Travel was never part of my family “DNA” during my childhood. The daily chores of dairy farm life limited any “time off” for my parents, especially my father. But Sunday afternoon drives through the countryside were my father’s “time away” to explore and check out what crops were being grown or the status of an old friend’s farm. I may not have found those drives exciting as a child, but I still hold close the memories of my dad’s curiosity beyond the car window.
Even though his travels outside of the U.S. ended after World War II, my dad’s desire to know about agriculture everywhere did not. Over the years, as my travels expanded far and wide, so did my father’s questions. I was expected to be his “eyes.” Perhaps, it’s this ingrained sense that leads me to find joy when I can experience the food and farm connection wherever I am. Experiencing Italy’s countryside through our recent stay at the Fattoria La Vecchia Quercia was the perfect connection. With the global growth of agritourism, the doors are open to numerous opportunities to explore!
Seeing beyond the castle from our farmstead window was perhaps how my father viewed the Kentucky countryside from his car window … with a sense of wonderment and appreciation for “those that love the land.” It was from this viewpoint that I value Francesa Panci’s vision for agricultural growth beyond the town’s 14th century castle, and realize that agritourism just may be the new “crop” to preserve the land.
Preserving the Past
In the U.S., approximately 2,000 acres of farmland goes out of production daily.1 Suburban sprawl, combined with an aging farmer population and economic challenges, is leading to new development and changing rural landscapes. And this is not unique to our society. Countries across the world are seeking solutions to preserve farmland and promote economic growth. In Italy, like several European Union (EU) countries, the initial push in the 1960s began to develop tourism in regions dominated by small farms with limited ability for economic growth.2 This was seen as an opportunity to help farmers stay on their land and offset high labor and land costs. Over the years, EU agritourismo policies have provided incentives for small farmers to stay or return to the farm, creating new revenue streams along with a welcome mat for travelers far and wide. Hence, the calling for Francesca Panci, a journalist turned entrepreneurial extraordinaire, to return to her family land.
Francesca Panci — Creating a Vision for the Future
“You can leave the farm, but the farm never leaves you” may best describe the inspiration that prompted the career transition Francesca Panci made about 10 years ago. After working as a journalist in Venice for five years. she decided to return to her family farm in Poppi, a small Tuscany village outside of Florence. She really missed her “place” and wanted to transition the farm into an agritourismo venue. “I was born here, my family belongs and worked in Tuscany for generations. I wanted to come back to do a project on my family property,” Francesca told me. “I did this because I love this place. My idea was to create a real place where guests can see Tuscany without any stereotypes and experience innovative farm-to-table cuisine,” she added.
With financial support from the EU, Francesca was able to start the transformation. She stated: “At the time I was a woman under 40 years and the government provides incentives to improve female-owned businesses in rural areas of the countries.” In fact, she received almost 40% reimbursement of the renovation costs of the original family house and stable because she made the residence carbon neutral by installing solar panels and heating the house and pool with wood (and yes, Francesca loads wood into the outdoor furnace). However, renovation reimbursement is not without specific guidelines. As Francesca mentioned, one can do internal renovations, but the outside structure of any existing building cannot be changed. Authenticity is key.
Agritourismo villas, by regulation, must be on viable farmland. In addition to the small herd of Limousin cattle and hogs on the farm, olive trees and a truffle tree forest exist. With the financial assistance provided to owners to promote agricultural production, Francesca was able to recoup 60% of the cost of 450 truffle trees and protective fencing. Italy, especially in the Tuscany mountain side, has the three main ingredients for growing black truffles: soil that drains well and contains a high amount of limestone and a mild climate.3 Unfortunately, the wild boar is the nemesis. Fencing and close monitoring is required to keep the truffles from getting in the wrong mouth! Truffle season was just starting while some of our group was there … and one was found in an early hunt.
It’s Not for the Faint of Heart
Farming or running a restaurant are not for the faint of heart. Enter agritourism, the combination of both! First, to be a professional Agricolture, Francesa needed to pass a test that showed her understanding of agriculture. With her farming background, this was probably the easiest part of her transition. However, to obtain certification as an Agr (colture) Chef required more training and work experience. When she moved back to the Poppi area, Francesa started taking cooking classes with Slow Food and traveled to classes in Japan, London and the Mauritius Island, followed by attending a private cooking school in Florence for nine months. Following her training and a year of restaurant work she obtained the title of Agr (colture) Chef in 2014. With this training, Francesca provides meals and cooking classes for her guests during their stay — a “must do” that I would highly recommend!
In addition to the routine concerns of running this type of operation, Francesca, like other hospitality driven businesses, experienced the effects of COVID during the past two years. In 2020, she had some Italian guests, but lost 70% of her standard business. In 2021, she lost almost 35% of her standard customer base and had only EU or Italian guests. Our group was one of the first (if not the first) from the states since before COVID.
Creating the Experience
Agritouism, like any farming operation, is not designed for one with limited energy. Francesca laughs that some of her friends thinks she has the best job where she can just enjoy that glass of “San Giovese wine on the terrace nightly at sunset!” But as Francesca states, “my job is actually thinking about how to make a good San Giovese wine or black truffle … even on weekends” (when her friends are at the beach)!
So, what keeps her going, in addition to her son, husband and parents? It’s the people! “I love meeting people from all over the world and spending time with them. It’s absolutely the best part of my job,” Francesca states. “Creating an Italian experience with food, wine and lifestyle” is her goal and it shows!
Words of Wisdom
Whether it’s in the U.S. or the EU, preservation of farmland is critical to the long-term stability of our economy. All of us may not see castles out our windows, but we can promote what our regions have to offer. “Focus on the best there is in your area: experiences, products, places … and ‘sell’ just the truth,” Francesca advices. “Don’t pretend to be something (the farm or region) is not. Create the experience, connect guests back to the farm,” she added.
If we all had Francesca’s passion and vision, agritourism may just be a key to preserving our land. Only time will tell.
Fattoria La Vecchia Quercia
via Colle Ascensione, 159 – 52014
Poppi (Ar) Italy
mobile: + 39 348 36 37 186
Iscrizione CCIAA di Arezzo n: 150727