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View into the Vinschgau from Plawenn (elevation 1730 meters), a small village historically associated with high-elevation livestock farming and heritage grains. (Photo: Philip Ackerman-Leist)

"Ur" is the new green. So it seems, at least, in the Vinschgau Valley of the South Tirol in Italy, a region of the Alps steeped in several millennia of documented agricultural traditions. A landscape undoubtedly known to Ötzi – the much-acclaimed 5,300-year-old Iceman whose remains were discovered in a melting glacier just above the valley in 1993 – the Vinschgau Valley is now the site of yet another historical question that has emerged in an increasingly heated climate. In this case, the question comes in the form of a surprising referendum currently before the 5,088 residents of the township of Mals: Should agricultural pesticides be banned to protect the health of the residents, the surrounding ecosystem and the integrity of the township’s historical agricultural practices?

According to an astounding 75 percent of the township’s voters, with a 65 percent participation rate among registered voters, the answer as of September 5 is a resounding "Ja" (German being the mother tongue of the majority of the population in this autonomous province of Italy). The echoes of such a precedent have barely begun to emanate, but they promise to travel far, even across the Atlantic.

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Konrad Messner in dialog with Green Mountain College students in the guesthouse "Stube," the traditional gathering area in Tirolean homes and guesthouses. (Photo: John Casazza)

Ironically, at the commencement of the two-week period during which the community of Mals was considering the referendum, I was leading graduate students from Green Mountain College on a study tour of the South Tirol focused on "Turning Traditions into Markets." It was one of those rare teaching moments when serendipity transforms the seed of a concept into a living example, an evolving reality richer than any reading I could have assigned. We hired a bus and headed to Mals in search of answers – or at least more informed questions – and Konrad Messner, a farmer, innkeeper and passionate advocate of the referendum. We departed with no address for Konrad, just the assurance that it was simplest to ask any local to point us to his inn once we got to Mals.

As it turned out, our first stop in the village of Mals, from which the broader township gets it name, was to grab a snack at a cafe that our driver deemed had adequate parking for our bus and a nice panorama of the valley from the terrace. Once I looked at the Hotel Panorama menu, I suddenly realized that we were in one of Europe’s thriving "bio-hotels," a fact made evident not only by the organic and locally-sourced beverages on the menu, but also the green building techniques and materials on display – and the in-house distillery featuring spirits infused with the sweet and bitter essences of regional fruits and herbs. The students sampled a variety of organic beers, and the search for Konrad became slightly more spirited.

The township of Mals consists of several small villages strewn out among the upper Vinschgau, flanked on both sides by slopes that jut precipitously upward. This topographical cradling, combined with the Vinschgau’s west-to-east orientation, often hampers the influx of the precipitation that typically pervades the rest of the region, making it the driest valley in the Alps. The combination of the drier weather and the rich alluvial soils gave the Vinschgau the historical reputation of "the breadbasket of the Tirol." In spite of the virtual disappearance of grain production in the area during the latter decades of the 20th century, the storefronts of the Vinschgau still proudly feature a variety of traditional breads – ranging from rustic to ornate but always intense in flavor – that have found their way into markets far beyond the remote reaches of this high elevation valley.

Bucolic and tranquil, but long considered to be of vital strategic interest, the landscape is still dotted with grass-covered concrete bunkers that are reminders of its vital intersection between modern-day Italy, Austria and Switzerland. As we searched for Konrad, we wove our way past hayfields, new plots of historic grains, a field of hemp and even the aging cellar for South Tirol’s first whiskey distillery – innovatively housed in one of those haunting concrete bunkers above the center of the township.

The tourists outnumbered the locals as we queried passersby of the whereabouts of Konrad, so we finally resorted to the Tirolean "Handy," also known as the cell phone, and he directed us to his village of Plawenn, elevation 1,700 meters, population approximately 46. I still was unsure of how we were going to find him, since the cows seemed to be more ubiquitous and forthcoming than the residents. Alas, I rang the bell beside what was clearly a medieval-era doorway suited to those of a more diminutive stature than the unanticipated American invaders who had stealthily made their way up the valley without a shot – of grappa or anything else.

After a few seconds of uncertainty among my mostly bemused students, a larger-than-life persona ducked out beyond the doorway’s low arch and queried us in a booming voice, "So, do you all speak Chinese? If so, we can have a good conversation!"

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"Club of Mult" Guesthouse where Konrad Messner serves as innkeeper. (Photo: Philip Ackerman-Leist)

With that, Konrad invited us through the entrance to his magnificently unadorned guest house and up primitive stone steps, underneath whitewashed gothic arch ceilings, and into the heart of any historic Tirolean home, the "stube," a wood-paneled living area boasting the centerpiece of a family’s daily orbit, the traditional white-plastered masonry oven. Konrad welcomed us into his stube and began to lay out the historical context for this grassroots initiative against herbicides and other toxic agricultural chemicals.

As it must have done for centuries, the oven anchored Konrad’s rich narrative behind Mals’ revolutionary referendum. From the outset, however, Konrad made it clear that this story was not one of good and evil, but rather the awakening conscience of a small township once again beset by forces moving in from outside. This time, however, it was a matter of creating buffers, not bunkers, confronting drift, not invasion. It was about a community’s open questions regarding self-determination and self-reliance – and whether dialogue and consensus might supplant division and strife.

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"Tirolean cutting board for chopping the Vinschgau’s traditional "Paarl," a pair of sourdough rye breads traditionally baked only several times during the year and hardened during storage" (Photo: John Casazza)

Previously boasting an estimated 4,200 hectares of traditional grains, much of it grown at elevations between 1,000 to 1,700 meters, agriculture in the Vinschgau Valley now consists primarily of intensive apple and grape production in elevations below 700 meters, with livestock farms having long claimed the ecological niches available in the higher elevations. In fact, dairy farming in the Alps dates back to the Copper Age. Production of traditional varieties of rye, wheat, buckwheat and spelt dropped precipitously in the last half of the 20th century, with other agricultural products and the pervasive Alpine tourism infrastructure rapidly filling the gaps. While the traditional diversified agriculture practices of the South Tirol gave way to apple and grape monocultures, the trend has magnified in intensity during recent decades.

New irrigation infrastructure and climate change have provided the means for high-input apple production to begin creeping into the higher elevations of the Vinschgau, bringing with it intensive pesticide use and heightened water consumption in a part of the valley that has a deep history of well over a thousand years of water conservation and pesticide-free farming. Just as hand-dug irrigation canals called "waale" have long traced the contours of the slopes on either side of the valley and provided water to diversified farms at all elevations, carefully managed manure piles and regionally-adapted cultivars have provided the foundation for fertility and disease resistance. An observant eye will note that the traditional livestock are also well-adapted: broad hooves, thick leg bones and a low center of gravity allow cattle to graze the high pastures and convert the prized alpine forages into milk of coveted quality and price.

As the march of the apple monoculture up the Vinschgau Valley gained momentum, Konrad Messner and a consortium of local farmers in the Mals area were simultaneously collaborating to reclaim and restore traditional grain varieties, historical production techniques and new market opportunities. The trend toward intensive apple production had become much more than a shift in agricultural production: It also represented new hazards to human health, chemical pollution of soil and water, the loss of land ideally suited for traditional grain production, the lack of appropriate buffers between chemical-intensive and organic production, the influx of outside interests, capital and speculation, and a change in relationships within the agricultural community.

"Pesticide drift" seems to be the galvanizing concept around which supporters have gathered. The drift of pesticides from one farm to another – an inevitable reality in a valley that even has a dialect word for its renowned wind, the vinschgerwind – threatens the health of community members and the economic opportunity of those pursuing organic production methods. Indeed, the renaissance of the traditional Vinschgau bread-making methods using organic ingredients is dependent upon the ability of farmers to raise these Ur-grains with long-established cultivation methods, in the absence of disruptive herbicides and pesticides. These pesticides are already showing up in the fields, pastures and hay meadows of farms bordering apple orchards, despite established buffers. The organic certification of farms in the vicinity of these new fruit producers is therefore put in jeopardy.

The heart of the argument against pesticide drift is therefore twofold. First of all, those opposed to the recent influx of pesticides maintain a longstanding principle in European thinking: "Die Freiheit des Einzelnen hat ihre Grenzen am Recht des Nächsten" (The freedom of a single individual is bounded by the rights of his/her neighbors.) In other words, pesticide drift poses potential health and economic risks to one’s neighbors and should therefore be considered a transgression. Two organic livestock farmers have already lost their certifications due to pesticide residues found in their hay samples, despite buffers. In a land long vexed by border disputes, pesticide drift is yet another more modern transgression of boundaries local residents must face, although this time among neighbors.

Secondly, pesticide drift has heightened connotations in a culture and a policy environment steeped in the "precautionary principle" – a concept that runs contrary to the predominant policy paradigm in the United States, but is central to environmental and food safety issues in Europe. The precautionary principle eschews the notion that potentially harmful substances and practices are "innocent until proven guilty" but instead places the burden of scientific proof that they are in fact safe upon those promoting such materials and actions.

Given the "for and against" nature of any referendum, there is an inherent risk of these issues surrounding agricultural production becoming intensely polarized. The referendum in Mals has already created tensions within the community, but, according to Konrad, it has also sparked more frank and open discussion about these critical issues everywhere one goes.

Furthermore, it has also generated a more inclusive community dialogue in which people from a variety of backgrounds – farmers, business owners, tourism officials, educators, environmentalists – are all trying to find common ground. Moreover, the two-week polling period was an intentional strategy to encourage an extended dialogue and also a high participation rate in the actual voting.

When asked if he thought the referendum would succeed, Konrad quickly responded:

The important thing is not whether the referendum succeeds. Rather, what is important is that we are having these discussions and finding our way into the future, not only on this issue, but also in how we make decisions for our community. These are questions of self-reliance and self-determination. The issue we face is not so much about certifications, but rather about the relationships and interactions we have with one another.

As we bid farewell to Konrad and began our descent from Plawenn back to the lower Vinschgau, a group of German tourists who had just refreshed themselves with Konrad’s beverages lined up on both sides of the road and made a gauntlet for our bus, raising their hiking poles in salute, generating shrieks of laughter and frantic waving from our group. The laughter gradually shifted to chatter as the teaching moment sank in for everyone, perhaps especially for the professor. Konrad and the citizens of Mals even had me pondering whether I should change the title of the study tour to "Turning Traditions into Relationships." Such is the power of Ur-ganic.

Polling Question for the Mals Referendum

Are you in favor of the implementation of the following amendment to the articles of the Township of Mals?

The precautionary principle with the objective to protect public health lays down that all precautions that help prevent hazard to the health of man and animal have to be taken. The township of Mals is specifically aiming to protect the health of its citizens and guests, to maintain the sustainability of nature and waters, as well as making it possible that different forms of economy can coexist in its territory in a fair and respectful way.

In conformance with these goals, Mals promotes the use of biodegradable plant protection within its municipal boundaries. A regulation will be issued that describes the details of this provision.

Independently from this provision, the use of highly toxic, as well as chemical-synthetic substances and herbicides that are harmful to the health and the environment is prohibited within its municipal boundaries. The municipal authority is responsible for monitoring the implementation and the compliance of the referendum outcome.