The eldest Italian rice grower, 92 years old, explains how technology has changed the cultivation of rice.
The story of a man who developed innovation and technology with a creative mind.
In early 2016, I was lucky enough to get in contact with a man who was ahead of his time, a rice grower known throughout Italy for having been an active player in the production of rice for about 80 years.
Eusebio Francese comes from Vercelli and has always cultivated rice between Vercelli and Novara. Entrepreneur and innovator, always oriented to the future, he is now over 90 years of age. Tall, thin, quick in his movements, he now runs a point of sale, but in the past, as well as having established his own company, he stood out as a man of conviction and this had often led him to achieve ambitious goals and to go his own way.
He has granted me an interview. We meet in the office behind the shop. After a few words he allows me to ask questions prepared for the interview and to take notes, so I start with my first question.
Mr. Francese you have cultivated rice for many years, I guess that time has brought many changes. What has changed in rice cultivation?
“I have lived among rice all my life and I have been active since 1935. Surely many factors intervened, but still today we cultivate rice as we once did, nothing has changed, the process has remained the same. Obviously rice varieties have evolved and nowadays we can also sow rice later, because new varieties ripen much quicker and give a better yield per hectare. Then of course there was the technological evolution. Today, machines are able to perform all the jobs that were once carried out by hand, saving time and effort.”
What were the main stages in the postwar period that modernised rice cultivation?
Mr. Francese with his wife Bianca in the 50s
“That period was full of big and small innovations. One of the main ones that has seen me personally involved was the realization of a mechanical machine that allows you to create containment dikes, delimiting the rice field and retaining the water contained therein. The idea came about when trying to change, with the help of my brother and a blacksmith, an old plough no longer used for ploughing. We managed to convey the land to the right height to build the bank. Then another farmer developed a “compactor”, a roller machine to compact the embankment. Until the 40s all this was done by hand using a shovel. Thus, thanks to the machines we overcame the cultivation of rice based on the ground level curves. This new approach helped to modernise rice production within 10-15 years. Finally, a typical example of the mechanisation of work was the combined harvester that arrived in Italy in the mid 50s.”
You have also worked closely with the “mondine”, the rice cleaners that were made famous by a few Italian film directors and actors (see ‘Bitter Rice’ the film starring Silvana Mangano, 1949, that came 3rd in the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for an Oscar Award in 1951). How were those years and when did the finish?
“Technological progress wrote the end of the world of seasonal workers, which up to about 1955 the producers called for the most important stages of cultivation: from transplanting to weeding and finally harvesting. During the season the rice-workers arrived, who were key to the success of the harvest. They formed real communities, often so numerous as to influence the social life of the workplace. They came from other parts of northern Italy. In those years I was constantly engaged in the search for new solutions. I experienced in that period the cultivation of rice in high water. Thanks to higher levees and to a higher water depth (compared to the 12 cm used then), the Giavone (weed) could not proliferate and we were able to eliminate the weeding operations.
As for transplanting, this was done by placing the late rice seedings (already grown in rice-nurseries) in fields used for forage. Once hay was destined for the cattle used to work in the fields, but with the arrival of tractors, cattle were eliminated and it was possible to cultivate more extensions in the traditional way. Finally, I remember the purchase of my first small harvest thresher made in 1954, so there was no more need for a large part of the seasonal workforce. Within a few years all the farmers had adapted to the new standards and already in 1960, the environment depicted in black and white films was just a memory.”
The following years were of wellbeing… what happened?
“Progress brought new varieties and there was a tendency towards higher yields, profit motivation drove research. Today there are very big companies. They think exclusively with industrial strategies.”
Rice in water near Vercelli and Novara, Italy
But you went in the other direction, with a family-run company!
“Exactly, I have maintained the whole production process: cultivation, processing and sales. It was a choice that has allowed me not to be crushed. Today, those who deal with the production process only, hardly survive. But to move in my direction, I focused on the excellence of the products, with a complete cycle with low environmental impact and high quality productions.”
What do you think of fertilizers and herbicides? In the past, I thought it was almost normal to use pesticides and other compounds.
“Only the bare minimum needs to be used and never more than the recommended dosage. Often ignorance and greed have led to their excessive, unjustified and potentially dangerous use. As for our crops we prefer valuable breeds, such as Maratelli that does not tolerate chemical fertilizers. We are a small company and we eat what we produce, so we prefer to have a yield per hectare which would be unsuccessful for any industry. Less rice, but with a high quality.”
Is organic a ‘marketing invention?
“Certified as ‘Bio’ or ‘organic’ is not the product grown in a completely natural way, but the food that meets certain parameters. Unfortunately the consumer is unlikely to be able to make the right evaluations. Surely marketers have seen a source of profit in the word ‘organic’. As a company, we had the ‘Bio’ certification for years. Today we have made a leap forward: our doors are open at any time to all those who want to see how we cultivate and work our rice. Do you know why our customers come back? Because they say our rice has a different taste from the others.
Does research follow the food tastes or does the latter influence research?
“Research advances on its own by following the logic of profits and invents new varieties every year. It gives effective and durable products without compromising on the quality of rice. However, chefs do not affect this process, they just sample the new varieties and test them. Only a few varieties of rice still have a large market such as Carnaroli.”
What is your opinion on the rices that are not reusable as seeds?
“Unfortunately, man is very greedy and often realises that something is harmful many years after it is created and marketed. For these reasons, I prefer to cultivate purity in my rice following the old way.”
And large-scale distribution which gives us shiny rice, what about quality and price?
Wooden slow working machinery
“Rice is whitened and polished through an operation called “glazing “, carried out with vaseline oil or its substitutes. These processes ensure that the product in the same package seems the same but…may have different backgrounds. In addition there are often substitutes that resemble the name of a variety in order to attract the less conscious consumers, but they are different products on the market … there are those who resort to these tricks. The rice that we propose is grown in small quantities and it is a healthy product. We are at odds with big productions that lose the identity of the rice. The processing of the rice then continues in large industries (those supplying supermarkets); these use faster production methods that solicitate the grains causing them to heat up through friction with the risk of altering or deteriorating the essential food properties.
So we’ve chosen slow machining and decided to offer brown rice, semi-finished or processed in order to give everyone the opportunity to choose. Different cooking tastes can produce the most creative recipes. The price is a little higher if compared with supermarket rices, but it’s worth it.”
What about rice from the Middle and Far East?
Different rices… different numbers (they have a huge production capacity) low prices, and low quality. Each rice has its price….we run for a different market.
Rice with long grains
What has been your greatest satisfaction?
“Being appointed by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture for the conservative breed of Rice Maratelli. I have been growing it in purity for over 30 years.”
If you were 20 years old today would you still have the same job?
“Time, technology, and much more has changed, but I would start all over again. My family is dedicated to rice cultivation, my daughters now run the company and my nephew is studying to cultivate rices, and often we help each other: we are both learning something …”
We talk about the internet and the web. He tells me that it will be the future, not just the present, but things can go on well only if behind a web page there is something real, in short, concrete. Last year, he accepted without hesitation to be present on Italian Food Joy, the innovative marketplace for quality producers.
Our interview ends with a handshake and a few tips for the short buying guide which will be published on Good habits & Quality foods. Mr. Eusebio goes back among the customers in his store. On the wall I can see articles of his interviews with national newspapers. I am happy to be the first blogger to post an interview with him.
Brian G.B. Tonelli on Good habits& Quality foods