Family farming gone

Small farms abandoned

Travelling through the landscape of Apulia a month ago, we wound down the scrub-green slopes of the Gargano Promontory, a massive rock projecting into the Adriatic, and largely a national park for its highest and darkest forests.

It was once a sacred mountain too, and still is a place of pilgrimage and healing, and a center for the controversial cult of Padre Pio, as he is buried at San Giovanni Rotondo, where we stayed for a night on our journey south.

To the South  and West lies perhaps the flattest land in Italy, the Tavoliere, a wedge of silt dumped by rivers threading to the coast past Foggia and Cerignola. Everywhere were massive fields, and everywhere were abandoned farms. Along the 25 km. between Lido di Rivoli and the on-ramp to the A14 to the south, we saw perhaps two or three occupied houses. And several walled compounds of massive agribusiness concerns.

View south from the Gargano to the river plains

View south from the Gargano to the river plains

What happened?

The number of ‘Large’ farms (in Italy, over 100 hectares, or 250 acres) has steadily increased (+23% between 2000-2010), and the size of those farms has also increased. Over the same period, the number of ‘Small’ family farms (in Italy, less than 20 hectares, or 50 acres) decreased 34% (data in this PDF).

No one home

No one home

The area is naturally marshy, and has undergone drainage since at least the 11th century (thanks, Robert Guiscard!) in order to make more agricultural land available, and (as a consequence) reducing the breeding grounds for malarial mosquitos. Its fertility makes it the ‘granary of Italy’, though there are also huge vineyards and olive orchards as well. Big pasta companies such as Barilla are located there. Their processing facilities had clearly taken over the landscape. Instead of owner-operators, there were employees.

We only drove through the area because we had wandered down by the coast in search of an ancient Roman settlement called Sipontum, which has some rock-cut tombs and an early Christian basilica, but everything was fenced-off or overgrown when we visited.


The flank of the chiesa

But one site was open, the Church of San Leonardo di Siponto, the last way station for pilgrims along the coast before they began their ascent to the holy places of the Gargano, where lay the Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel, the oldest sanctuary in Europe dedicated to that heavenly character. Apparently Michael had appeared with a fiery sword (in a big storm…) atop the mountain overlooking Siponto on the eve of a battle (8 May, AD 663) between the Lombards and the Byzantines, thereby helping to save Italy from the Greeks.

The lion devouring

The lion: devouring or carrying?

The complex was built in the 12th century by Benedictine monks, and had the fantastic lion-based columns fronting the entrance that we had begun to see along the Adriatic coast of Italy.

Angel and Demon

The Archangel Michael victorious

Animals entwined

Animals and mythic creatures entwined

Animals and monsters, twisted and contorted in vines, were cut into the stone around the entranceways, staring calmly.

The magi bearing gifts

The magi bearing gifts; Micah is a big fan of the stellacometa above the first king’s head.

The church was open (we just pushed open the door) but no one was there. Behind the church, the ruins of the monastic center (and its poor house) were supposedly being restored, but gangplanks, scaffolding and braces on the walls looked like they had been abandoned for years. To the side of the church was a single neat row of residences, apparently for the clergy who still live there.


A well-tended cactus garden adorned the sunny east side, guarded by a cat who calmly rubbed against the spines as she waited for our kids to pet her.

Jesus and Mary Chains

Jesus and Mary Chains

Inside the church, the edges of the apse and the statue of Jesus were draped with links of iron chains. We have no idea why, so if anyone knows, please comment below!

A marking of the seasonal shifts of sunlight was also built into the design of the church.

The cosmically-shaped window which projects a beam of sunlight

The cosmically-shaped window which projects a beam of sunlight on midsummer’s day. A sign in the church says (translated for you): “TWO MYSTERIOUS RAYS OF SUN ILLUMINATE THIS MARVELOUS CHURCH. In this church on the 21st of June at noon (the summer solstice) a ray of sun, passing through the gnomonic hole in the central vault, falls exactly halfway between the two pillars in front of the side entrance. On the 21st of March (the spring equinox) and 23rd of September (the autumnal equinox), about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a ray of sun, through the gnomonic hole on the right side (to those entering from the side entrance) projects a spot of light into the apse [of the altar] on the left.” The window for the equinoctial beam is shown below.

The window (on the right) for the equinoctial sunshafts.

The window (on the right) for the equinoctial sunshafts.

After the 13th century, the decline of the monastic order shifted ownership of the complex to Teutonic Knights, who remained until 1482, when it passed to a series of cardinal-level families.

The plan of the complex

The plan of the complex

Ordinary farmers don’t have time to be pilgrims, and their hard lives rarely make them angels, or earn them sainthood.

All they do is feed people.

This post is for you, Dad.