Talking with Donato of Lentemente
We are meeting Donato today at Orto di Casa Betania community gardens in Benevento, a social project he runs alongside his agricultural Cooperative Lentemente, from which we buy much of our produce. It’s an oasis of green and tranquillity, surrounded by the inner city’s housing blocks and hospital, teenagers playing scrabble, working on their Macs drinking espresso, craft beers displayed on recycled crates, it’s the kind of place that you find in Margate or Shoreditch but here in the south of Italy it's a little more unusual.
We’re early so Simona and I hang out. Gianni who works in the gardens shows us around, explaining what they grow. People here in the city (Benevento) can come and choose what they want, have it picked and weighed and the prices are fair. All of the food is produced without insecticides or nasty chemicals. There’s also 20 allotments that have been given to tenants in the housing blocks, with more planned.
Donato arrives, we get coffee and tea and sit in the shade of one of the many umbrella trees that surround the garden.
H: This is great place, it reminds me of being in England. Except it’s warm.
D: Thank you. It’s been a very successful project helping people with mental disabilities and other issues find a place in the community.
H: When did you start Lentemente?
D: We started Lentemente in 2013, but before that I was working in Rome on a similar kind of project for 10 years and before that I studied Social economy at University. But then in 2012 I wanted to come home. We had no money or machinery or anything and it took some time to find the land. Eventually we found some abandoned farm land in Casaldiani in Cercello. We started planting ancient grain varieties native to Campania, as well as hemp.
H: Why these particular grains?
D: We took a big tour around Campania and Molise, researching what grains were native to here, what grains had always been planted here and grow naturally. We planted only hard wheat varieties as we have many wild boar here, and they eat the soft wheat. The grains we chose are lower in gluten and native to here in the south of Italy. It’s what our ancestors grew. It’s agriculture that works with nature. It’s clean, no herbicides, no pesticides, low yielding but very high quality. The same with hemp. We have organic certification but we don’t put in our labels. If you buy from us you know it’s been produced naturally and thoughtfully.
H: Some argue, Monsanto for example, that we cannot feed the world like this. That industrial agriculture is necessary.
D: The problem is not the amount of food that we grow but its distribution. In the EU we destroy so much food. The EU pays to cut the grapes early. The issue isn’t the food. Industrialising the production of food isn’t the answer. One, the life of the farmer is worse, they work just for the banks. Two, it destroys the land. We are destroying the land and the wildlife. One day nature will ask for the bill. Two years ago here in Benevento we had terrible floods. Before industrial methods, the wine growers would dig trenches every 50 metres for the water to run off, it took time and space but it was the way it had always been done. Now industrial methodology doesn’t bother with these traditional ways and look – the floods destroyed everything. Thirdly people’s health. People are over medicalised. Take this take or that. Instead of this we could consume in a different way, grow in a different way. And there is the human slavery issue too.
H: Yes I was reading an article a couple of days ago about this in Spain. I know if I buy a £3 t-shirt for Raphael that there is a human cost to this, but I hadn’t thought about it too much with cheap lemons from Spain. It’s terrible.
D: There is another system, and not just the organic side of things, but also social. There are people with mental health problems, people who have been in jail. These people are part of society and should be recognised as such.
H: Do people here get what you’re trying to do? Do they agree with your philosophy?
D: Slowly slowly. At first some people found it difficult to see people with mental illness working, it made them uncomfortable. Parents were worried about their children being served by people who had just got out of jail! But now it’s normal. People are realising that it’s better to have everything out in the open instead of hiding these issues away. We’ve created 20 gardens for people here in the inner city. Now we plan another 20. We teach people how to plant naturally, using local seeds and varietals. Everything slowly – Lentemente! You know here, when you’re 18 you want to leave, but then you realise actually it’s not so bad after all! We began to believe in our land and a possibility for the future.
H: Are there other cooperatives like yours in Italy?
D: Yes in most regions and also in other countries. I’m just back from Poland where we have been working, next we head to Wales and then onto Paris. Now there are some EU grants available for these kind of projects – well not for you anymore (he says laughing).
H: Let’s not talk about that! And so along with Wales and Paris what else does the future hold?
D: We will make a project here in Sannio working with migrants to make wine. We are looking for some land at the moment, and funding of some sort.
H: That’s a great idea. I’ve wanted to create a project back in England working with migrants. Maybe something with Supper Clubs. Food is a great equaliser, it really brings people together. One of the main reasons I want to have my own business is so that I can do something like this. It’s a really inspirational idea. Certainly we’ll buy the wine from you in the future at the very least!
D: It should create work for 10-20 people, and help the different communities here understand one another.
H: Our customers back home really appreciate the beautiful flour and produce that you make, as do we so thank you and well done on being so inspirational!