the wild cherries

30 June 2023

Cheese is for the people. A place of rebirth for young individuals with disabilities and disadvantaged backgrounds, where they find a spirit of learning, socialization, and independent living through farming and beekeeping. Among the exhibitors at the market of producers, we find Giovanni Vaschetto, president of the social cooperative “I ciliegi selvatici” (The Wild Cherries) in Santa Brigida di Manta. At Cheese, the cooperative showcases a selection of products originating from their fields in the high Val Maira.

Within the realms of disability, agricultural ecosystems, and beehives, lies a space of acquisition—a gathering of values, social connections, work, empathy, and understanding. Disabilities take center stage and contribute added value to agriculture and the production of honey, jams, juices, sauces, and herbal teas that can be tasted at Cheese 2023.

An uncontaminated union

My encounter with Mr. Giovanni captivated me from the very beginning. Not only did he come to my office in Bra for this interview, but also because of the courageous story behind the genesis of his social cooperative, “I ciliegi selvatici.” Up there, at an altitude of 1800 meters, in Canosio, wild cherry trees grow—not for eating, but for admiration and emulation. “In Canosio, cherries ripen later than usual. This fact gave rise to a parallel with the growth and development of our young individuals: they mature at their own pace, but they, too, achieve their goals,” he proudly explains.

The goal behind the establishment of this cooperative is to integrate socially disadvantaged youth and individuals with physical, social, and mental disabilities into agricultural work. So meadows, animals, bees, fruits, and medicinal plants become the guiding light for these individuals. “The social cooperative was founded in 2010, following the passing of my wife,” Giovanni tells me. “At that time, my son Alessandro had just completed an internship at a sports goods store. The store owner had land in the high mountains ready to be cultivated. This is how the idea took shape, through conversations among the Federica Pelissero Foundation in Marene, the Scout Group Agesci in Saluzzo, and the parents of disabled children.”

The challenge of the highlands

In a small municipality in the high Val Maira, in the province of Cuneo, the project takes form and substance. Set against a backdrop of mountains, coniferous forests, and meadows, “I ciliegi selvatici” manages approximately 15 hectares of land where various medicinal herbs are cultivated, harvested, dried, and transformed into products. Among their uses, genepy and donkey milk are the main ingredients for the recently launched cosmetic line. Other areas of the property are dedicated to vegetable crops, wheat, and potatoes. Additionally, in Canosio, there are beehives for the production of different types of honey.

Apart from their direct production, the cooperative relies on local suppliers for other types of products. “Contributing members supply us with certain raw materials such as lavender, grapes, rice, and beer. We transform the product based on the available resources and processing costs. Unfortunately, we currently have limited subsidies, with most of our support coming from private sources. Since the pandemic, our overall profitability has been low,” explains Giovanni.

Downstream from cultivation, the entire harvest is transformed into finished products. “Over the past five years, our project has expanded further with the establishment of a processing laboratory and the opening of a sales point in the municipality of Verzuolo. Our young individuals actively participate not only in the cultivation and processing of agricultural products but also in direct interaction with the public. All of this enriches their social and work experiences.”

The Market

You can the “Wild Cherries” at Cheese!

The heart of the co-operative

The combination of ambitious projects and limited profitability is made possible by the individuals who form and live within the cooperative. “I didn’t realize this project alone; I am surrounded and assisted daily by people from the community. For example, Valerio has been actively involved in taking care of our plots for years. Luciana manages the product transformation in our laboratory, and Rosi handles the warehouse and sales point,” says Giovanni. He also tells me about his son Alessandro: “He comes to the cooperative for two half-days a week. He prefers to work independently. So when we have fabrics to work with, I bring them to his house, and he is the one who cuts and assembles our confectionery.”

The number of workers and volunteers varies significantly from month to month. “We welcome disabled volunteers through work-school programs, collaborating with educational agencies and vocational schools, primarily on seasonal contracts. The organization of activities depends on the availability of the young individuals, the available space, and the time of year,” Giovanni explains. During the winter months, “I ciliegi selvatici” organizes events for the holiday season. In January, February, and March, when the bees are at rest, they focus on hive maintenance, painting, and the harvesting of oranges and kiwis. “There is never a typical day; we organize ourselves based on the work at hand. If we receive two crates of plums, they can’t sit there for long—they need to be processed immediately,” Giovanni emphasizes.

Inspiring individuals

Among all the young individuals who have been part of the cooperative, there is one indelible story that deeply moves the president. It is the story of Letizia, a 23-year-old girl who joined the cooperative after studying herbalism in Savigliano. She accompanied Giovanni in various activities, from managing social media pages to becoming part of the management team.

Giovanni tell me: “Letizia was a true discovery. After overcoming a difficult illness, she became intrigued and passionate about our reality. One day, she called me, and in the following days, she came to visit the cooperative accompanied by her mother. I found her next to me, setting up the market stand in Mantra at 7 in the morning, in the rain. Today, her boyfriend Gianluca also works with us. This, to me, is the most significant story we have built over the years.”

In every sense, in every direction

“I ciliegi selvatici” has been carrying out inclusive support projects for several years. Sottiletta, Nocciola, Geneviève, Stella, and Violetta are all names chosen by children who have decided to adopt their own goat, a project that has been active since 2021, along with “Adotta un alveare” (Adopt a Beehive). The following year, “Spazi APErti” (Open BEEspaces) was born, providing an opportunity to delve into the world of beekeeping alongside disadvantaged and disabled individuals. Giovanni excitedly tells me what it entails: “Spazi APErti are organized days with different associations, youngsters, and volunteers. In the morning, we cover a more theoretical part about beekeeping, and in the afternoon, there’s a hands-on experience where we extract honey from the honeycombs, bottle it, and label it. At the end of the activity, each participant gets to take home their own jar of honey.”

The company has laid the groundwork for the implementation of two additional projects. The MP3 project (where 3M stands for Honey, Sea, and Mountains, and 3P represents Pollen, Propolis, and Royal Jelly) in collaboration with the Biodiversamente agricultural company in Imperia. Already a contributing member of the cooperative, the project introduces the youngsters to the cultivation of an ancient plant with numerous properties—lavender—through an educational lavender field. Giovanni continues, “In September, we are launching a sensory program for the visually impaired, people with disabilities, and those without disabilities. We named it ‘Senso,’ which stands for Sensibility, East, North, South, West—a sensibility that works in all directions.”

The social agriculture of the future

After a delightful conversation about his scouting experience in his youth and his journeys along the Camino de Santiago, Giovanni speaks to me about the cooperative’s future: “Starting from a more practical perspective, we would like to acquire a sterilizer and develop aquaponic cultivation to double our production. We have the space, but there is a lot of work to be done and funds to be sought.”

Despite still experiencing the repercussions of the pandemic and making every effort to address the resulting debt, in the medium term, “I ciliegi selvatici” would like to further expand their apiculture education and enhance their e-commerce platform. “We are open to any kind of experience and collaboration. I am discovering many cooperatives with immense potential, such as those in Turin, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia, with whom we would like to exchange our products. Additionally, to stabilize the financial aspect, we would like to launch a crowdfunding campaign.”

The Wild Cherries at Cheese

At Cheese, the agricultural and social company presents a selection of its agricultural products, which are even more appreciated when paired with cheese. It is Giovanni’s first time participating in such a large-scale event. He shares, “After many local markets, I wanted to take part in a major fair. It will certainly be a good opportunity to expand our visibility and make ourselves known. It’s the first time, but you have to try and see how it goes.”

I don’t know how old he is; I didn’t ask. But as he told me when we first met, “From the neck up, I’m still young!” And it’s true. His eyes light up like a child holding his newly adopted goat when he talks about his cooperative. With each spontaneous use of the formal “you” outside of our initial agreement, he smiles, saying, “You can even call me Grandpa Gibi if you want,” he concludes. In short, Giovanni is someone to know, a reality to discover, and a story to support. Itis my first time participating in a Slow Food event, but the values of good, fair, and clean have been ingrained in the cooperative since its inception, and I can’t help but be moved by it.

by Cecilia Cacre, [email protected]

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

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