Interview: Federico Bernocchi

Starting from an internet blog telling the stories of old people owning vegetable gardens in the suburbs of cities, Filippo Perfido and Michele Comi came up with the idea for “Orto e Mezzo”, a tv program aired on tv channel LaEffe featuring 12 episodes concerning va- rious aspects of urban agriculture. Guiding us through their journey across Italy are the show’s hosts, Federico Bernocchi, journalist, and Lisa Casale, a food-blogger. The aim of the program is to nd out the reasons why in recent years people living in cities – where there’s plenty of supermarkets and food stores – rediscover agriculture and vegetable gardens. Italy has indeed an important heritage of agriculture and vegetable gardens, for it was the leading sector for the country’s economy until the ‘60s, but nowadays such reasons are to be found in the desire for a healthier way of living, the need to get closely in touch with the environment and make it more enjoyable through gardening, or in the economical crisis, as sometimes people who lost their job are forced to start their own vegetable garden in order to have something to eat. Beginning from Milan, the journey to discover vegetable gardens goes through Rome, Bologna, Venice, Vicenza reaching up to London, where the hosts met Richard Reynolds, founder of Guerrilla Gardening.

Students: We have seen that the spread of urban gardens is a phenomenon stimulated by practical needs that refer to a long tradition. After coming into contact with so many experiences, in your opinion, what was the best strategy to involve citizens and bring them closer to the practice of urban agriculture?

Federico Bernocchi: The most successful urban gardens, and so the ones that manage to come closer to the citizens’ needs, involving them in everyday activities, are those that require direct interventions, that are necessary to the survival of the garden itself. In the suburbs of many cities it’s common to find lands rented by the citizens to be used as vegetable gardens. In these cases however, it’s only small private spaces managed by single individuals, thus not including any kind of interaction. On the contrary, green spaces “stolen” from squares or other public places, exist and survive only thanks to the shared effort of citizens that decide to keep them alive. This, together with the organization of work, leads necessarily to unique aggregation practices.

SThe promotion of vegetable gardens in cities is certainly a way to improve the urban environment and encourage biodiversity. However it is not always easy to undertake this activity. What are the most frequent difficulties for urban farmers? Does the city government, in general, encourage such practices?

FBI think most of the difficulties due to owning an urban vegetable garden are linked to a lack of experience. I take myself as an example: I was raised in a big city and I have never had a direct agricultural experience. If I wished to grow my own small vegetable garden I would not even know what to begin with. We talked to some people my age who explained to me, for example, the difference between a natural fertilization and a chemical one, and I realized that my knowledge on this topic was so basic that for me that did not even represent a problem. I might have come to it (maybe) after years of attempts, mistakes, failures. I think that getting things wrong and realizing our mistakes is very important in such cases. I have got friends that decided to live isolated from the rest of the world and manage to make 50% of their living out of what they cultivate, which is a lot. However, before reaching these levels, they made a lot of mistakes. It’s difficult nowadays to have someone who has the patience and the desire to explain, to someone who does not have the experience, how to begin to grow and to keep a vegetable garden. Honestly, I can’t tell you to what extent the municipality of Milan (or of any other city) helps someone who wants to start growing a vegetable garden.

SThe Universal Exhibition in Milan was an event linked to food and agriculture that has been highly successful in terms of image and presence. Do you think it was an effective tool in raising public awareness? Was it given enough space to the practices of self-cultivation and urban agriculture or, from this point of view, was it essentially a missed opportunity?

FBBecause of my work in the radio, I spent 40 days following Expo. For this reason I had the opportunity to visit most of the pavilions and get a rather precise idea of what was displayed inside. Some pavilions were extremely helpful and informative for those who deal with vegetable gardens or agriculture in general on a daily basis. For sure many of them focused the attention on entertainment in order to attract more crowd but maybe with some more effort it would have been possible to collect important datas and information on any topic linked to the theme of the exhibition. I think it was a great opportunity for everybody, the imporant thing was being able to catch it.