The forested mountains of interior Sardinia have seen high rates of migration to cities in recent years, particularly among young people.
  • But some young people are finding a new way to stay here and succeed while fighting climate change, by using an ancient agricultural method to create better-quality products like goat cheese, by grazing their flocks under trees.
  • Called silvopasture, it’s a form of agroforestry that has a long history here, and the variety of forage and abundant shade create cheeses with unique flavors. Another side benefit in this arid landscape is reduced forest fire danger due to the goats’ grazing activities.
  • Like its close cousin agroforestry, silvopasture is a climate solution because it effectively sequesters large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere while keeping forested landscapes intact and providing habitat for a variety of creatures.

DESULO, Italy — In a late 1990s photo, a little girl with a ponytail and white apron poses at the corner of a cheese-making machine. Two decades later, with the same smile, Fatima Todde, 31, is one of the few casara, or female cheesemakers, in all of Sardinia.

“The photo was shot when I was 10. I was in this laboratory trying to do ricotta. It started as a childhood game, and, after the university, cheesemaking became my profession,” Fatima says. “A lot of young people move away from these mountains, but we choose to remain.”

She lives in Desulo, in the middle of the island of Sardinia. A town of 2,000 inhabitants, it perches under the highest peak on the island that reaches 1,834 meters (6,017 feet). Named Gennargentu, meaning “silver door,” the color reminds one of the reflections of the silica-rich rocks, its shimmering light filtering through the woods.

Fatima Todde and her brother Pietro in the goat stable. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

It’s here that Caseificio Todde has for 30 years produced different types of cheese, including pecorino, casu agedu, casu e murgia, caprino, and ricotta. Started by her parents, who now spend their days selling the farm’s cheese at local markets, the farm is innovating its way into a new era with fresh ideas and new products, thanks in part to agroforestry.

Ancient grazing, young farmers

Close to the mountaintop, the operation’s tireless goats speed up the slope, grazing in an ancient system called silvopasture. A kind of agroforestry — the growing of beneficial trees and woody plants in combination with annual crops and herbs — silvopasture combines trees with forage plants and grazing livestock in an integrated system where the trees benefit from free fertilizer and pruning. Like other agroforestry systems, silvopasture holds great potential for sequestering carbon dioxide, and livestock such as these goats enjoy the fallen fruits and lush greenery of the forest floor, luxuriating in cool shade that reduces their stress from heat, thereby boosting milk production.

Acorns are happily eaten by goats in the silvopasture system. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Towering chestnut trees (Castanea sativa) dominate the forested landscape, merging their intricate branches with wild cherry (Prunus avium) and holm oak (Quercus ilex). The goats eat fallen chestnuts, cherries and acorns, depending on the season, plus herbs, grasses, legumes and shrubs. The understory canvas melts into a brown-and-green color palette that the goats keep clean, fattening up while lessening the chance of forest fires.

An hour’s drive on winding roads from Nuoro, the nearest city, Desulo is a remote area affected by a population drain, a problem shared with similar areas of internal Europe. While animal husbandry and dairy businesses wrote the story at the heart of Sardinia, these crafts now struggle to survive.

But silvopasture now provides a new way for people to remain on the land, as these ancient businesses are diversified by a new generation.

Pietro Todde, 28, Fatima’s youngest brother, has just finished university and is pursuing exams to qualify as a professional agronomist. He works with his sister and her fiance, Roberto Nonnis, a shepherd with a flock of a hundred goats, in the family business.

“Currently, we aim to produce the entire forage for our farm,” Pietro says. “Three years ago, I started to crop alfalfa to be economically self-sufficient and improve the quality of our graze.” This morning he is helping Nonnis take care of the animals, and is followed by Teresa, the friendliest goat of the flock.

A thirsty crop, alfalfa grows well among the trees’s shade in their silvopasture system. Pietro produces more than 30% of the goat kids’ forage this way; over the past year, that saved their operation approximately 4,000 euros ($4,400). Alfalfa crop waste also decomposes with chestnut and oak leaves, generating a fertile compost for soil that lessens erosion and retains water.

Alfalfa grows well among the trees and is a favorite forage for the goat kids. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

In the past, especially during droughts, they bought all the farm’s hay, especially alfalfa, usually grown in lowland monocultures. Sardinian farms in general import a large amount of such forage, often from the nearby Campidano plain, or from elsewhere in Italy and as far away as Latin America.

Pietro aims to put his agronomy studies into practice by expanding their hay production with clover in nearby fields, to provide hay for the entire flock and supplement the forage they find in the trees. Most of these neighboring fields are now abandoned and fragmented into little plots, owned by neighbors who’ve migrated to cities.

‘In our chestnut forest, everything is useful’

Nonnis, 29, met Fatima in Desulo when they were children: five years ago they started to share the work of the family business. He starts his day at 7 a.m., feeding and milking goats in the stable while the kids jump about, bouncing upon invisible clouds, before he releases the flock of 100 to graze their 15 hectares (37 acres) of silvopasture woods.

Fallen chestnuts litter the ground where goats can find them. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

In just a few minutes, the goats climb the steep slope to an enormous chestnut tree overlooking the woods. Fatima jokes with her brother about the possible age of the tree, and all the things it has seen over time. “Who knows who sat below this tree during the Middle Ages?” she wonders about the majestic tree. “I think this chestnut may have 800 years,” her brother replies.

These old chestnuts have likely witnessed many ancient welcome rituals for spring: recalling typical Sardinian animals, mamutzones dressed in fur and horn and resembling sheep and goats still dance for fertility in the region.

Chestnut wood has also historically been used as a construction material; Nonnis built the goat stable with timber collected from the surrounding forest. “Everything [from] our chestnut forest is useful,” he says. “We sell the fruits and we use the wood for construction and as timber for firewood.”

The goats play an important role in the forest’s maintenance and safety from wildfire, he continues: “Thanks to the goats we don’t need maintenance for the forest or herbicides and fertilizer, they are a natural ‘weed whacker.’ A lot of farmers ask me to bring my flocks to their fields.”

Mamutzones. Image courtesy of Ulrike Steinbrenner.

Sardinia to lead the European agroforestry conversation 

As with the Toddes, the population of Sardinia’s internal areas has traditionally relied on forest products. Half of Sardinia is covered by trees, an area of 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres). In 2018, the European Forest Institute named Sardinia a European Forests Island in recognition of that bond to the landscape.

Despite this deep relationship, thousands leave the mountains for the cities each year, either within Sardinia or abroad, due to the island’s lack of economic opportunities and poor infrastructure relative to the rest of Italy and Europe generally. In this regard, Desulo offers a ray of hope.

“Desulo is an exemplary case of how agroforestry can avoid depopulation in the Mediterranean internal zone,” says Antonello Franca of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and coordinator of the project AgForward-Sardinia. “Here in Sardinia, silvopastoral systems have a strong tradition: they must be supported by national laws and economic incentives. Shepherds have to be recognized as the guardians of these territories,” he says, adding that they keep the landscape alive “thanks to the great potential offered by the agroforestry system’s self-production of forage.”

Roberto Nonnis starts the day milking some of his 100 goats for the Toddes’ cheesemaking enterprise, before turning them out to graze in the surrounding woods. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

From May 18-20 this year, the city of Nuoro will showcase this by hosting the 5th European Agroforestry Conference, organized by the European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF). “We bring the EURAF conference to Sardinia because the agroforestry system is still alive, an ancient practice abandoned in other European territories with the arrival of monoculture,” says Francesca Camilli, the EURAF delegate for Italy and a researcher at CNR. “Southern Europe represents agroforestry in all [its] value. Especially in Sardinia, agroforestry contributes to the productivity of the region, giving a chance to young generations to start a business.”

Sardinia could be seen as a laboratory for the potential of agroforestry for the whole Mediterranean coast, says Franca, who is one of the organizers of the EURAF conference. “The Toddes’ family story is an example of how agroforestry can help people to remain in these lands,” he says, adding that “something has to change to push the people to take care of these zones, or this heritage may be lost forever. Agroforestry integrated with silvopasture makes the pieces fit in a complex system [and] this can be the key: animals and people who supervise these territories against forest fires and the consequences of the climate emergency.”

Women and agroforestry bring new flavors to cheeses 

Ms. Todde making cheese. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Becoming a cheesemaker was a natural evolution from Fatima Todde’s childhood games, which led her to the University of Food Technology and then to a role innovating the family’s production from traditional local cheeses like casu agedu, casu e murgia, and caprino, to new ones like stracchino. However, the main product remains the renowned pecorino, often used in seadas, a traditional dessert in Sardinia: little pastries filled with cheese and lemon zest, then deep-fried and drizzled with honey.

“This work is my passion and doesn’t matter if I need to stir the curd until midnight,” Fatima says. “Five years ago I [took] over the family business, and thanks to the university studies, I started to commercialize innovative products.” And providing forage via the agroforestry system brings special flavors to their cheeses, she says, “thanks to the essential and medicinal herbs eaten by goats.”

She is among the few women cheesemakers on the island. “Women are central in pastoralism but no one talks about them,” says Giulia Simula from the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies, who’s involved in the Pastres project on pastoralism. However, she adds, “A new generation of women [such] as Fatima Todde is changing the narrative.”

Goats, guardians of the forest

The blue hour is coming, and only a few sunny brushstrokes blend into the ultramarine horizon; the winter days are short and goat grazing time is already over. Fatima and Pietro arrive home to Desulo, park the car and look at the horizon. A light shining in another part of the mountains, like a star moving through the woods, draws their attention.

Concerned that it could be a fire near their cheesemaking operation, they phone and ask about the lights. Suddenly, the lights disappear; it was only a car, stopping briefly among the woods with its headlights blazing. The forests here remain safe, thanks in no small part to the grazing of goats under the care of their shepherds.

Monica Pelliccia is an independent multimedia journalist based in Italy: this is her third article about agroforestry for Mongabay, see them all here and follow her work on Twitter via @monicapelliccia.

This report is part of Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of trends in global agroforestry, view the full series here.

Mr. Todde moves a group out to graze in the agroforestry system, where they eat acorns, chestnuts, brush, brambles, and herbs. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.

Banner image: Goats enjoy the shade and forage under the oaks and chestnut trees of Sardinia. Image by Monica Pelliccia for Mongabay.