The following excerpt is from A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement by Philip Ackerman-Leist (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher
As Günther and his cows wove their way through Laatsch, a beeping horn stopped him. He turned around, spreading his arms to slow the bovine promenade behind him, and let the car slip by before he and his cows stepped back into the main thoroughfare for their jaunt from the barn to pasture. The driver had Swiss plates and a business suit. Someone in a rush to make money, he surmised, while he headed out to his fields to seal his own financial fate in several plastic bags.
He crossed the street, with the boss cow and her entourage following. Then he stepped aside and let her lead the herd—she knew where she was headed—while he waited for the inevitable straggler, gave her a firm slap on the haunch, and watched her leap forward to catch up with the rest. Günther then sprinted along the edge of the paved bike path and past the last of the ambling cows to the pasture gate, where the cows were calmly filing in before rushing to the new strip of ungrazed grass that he had opened up earlier that morning. His portable electric fencing allowed him to carefully manage his small pastures, maximizing their regrowth and nutritional value by giving the cows access to fresh grass every day but preventing them from overgrazing any one spot.
A cow’s milk production is directly correlated to what she eats, and what she eats depends upon the farmer’s management. There was only one thing more important to Günther than fresh grass: high-quality hay. Fresh grass in lush pastures made him money, but good hay meant survival. For his livestock, it was the bridge between seasons; for his family it was the difference between a healthy future and financial ruin.
Günther made his way up to where his neighbor’s new apple trees bordered one of his hayfields. Were it not for the apple trees on one side and the hay meadow on the other, the boundary between the two parcels probably wouldn’t be discernible to the ordinary passerby. He had just cut the leafy mixture of grasses, legumes, and other broad-leafed herbs. It was a task he usually enjoyed, watching the diverse green bounty fall to the ground in tidy swaths and feeling like he had winter under control. Most years he would pass through each hay meadow three times. Although it varied by year, the first cut tended to have more grasses and carbohydrates while the latter cuts usually had more legumes and higher protein levels. With the variety of cuttings, Günther could give his cows, calves, steers, and other livestock what best fit their nutritional needs. The one thing that couldn’t vary, however, was whether the hay was pesticide-free.
It was that concern that had slowed his stride and distracted him in his chores all morning. He made his way up through the hayfield, kicking the toppled grasses and legumes to check their dryness, wishing that this year’s crop would give him the age-old sense of security he’d always known before. He walked toward to his first sampling location, shaking his head with frustration at the laughable 10-foot (3 m) buffer between his hay and the outer row of apples, a distance that was supposed to protect his hay from his neighbor’s pesticides.
He knelt down to collect the first sample and put it in one of the sterile plastic bags he’d brought with him. He was nervous enough about the results, but to make matters worse, he had to pay 250 euros per bag (about $300 at the time) out of his own pocket simply to have each bag tested for pesticide residues—pesticides used by someone else.
He felt like he was gathering the tea leaves for his entire future and sending them off to a white-coated technician who would place them in a laboratory cocktail and read them before sending him a verdict on the future of his farm. Whether or not he could make sense of the analysis when it came was another question. He was accustomed to dealing with tons, hectares, and liters, but “parts per million” and “tolerances” were things he and other organic farmers had always intended to avoid.
Hay had long been the linchpin of Tirolean agriculture. Günther describes it as “the most important thing that we have here.” Whereas some other areas of the South Tirol have higher levels of protein in their hay, the Upper Vinschgau is comparable to a semiarid steppe region, with a diversity of herbs stemming from the dry substrate. Those herbs create what Günther and others there consider pastures and hay meadows of an exceptional quality that are essential to the healthy livestock of the region. If he lost his organic certification due to a confirmation of pesticide residues in his hay, he would lose more than his feed. He would also have to give up his farm and the traditional farming practices that were the foundation of the local culture. And he would simply be the first domino to fall.
Any sense of solitude in the Alps usually comes by way of feeling diminutive in the presence of mountains. In a small Alpine village, however, one seldom feels alone. But when Günther answered the phone on that fateful day and heard the voice of the toxicologist deliver the results of his hay sample analyses, he had never felt quite so isolated, despite being in the middle of the village that had nurtured him for his entire life. There was no silver lining in the report. Every sample that he had sent in had tested positive for residues of multiple pesticides. He’d been kicked and rammed around by cattle his whole life, but he’d never been knocked breathless by a phone call. The follow-up email detailing the results only added to the darkening reality.
The lab results might have been conclusive, but Günther felt like they generated more questions than answers. How was he going to explain the results to his neighbors who had sprayed the pesticides? What was he going to do with the contaminated feed? What substances were detected and what did they mean for the health of his animals and his land?
Günther spent the rest of the day and most of the night on the phone and sending out emails. Even if it was unclear to him at the time, this was the first sign that his life as a dairy farmer was about to change, and he was about to be dialed into more people and networks than he’d ever imagined. Phone calls, emails, and letters were about to fill every narrow crevice of his daily schedule, and the village’s image of him as the gangly young farmer with the ever-present hat would soon include him holding his cell phone to his ear.
However, none of the conversations helped alleviate the feelings of isolation and fear. If anything, the consequences of the analyses were becoming ever clearer, even if they were bewildering. His first call after receiving the results was to his certifier at Bioland, the organic cooperative to which he belonged. He’d long believed that the membership fees he paid to the cooperative were ultimately an investment in the betterment of his own farm. It wasn’t simply a contractual relationship. Bioland also held farm tours and seminars and offered a social network for farmers who too often felt like they were going it alone in their farming ventures. Günther was about to find out if Bioland also provided a safety net for its members.
It didn’t feel so positive at first. His certifier at Bioland informed him that in order to keep his organic certification—the keystone to his farm’s economic success at the moment—he would have to dispose of the entire first cutting of hay that he’d harvested in areas adjacent to the new orchards. Winter had never looked bleaker.
However, summer seemed just as bad. He would have to take samples from his next two hay harvests, too, and it seemed all too likely that they would also test positive. To boot, he would have to pay for even more analyses while also buying organic hay from another farmer at a premium price, if anyone had any surplus for sale. It was a coveted commodity.
Finally, there was the ironic reality that illuminated the absurdity of the whole situation. In order to maintain his certification, he had to dispose of the tainted hay crop and document that it had left the farm. He actually had to find a buyer for it—someone who would take the hay, despite the fact that it contained pesticide residues. Ordinarily he would walk out of his house and be down at the local bar, the Gasthaus Lamm, to have a drink to commiserate with his friends. For the time being, though, he had to figure out his best course of action. A turf battle in a small town is guaranteed to get personal, but to Günther the issue seemed much bigger than him alone. And if it didn’t get resolved now, in a good way, he was sure that it would turn into an ugly battle that would stretch far past his generation.
The people of Mals had just elected a new young mayor who seemed much different from the usual politicians in the South Tirol. Günther decided to reach out to him first to see if he had any insights. Little did he know that he was inviting the mayor to join him in careening down a path that neither could have expected—in fact, it would turn out to be a path that no town had ever gone down before.
A striking but soft-spoken figure, Ulrich Veith—known by most locals as Uli—isn’t anyone’s image of a stereotypical mayor. Perfectly comfortable in a crisp Italian suit and fashionable footwear, he can play the part of mayor in traditional table-and-chair ways. However, he seems most at home when he is casually walking the streets of Mals, greeting virtually everyone he bumps into with a fitting salutation, be it in Tirolean dialect, Italian, or on one knee, for the smallest of his patrons.
Though he’s in his midforties, Uli’s trim physique and casually groomed wavy hair give the impression that he is a decade younger. His slightly bronze, fit appearance isn’t an artifice created in a spa but rather on the hiking paths, bike trails, and ski slopes in and above Mals, often in pursuit of his super-athlete wife, Marian, with their young son in tow. Neither unaware of custom nor flippant about cultural expectations, Uli is nonetheless just as likely to appear at an appointment in fashionable athletic wear as he is in a suit. He always seems ready to take advantage of the best that Mals has to offer in year-round outdoor activities—or perhaps he is in constant training to keep up with Marian, an avid rock climber and mountain biker who is at least as nontraditional in her mother-athlete role as Uli is in politics.
After more than a decade of traveling the world for business, Uli had returned to his native Mals with no real political aspirations—in fact, he was not even registered with a political party at the time. He did, however, have a deep desire to see the Upper Vinschgau make its way forward into the twenty-first century, building upon the best the region had to offer. That desire eventually led him to a victorious run for mayor of Mals in 2009, and he was eager to represent his townspeople as well as he possibly could. So when Günther called to set up a meeting about a problem he was having, Uli immediately invited him to his office in the town hall.
You would be hard-pressed to find a better measure of contrasts in Mals than Uli and Günther. Günther will show up to almost any function in a T-shirt, work pants, and heavy leather farm boots, while Uli will appear looking fresh and dapper, if not aerodynamic, in his perfectly tailored suit or formfitting running outfit. Günther’s handshake will feel like he’s about to squeeze milk out of your four fingers while Uli’s firm but uncallused squeeze is a testament to his habit of making acquaintances from all walks of life. In a moment of uncertainty, Günther might run his hand over the tingle of his buzz cut while Uli slips his hand through his wavy hair during a pensive pause. Günther will insist that he can speak only Tirolean dialect and high German while Uli will shift fluently between both before jumping in with English or Italian.
But they always shared one thing in common: a deep passion for what they both dubbed a sustainable future for Mals. Before long, they would both add another descriptor to the future they envisioned for their town—healthy.
Dairy farmers don’t tend to embrace politicians or meetings very readily, but as far as he could tell, Günther had limited options for people who would comprehend the full scope of the dilemma, much less have the means to help address the looming issues. When he met with Uli, he described the problem as succinctly as he could, framing it as not just his issue but a quandary facing all of the 5,300 citizens in the eleven villages of the Mals township.
With the small field sizes that dominated the Mals landscape—usually just a few acres—and the renowned Vinschgerwind, the legendary wind of the valley blowing for days or weeks at a time, the drifting of pesticides applied by any single farmer onto other farmers’ fields was inevitable. In addition, with the town’s waterways, bike paths, playgrounds, and schoolyards in such close proximity to fields that might be converted to intensive fruit production, the health of the people and the environment was in peril.
Mals was going green but the future was looking gray, at best. With organic farms, traditional grain growing, bike touring, agritourism, herbal products, and even the region’s first organic hotel all in the works and on the rise, an influx of pesticide-dependent fruit “plantations” could mean the collapse of so many collective dreams.
Günther was adamant: Farmers should be able to manage their farms the way they wanted to, but only up to the point at which their decisions negatively impacted others. If the situation he faced was just the beginning, which certainly seemed to be the case, then any hope of Mals being the last regional bastion of sustainable and diversified agriculture seemed doomed.
Uli concurred and agreed to help find a solution. Neither quite realized what they were agreeing to. They were about to challenge the way things were done not just in the orchards and vineyards of the South Tirol but also in the ballot box. Stirring things up is a messy business.