Michele Perinotti, the paddy fields of the Grange
To an outside observer, rice cultivation would seem to have a heavy environmental impact, with a fairly fraught interaction between man and nature. How significant is this, how much is it taken into account, in your production area, le Grange vercellesi?
To the casual observer, who doesn’t know the area well, it might seem that changing the landscape with the seasons, irrigating and submerging the rice, must have a fundamental impact on the local microclimate and habitats. What they don’t realize is that in 1863 the government built the Cavour Canal, which transformed the area from fetid marshland into a highly productive agricultural zone. With water now flowing, the local climate and humidity changed for the better, making the area more liveable, even though summer conditions are still, let’s say, unique. But the Italians have short memories, and the people who live their everyday lives here tend not to remember the past so well. There’s this constant counterposition between the country folk, who are used to living in a supposedly ill-regulated microclimate, and the townspeople who live close to the paddy fields: if they could, they would press an imaginary button and overhaul the climatic conditions. This tension has become especially acute in recent decades, as the workforce needed in the fields has been notably reduced by the advent of mechanization. But the people who still work here, I would say that their sensitivity to environmental issues depends largely on their education and their age – though of course, the actual number of years a person has doesn’t always mean they belong easily to a certain generation.
Rice production methods have changed a lot in a relatively short space of time. The story of the rice weeders is well-established in the collective imagination, but it’s a bygone era, really. What has changed in recent decades, in rice cultivation?
The major change in rice cultivation has been the movement from animals to mechanization, from the use of organic substances, left over from raising livestock, to the use of chemical fertilizers. Thanks to weedkillers, manual selection is no longer necessary either. This hasn’t actually happened overnight: it’s a process that really got going between the 1950s and the 1970s. The sector hasn’t always been able to cope with the socio-environmental ramifications of these changes. What has happened quickly, though, is how the machines have become more and more technologically advanced and precise (laser graders, GPS-assisted guides, touchscreen commands, joystick controls, chromatic analysis, drones etc). This has entailed a need for highly specialized personnel, and it also means that chemical products have largely been replaced by a more precise, efficient form of agriculture. Future transformations will take us even further in a green direction, as the community and market demands. With further steps in the cultural revolution, with even more advanced technology, we’ll be able to reduce the use of chemicals even more and use organic fertilizers instead.
Your company is called gli Aironi, in homage to the majestic bird that has returned to le Grange; it had previously fled, as pesticide abuse was severely damaging biodiversity. What’s the general situation today?
Choices made in the agricultural sector have shaken up the business environment, to the extent that the Grey Heron has become a symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, such is the threat that it faces in Italy. Things changed substantially in the 1980s and 90s, with mechanized tools giving way to electronic ones; the mechatronic and chemical industries also evolved. Along with the final consumers, we now all shoulder responsibility in the fight against the environmental crisis. The new generations are very conscious of environmental concerns and atmospheric events, and they will not tolerate any dragging of feet when it comes to making decisions and setting forth a vision. In this, they are on the side of European norms, which tend to put the environment at the heart of the agricultural system; they don’t treat it as a side issue. So that gives us hope for the future, hope that people will pay more attention to things, and hope that all producers will adapt their methods in the coming years. We want a high-quality, high-volume production that is simultaneously sustainable for the local ecosystem.
Michele Perinotti is the founder of the rice-producing company Gli Aironi. Based in Lignana, in the province of Vercelli, the company is dedicated to research and development in the sector. We asked Signor Perinotti to tell us about the environmental situation in an area as densely populated as Le Grange: 200,000 hectares of which 100,000 are given over to rice-growing.