"Hoe!" "Kitchen!" "Scissors!" The working day begins with a group shout-out. There’s a different one every week; it’s a bit like what the scouts or football teams do before a game, a team-building, energising exercise. Deep down, of course, these people are a team too. "They had never had any work experience in their entire lives but now they are here every morning bang on time at 8.30 and ready to go."
Maria Teresa Pati is president of the Fondazione Div.ergo-Onlus that is leading the Utilità Marginale project which launched at the end of October last year with the aim of providing opportunities for young people with intellectual disabilities. "The project is built on the legacy of two other experiences that are already up and running but the 2017 Terre Colte call for proposals gave us the impetus to make the leap."
Regenerating abandoned and uncultivated land
The CON IL SUD Foundation and Enel Cuore’s Terre Colte call for proposals was launched to transform uncultivated or abandoned areas and to use that process as an opportunity for social inclusion and development. Utilità Marginale is one of the projects selected from the call for proposals and will see 10 young people with intellectual disabilities taking up positions in the workplace, three with open-ended contracts and seven under a work training grant. The most innovative feature of the project is the regeneration of five plots of land on the outskirts of Lecce: one hectare of uncultivated ground, two hectares of abandoned land and one hectare of underused terrain that have been added to the initial vegetable garden. "These plots of land were cultivated until 15 years ago but then the children and grandchildren of the owners either lost interest or went to live elsewhere."
This is where the Utilità Marginale team came in. The young people range in age from 22 to 45 and have very different backstories. All of them, however, are united by one common factor: they have discovered a love of the land. "At the start, they were lazy and hesitant. They didn’t like getting their hands dirty," explains Pati. "Now they’re enthusiastic. Their families tell us that at home they talk about the cycle of the seasons in farming. They acted as visitor guides at the Open Day with Slow Food too."
At the start of each working day, the group meets at the foundation’s headquarters and then they all set off together for the fields. "Everyone has their own job: getting all the tools out, preparing the backpacks, collecting up cell phones. They gather around in a circle and then focus on the plan for the day, give the group shout-out and get to work under the guidance of two workers from the Filodolio cooperative. After a mid-morning break, when everybody takes turns to prepare the snacks, the group attends technical and practical lessons, which we refer to as the Farmer University. Thanks to the Terre Colte call for proposals, these young people are learning a trade: to farm the land, plant a bulb of saffron, burn brushwood."
Towards a sustainable social farming supply chain
So what does the group grow? Of course, it all depends on the season and ranges from traditional native Salento crops such as legumes, grass peas, black chickpeas and saffron, to more innovative ones such as microgreens (turnips, broccoli, purple cabbage, purple basil, carrots, beets, radishes, rocket and celery) as well as wild plants such as the Jerusalem artichoke. The aim is to create a sustainable social farming supply chain model. "Over the last two years, we have been aiming to bring continuity to the project so that we can stand on our own two feet," explains the Div.ergo-Onlus president. The plan is to also sell products through a partnership with the Jemma cooperative and to involve the e-commerce portal Passalorto.it in home deliveries as well as the agricultural company Terre Lucane in preserving Jerusalem artichokes in oil. Also, in the pipeline are meetings with local farmers about biodiversity in Apulia, the cultivation of traditional crops and social farming, as well as training courses for high school students, event days and tourist experiences.
And the foundations have been laid and are looking positive: the city’s top restaurants are already buying the microgreens and saffron. "Three Michelin-starred chefs came to give us lessons, preparing no-cook dishes right here in front of our young people." Also involved in the innovative agriculture side of the project is the Professor of Agriculture Vito Paradiso of the University of Bari. "Our aim is to ensure these young people can live independent lives, and that doesn’t just mean doing things on their own because our philosophy is to do things together, getting to know the process and learning what to do."
Something that until very recently was unthinkable, in fact. Maria Teresa Pati still remembers the first time the young people saw a tractor: "They were all so excited – shouting out loud. It was like a merry-go-round!" Just a year later, that toy has become a tool of the trade.