Day 1 at Brunnenburg Castle – Traditional Alpine Farming
(Approximately 5 min read)
This morning, I set out for Brunnenburg Farm to begin my newest adventure working on an organic vineyard an hour north from my new home of Bolzano, Italy.
Brunnenburg Farm is located beside a 13th century castle, presiding over and protecting the small city of Merano, which is sheltered in the valley just below.
The area of Südtirol has a charming fusion of German and Italian culture. In Bolzano, as well as on the farm, the locals speak a blend of German and Italian fluidly shifting between the languages and mannerisms (imagine the juxtaposition of the harsh sounds of German with the stereotypical hand motions and chattiness of an Italian). There are of course, historical reasons for this. The region was annexed from Austria after the first world war and while under the rule of the fascist leader, Mussolini, the Austrian-Germans and Italians clashed. The tension between the two communities seems to have mostly dissipated and many still embrace their German traditions.
The farm itself is carved into the steep slopes of the Italian Dolomites, making the use of modern farming equipment nearly impossible. Instead, they rely on traditional farming techniques, which have been studied and preserved in the castle’s agricultural museum.
But let’s back up. How did a hockey player and engineer, with zero knowledge about agriculture, come to be a helper on this random alpine farm?
One summer afternoon in New Jersey, my vegan Aunt Maria and I got sucked down a YouTube rabbit hole of plant-based homestead families. These were people who grew their own food and were in symbiosis with nature. With a reoccurring curiosity about how, where, and when our foods grow (starting from a Jon Snow level of ignorance) – I decided to investigate if there were any sustainable farms in the area that I would soon be moving to to play hockey.
I came across a blog, describing a student exchange experience, and was absolutely taken by the fairytale-esque descriptions of a castle. Soon after, I found myself emailing with a stranger who endearingly signed his email “Nik the farmer.”
With that, and a quick preview visit last week with my Milano-based Italian Aunt Antoinette, I knew I wanted to be involved (I’m not sure if it was the baskets of freshly picked pears or the mountain-side paradise that had me more sold).
This morning I needed a short bike, a train ride, and a bus, before walking down a steep hill from the small village of Dof Tyrol. I soaked in the picturesque views of the vineyard and orchard speckled valley and laughed about my Aunt’s two cents last week about this hill… “he couldn’t have come to pick us up?” Not long after, two medieval castles came into view poking high above the cliff sides 2000 ft above the valley floor.
After letting myself through the iron-rod gate and a short wait near the beautiful white geese (“Where is Nik?” is apparently a running joke on the farm), I was setup for my first assignment – watering recently pruned raspberry plants.
Today I learned – raspberries don’t grow on bushes like the wild blueberries I saw in the forests of Sweden. Instead they grow on vine-like plants as tall as I stand (here is your first confirmation that despite all the internet searching, I still “know nothing” about where our food comes from).
However, I do know that pesticides and herbicides can have massive negative impacts to ecosystems and human health in communities downwind of sprays. Brunnenburg has had to be creative in fighting off pests to avoid these chemical solutions. Nik the Farmer explained that the last few years have been plagued by an invasive vinegar fly that lays eggs in healthy raspberries. Unlike the native vinegar flies, which only attack sick plants, the Suzukii Fruit Fly has forced another local farm (which grows more tightly spaced, greenhouse raspberries) to concede defeat and spray pesticides and herbicides to avoid losing their entire harvest.
Among the creative solutions to remain organic, some are quite simple. They’ve installed planter boxes, angled to match the incline of the mountain-side, which prevent weeds from spilling over the base of the stalks. Wood chips top the soil with the same intent. Another solution is experimentation with different varieties. Nik explained that one answer was to diversify the harvest period by planting both summer and fall varieties.
The fall variety, that I am tasked with watering, fruits out to the side on branches that slump under the weight of the berries and bend in towards the stalk, reducing their sunlight and subsequently their sweetness. The farm has plans to install netting, with pockets, to provide support for the weighty berries and to protect them from hail assault.
The watering is a simple and meditative task. As I hose the planters, just as I would a suburban New Jersey flower pot, I soak in the birds chirping and sunny castle views, honestly unbothered by the mosquitos biting at my legs.
The rest of the day is spent preparing for the grape harvest. That begins with hauling 500 and 700L buckets over to Anna for cleaning (yes, they are as heavy as that sounds).
Anna is Brunnenburg’s lead farmhand. At just 22, she already has years of experience working on different farms in the area. She’s decided to work at Brunnenburg to learn about the wine harvest, but gave me a quick introduction to the primary product of the region – apples.
In fact, one out seven apples grown in Europe comes from South Tirol. And unfortunately, the region has the highest pesticide use per-hectare in Italy to keep up with the market’s demand for blemish free apples (source).
She explained that the ladder climbing, and hand-picking of the pears that I witnessed last week are fairly uncommon. Typically on mono-cropped and flat-land farms, such as the ones in the valleys of Südtirol, mechanical picking buckets glide past apple trees allowing workers to grab the fruit with very little motion and significantly more speed. However, on the mountainside the machinery can’t handle the steepness of the slopes and traditional picking is still required.
Once the wine-buckets have been passed off to Anna, I am tasked with sweeping leaves to clear the landing area for grape crushing. My straw Nimbus-2000 style broom transforms into another Zen task as I find myself accidentally practicing wrist shots on the leaves. No seriously – it’s the same motion!
I fill the wheelbarrow and drop the brush into the compost area. On the way there, I run into the second oldest mountain goat in Südtirol, and that goat’s great-granddaughter. The younger, two year old goat, has a dog-like personality and takes a break from chewing grass to demand neck scratches as her 18 year old elder looks on with disinterest. Bisnonna Goat is missing a horn after getting it stuck in a crevasse wandering the mountainside a few weeks ago.
The rest of the day is spent cleaning the buckets. Like beer making, wine-making is heavy on the bacteria-control. I’m quickly soaked through my socks (Note to self – go buy some boots).
A short reprieve from muddling through this task for the remainder of the day comes at lunch, where much of our plate has been grown on the farm. The star of the show came with desert, when I got to taste the raspberries of the plant I started the day tending to.
I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.