We spoke to Carol Choi, co-partner of the agrotourism site, Rantan, about the value of small-scale agriculture and challenging perceptions of it.

Posted on 11 July, 2019

After meeting and working in the kitchens of the Relæ Community, first at Relæ, Manfreds and then at Mirabelle, Carol Choi and Francesco Scarrone soon fell in love with each other, as well as sustainable food systems. 

During this period, Christian F. Puglisi established Farm of Ideas, which proved to be a great source of inspiration for both Choi and Scarrone. Now seven years later, they are the proud owners of their own agrotourism site. Rantan offers up agro-gastronomic experiences to visitors at the micro-farm and guesthouse. 

We spoke to Choi, a New York native now based in Piemonte, Italy, to find out the motivations, inspirations and hopes behind Rantan

You originally worked as chef/baker at Relæ and Manfreds, then Mirabelle when it was first established. What was your greatest takeaway from your time with the Relæ Community?

I’ve worked in places where the stress has always been on the diner’s experience, like the cooks had to “sacrifice” themselves for the good of the diner. At some places you wouldn’t dare ask for a day off to go to a wedding for example, because keeping the quality and the standard at the restaurant was more important.

I think the Relæ Community has always got it right: the people who work there are part of the experience for the diner. Making the employees happy and excited to be there definitely conveys the right kind of energy to the guests and keeps more staff long-term. [When I was there] we became a family and protected each other, because it’s easy to overwork and burn out in a restaurant or to feel bitter about your “sacrifice” for the sake of someone’s dining experience. 

For example: keeping four intense, long work days allowed for a good amount of work, but also provided enough time to recuperate. I was even able to work five shorter work days which amounted to the same. It’s common for restaurants around the world to ask for 5-6 work days of up to 15 hours a day.  

Restaurants do need to be more sustainable with regards to labour and I think the Relæ Community has always made a conscious effort on that part.  

What have you been most surprised to learn from your time working within food systems and agriculture?

Again, it has to do with the value of human labor in different sects of society.  It’s a political choice to value the work of farmers so little.  

It was due to political policies and The Green Revolution – that chose to subsidise heavy and mechanised agriculture in order to spread capitalism and prevent the rise of communism – that the role of the farmer became less essential and food items could be produced in a rigged economic system for abnormally cheap. Sure, there were some benefits, but we now know its true cost to the environment, our health and to our social construct. Rural towns were abandoned, economies depressed – and now we’re conditioned to expect and demand food to be very cheap.

When food is produced at smaller scale with eco-conscious principles the labor put in is tremendous, yet the outcome is better for the environment and local economies. The pay these farmers need to work for still competes with the subsidised, global market-type agriculture. Good farming requires a lot of experience, know-how and creativity.  These are skills valued in all types of industries, yet the pay gap between different industries is shocking.

We often argue that good food should not be elitist, but I think we actually need to reframe that problem and rethink our economic system instead.  Capitalism and markets are not “free”. A society that values the skill sets that make a good farmer also a good engineer or designer or even a fund manager, yet pays them so little, just doesn’t seem sustainable. Food is essential, and the people who grow it and practice stewardship of our environment need to be valued in our society.  

What has it been like navigating the legislation in Italy?

Italy is challenging for vegetable farmers because there are so many vendors selling the same thing at markets. At the same time, the market culture is really alive and well. Piemonte stipulates that a percentage of all neighbourhood markets be reserved for local farmers – which is great. Still, everyone is competing with each other and the price (of really great food) is low. In general, salaries are quite low and affordable fresh food is pretty welcome, but it’s rare to see younger generation farmers and that should be worrisome for people. I’m not sure if there is conversation in politics over this.

In my experience, Italy – and Piemonte specifically – is quite supportive of smaller agricultural entities. They’ve recently established a law for ospitalità rurale, which allows for farmers to host people in their own homes and offer meals. It’s a smaller version of an agriturismo that lowers the entry point for diversifying their income stream. To start an agriturismo you’d need to build out a separate kitchen following restaurant standards. An ospitalità rurale allows you to use your home as long as it is in liveable conditions. There are limits to the number of guests you can have and the number of days you can work to ensure you are actually farming, but I think it’s great and suits our size and plans. 

At least for now… Let’s hope they don’t change the rules too much.

What challenges have you faced in establishing Rantan?

I’ve spoken to a few young Italian farmers struggling in mountainside communities which tend to be a bit behind on the discourse surrounding food. They are trying to grow and sell heirloom or forgotten varieties, but the locals are scandalised by the price compared to those found at the supermarket. There really isn’t much interest in varieties of vegetables and there isn’t much importance given to vegetables in general. However, little by little, they say the locals are coming around. They’ve even had grandmas and grandpas approaching them to see if they have varieties grown by their grandparents!

It’s been explained that in the past, when agricultural policies pushed towards industrialisation, wheat and pasta became foods that were made fashionable. It was embarrassing to seem like a country-side peasant who ate mostly vegetables, so meat, white bread and pasta became the preferred foods – and vegetables, a sign of being poor. 

To this day, ‘Italian cuisine’ in restaurants still celebrates wheat and meat. For a country that is perfect for growing so many vegetables, and with markets full of amazing produce, you rarely ever see vegetables on a menu except for side dishes. The fact that we have a menu centred on vegetables and creating dishes where they are the main components, might be a challenge for locals. 

I recently asked our electrician to taste some herbs I had just picked, and he commented that those are for the cows. He will eat the cow, but not the “grass”.

We often hear people talking about going to eat somewhere and eating so much food, and so many different courses, for just €10 – €25 including wine. In our area, to ask for more than €25 is almost a sacrilege – especially if you don’t pretend to be fancy with multiple plates, white tablecloth, etc. Yet, more often than not, these ‘fancy’ places use brodo made from bouillon cubes, or include a lot of starch with grains grown who knows where.

There are some places around us who do much nicer food, but still for only €25. It’s a challenge to charge more and not scandalise the community. We have yet to see how it fares, but for us, €25 would not be sustainable.

What do you hope to achieve with Rantan

It’s very much a personal project. We want to know better the process of producing food, working within seasons, storing and preserving food. It’s fun for us as chefs to be forced to think more about these things. At the same time, we hope to spread a bit of awareness that micro-farms can be viable (we hope our business survives!). 

There are a lot of great examples around us: There’s a micro-farm called Officina Walden where the focus is on living a lifestyle they want. It’s not about growing as a business but about making enough to be happy. They’ve decided to challenge themselves as farmers in learning to do things better for its own sake and to make just enough to cover what they need. Another example is a small dairy farmer here in the valley, Cascina Prela. With about 30 cows, they decided to move away from the herd and offer artisanal and high quality gelato in what is called an “Agrigelateria”.  

I think it’s brilliant, they executed the idea well and I believe they’re thriving. It’s an exciting moment for small-scale agriculture and we hope to be another successful example of moving away from the industrialised models we’ve grown up with. 

By being both farmer and chef, inviting guests to our home and having that direct contact with them, we wish for people to recognise their farmers as people and hopefully to change the discourse surrounding the value of their work.

And what better way to get conversation going than in sharing food?