Meadows in the plains

10 July 2023

Permanent meadows are not limited to highlands; they also exist in the plains, where their survival is threatened by urbanization and monocultures. Preserving them is an act of resistance and a work of regeneration. One example can be found at Garall, a farm specializing in the breeding of the Varzese-Tortonese-Ottonese cattle breed, among others.

Located in Robecco sul Naviglio, 70 meters above sea level in the province of Milan, the Garavaglia family has been caring for their land for three generations, producing the forage, cereals, and legumes necessary to feed their Varzese cattle while respecting their well-being and ecological sustainability.

From the Holstein to forgotten breeds

Before dedicating himself to forgotten breeds, Luca was a dedicated Holstein farmer, using advanced technology in his farming practices. He shares, “Our farm had conventional origins. At a certain point, in the 1990s with the milk quota scandal, I considered giving it all up. But, perhaps due to my veterinary profession, I became passionate about forgotten breeds, including the Varzese, which we simply call ‘la biunda’ here because of the color of their coat. It was nearly extinct. There used to be many local fairs dedicated to this breed, but when the Borgo San Ponzo fair was revived after about 30 years, in 2000, there were only 33 exhibited animals.”

And so, the former Holstein farmer became an advocate for a forgotten breed. All the producers came together, seeking institutional support, and Slow Food got involved, establishing a Presidium for this important regeneration project. Luca comments, “All these efforts, together, are saving it. The number of animals has increased to about 800, with 500 raised among all the producers in our association. It’s a significant recovery from the historical low of 60 animals in the 1990s.”

Cultivating biodiversity

Luca Garavaglia, a veterinarian, breeder, and farmer, leads the farm. He explains that their primary focus is preserving biodiversity and working with breeds that are best suited to the local context. “We are an organic farm. We raise endangered breeds such as the Varzese-Tortonese-Ottonese cattle, protected by Slow Food, as well as Padana and Cabannina breeds, in addition to pigs and poultry. We cultivate biodiversity, and 90% of our operations are closed-loop, limiting the need to purchase seeds.”

Providing proper nutrition for the cattle is crucial in their breeding. From April to November, their diet consists of fresh grass from the meadows. However, as Luca explains, the meadows in the plains are different from those found at higher altitudes. They are mowed more frequently, and the forage derived from them is less nutritious.

This is why the Varzese breed was chosen: “It is a robust breed, capable of appreciating and transforming grasses that other animals wouldn’t eat. It converts them into meat with remarkable organoleptic qualities.” The best meat is produced in April and May when the animals have access to fresh, green forage that is more suitable for their nutrition. This results in meat with a high percentage of yellow fat, which is not a defect but rather a reflection of their grass-based diet.

The Taste Workshop: September 16

At Cheese, we present cured meat made from the Varzese-Tortonese-Ottonese breed in a Taste Workshop dedicated to alternative natural cured meats, made not from pigs but from other animal species that play a crucial role in promoting pastoralism and sustainable breeding in both marginal areas and the plains, in balance with specific environmental contexts.

We sacrifice corn, or we sacrifice the meadows

Despite being poor in nutrients, the forage is vital for the survival of these cattle and the maintenance of environmental balance. Unfortunately, this balance is often sacrificed. For instance, during the hot and dry summer of 2022, many conventional producers surrounding our farm faced a difficult choice between irrigating their corn or preserving the meadows. The majority opted to sacrifice the meadows, favoring a crop with higher production costs and environmental impact.

The meadows are an important resource: Firstly, they provide natural food for herbivores that are primarily fed maize silage in the plains. Additionally, meadows play a crucial role in carbon dioxide sequestration in the soil and contribute to the preservation of increasingly scarce biodiversity. However, it is a misconception to think that a stable meadow is a wild meadow. As Luca explains, although they are undemanding, meadows still require care. “Our meadows are 100 years old, and we manage 35 hectares. We mow them four times a year, with the last cut in November. We use mowers to spread the grass and bale the hay into round bales. While they may not be as rich in plant species as mountain meadows, they still have a good number of varieties: grasses and legumes, pink and white clovers, pratense and ladino clover, loiessa, dandelions, spontaneous daisies, buttercups, lucerne…”

This context is not only favorable to the Varzese breed but also to bees. In addition to being a veterinarian and breeder, Luca is passionate about beekeeping, and the farm has 200 beehives. “Here, we produce acacia and linden honey, but we also sow flowers to ensure greater biodiversity.”

Here’s to stable meadows, forgotten breeds, those who preserve them, and the regeneration of the plains!

by Michela Lenta, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

The photos of the meadows are from Garall farm and taken by Ester Quattrer. The photo of the Varzese cows is from Cascina Santa Brera, owned by producer Irene Carpegna, and taken by Paolo Andrea Montanaro.

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