As the unique wholesalers of La Terra e il Cielo's organic pasta produce in the UK, Bristol's Essential Trading were honoured to be invited to the market-leading manufacturer's 40th anniversary celebrations in the picturesque Marche Region of Central Italy. Attending from Essential Trading were Buying Director, Jaspa Beese and Marketing Officer, Jimmy Nelson.
As a fan of most things Italian, I was absolutely delighted with my invitation to La Terra e il Cielo for their 40th anniversary celebrations. Although perhaps not a name you have heard of, the business is pioneering in the organic produce market and serves as a wonderful example of what is possible when passions are implemented into a practical idea.
La Terra was initially the brainchild of Bruno Sebastianelli and a group of friends, who in the early 1980's decided to buy 50 sheep and produce cheese to sell to the local community. With dreams of an organic future, the sheep would go on to prove an invaluable lesson in soil-regeneration and set them on a career path to award-winning produce and a leading co-operative business model, of which Bruno has now been President for 32 years.
Following the disillusionment of political activism in the 1970's, Bruno and his like-minded fellows followed their farming ancestry and favoured country life. I asked Bruno why he and his friends embarked on the agricultural path. His response was so wonderfully innocent,
'We just wanted to be farmers and live in the countryside.'
He informed me that farming and the environment quickly became a "life choice". Now one of Italy's premier organic pasta producers, the story of Bruno and La Terra e il Cielo has become legendary in Italy's farming community since its establishment in 1980, a time when organic farming represented a virtually unknown niche.
The aim of the founders was to take a new, more sustainable approach to cultivation in the stunning Marche Region, where farming is of primary importance. The business may have started with just a few sheep for cheese making and soil-regeneration, but the visions of organic farming and the benefits for the local community where clear from the start. They studied nature and adopted a spiritual approach to their business model, something that is still very apparent today. Indeed, so passionate about organic farming, it took seven years for any remuneration, but in this time they were able to live off of the land.
With little interest in a management structure, Bruno and his colleagues were keen to govern themselves, although this brought with it risks in a lack of funding from investors. However, they wrote their prophecy and presented it to the local town hall who were so impressed by the appetite of the group, that they awarded them land to rent. They saw potential where others didn't and took their vision seriously. A co-operative business model of concurring individuals was soon created and together, they began to manage the land that had been so desperately needed. The initially-skeptical local farmers became increasingly curious and asked to join the organisation, further converting their land into organic matter. The business grew slowly, but as more members joined, the once-challenging trading began to flourish. Healthy agriculture for the farmers and for the consumers was a shared vision, and presently, 106 farmers based largely in the Marche Region are members of the Co-operative. Their combined contribution makes it one of the most devoted organic regions in Italy.
By 1985, La Terra e il Cielo was the first business in Italy to have the Demeter label on their products and in 1987, they secured their first foreign customers in Germany. Keen to promote healthy living options and explore new concepts, by the end of the 1980's they were producing two pasta variations; organic and biodynamic. However, due to the costs incurred to produce both types, they had to choose just one. Organic was chosen and in the early 1990's they left the biodynamic sector completely.
La Terra moved to its current "green building" location in 1999, where impressive silos for grain storage are displayed against a rustic backdrop. The grains used for wholewheat semolina and wholemeal spelt flour are ground using two stones which must be regularly scoured by hand, as the grinding process smooths the stone's surface. An old, idyllic stone mill with an impressive adjoining reservoir partly powers the plant. Their pastifici (pasta manufacturing plants, with whom they have long-lasting relationships) dry pasta over a 24-hour period, compared to modern pastifici - to include some organic ones - who dry their pasta for only four hours. There are lots of studies on slow and low-heat drying that say this process preserves the nutritional properties. Drying pasta at high temperatures, commonly 120C, destroys the amino acids and reduces the nutrition. Although it takes longer, La Terra's pasta is dried at optimal temperatures between 45C and 50C. Care and attention is paid to the mould used to make the different shapes and the process is closely monitored.
The rediscovery and relaunch of ancient varieties of cereals and legumes, selected for quality and not solely for quantity, represented and continues to represent one of the lynchpins of the Co-operative's activity. Among many other international awards, at the beginning of 2009 La Terra e il Cielo received the Silver Medal for the best durum wheat semolina pasta and wholewheat pasta from the Testzentrum Lebensmittel of Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft (DLG).
In addition to the wonderful food produce, a co-operative business model is of equal importance to Bruno. Bruno doesn't believe in capitalism. Being able to share wealth and health with others is important to him and to La Terra. The Co-operative guarantees the farmers a fair price for the raw material provided, regardless of the market fluctuations. This might not otherwise be possible, particularly with the rise in organic popularity and competition from its availability in supermarkets. La Terra have reacted to the problem and continue to supply premium goods at this challenging time, such is their reputation. Bruno further commented,
'A bigger business does not have the same care towards nature and the quality of the products as a small family one, so La Terra calculated all the costs for their producers and gave their farmers the funds they deserve. La Terra's fair price policy goes alongside the supply chain traceability.'
The organic industry continues to grow, but new ventures don't always share the ethical stance that La Terra adopts. La Terra's organic products carry values. They defend small family farming businesses and Bruno is adamant that such businesses safeguard the land and produce better products. Indeed, they were among the first businesses in Italy to have been certified for traceability. From a single packet of pasta they can trace back to the farmer who grew the wheat.
Many independent shops are struggling and small food production businesses are being bought out by finance companies, but this isn't something that Bruno encourages. Bruno remarked that the number of co-operatives is decreasing, but their business model is safe,
'A co-operative cannot be bought or sold. Only the brand can be purchased and so the business model is safe.'
In 40 years, the Co-operative has developed into a solid Italian organic reality, without ever losing touch with the values of solidarity, fairness and respect for nature, the principles that led to its birth. La Terra's products may be a little more expensive, but they offer accountabilities that other manufacturers don't. All the products are characterised by almost completely regional origin and full traceability, which is something that very few companies in Italy can boast. These are the reasons why Essential Trading are proud to be the UK's sole wholesalers of their lines of pasta, barley coffee, and pearled spelt since 2001. And what are Bruno's final thoughts on organic agriculture?
'Buono per la salute. Buono per il pianeta. Buono per l'agricoltore.'
'Good for health. Good for the planet. Good for the farmer.'