Friday, 11 March 2016

Innovation in Italy: Small farms, Big Data

I attended Fieragricola thanks to the European Network of Agricultural Journalists

“The watchword for agriculture’s future is innovation,” said Raffaele Maiorana, youth president of Confagricoltura, at Fieragricola, the 112th Agricultural Techonologies Show in Verona.

“The new course of agriculture comes inevitably from cutting-edge technologies, sustainable development, precision farming, but also the creative use of Big Data,” said Mr Maiorana.

 Big Data seminar at Fieragricola

With the average Italian farm just 7ha, sharing and accumulating data between businesses has a great potential to help individual farmers. Combining data resources gives individual farmers a level of information that would be impossible to generate alone.

The power of collecting and sharing data for innovation that could save the future of Italian agriculture was a running theme at Fieragricola.

Held in Verona in the Veneto province, 3 – 6 February 2016, Fieragricola, attracting over 100,000 visitors, had a broad programme of seminars, presentations and machinery demonstrations spanning all of the Italian agricultural sectors.

For the province’s leaders, the 18,264 km² Veneto region is a fitting place to demonstrate the benefits of sharing farm data. It is home to over 665,000 agricultural companies, with growth in agricultural employment at 23%, according to Governor Luca Zaia.

Provincial President, Antonio Pastorello, said: “Agriculture is still one of the sectors driving the Veronese economy, the third Italian province in terms of exports and top in the Veneto for livestock numbers, with 57% of the regional total.”

In a seminar on the second day of the event, Mr Maiorana identified opportunities for the Italian agri-food sector to make the most of big data, acknowledging that production systems have to interact with very different information systems. The simplest case, he said, is using meteorological and environmental data compiled by external information stations to inform production cycles. For example, a system of sensors for the supply of water or the flow of rivers, could help farmers to manage their water resources.

“Agriculture is already fully involved in the digital revolution,” Mr Maiorana continued. “In the countryside it is vital that technologies integrated with the internet grow in a co-ordinated way, to ensure development and sustainable growth, attention to the land and its products. Intelligent agriculture will have to know how to use Big Data across the huge amount of available information, connecting them and interpreting them in an integrated system to help grow our industry.”

Wine growers in some regions across Italy are already contributing to and benefiting from these kinds of data networks.

Big Data in Barolo
In the Barolo area, a community of farmers upload their data to a secure website and share it with others in the group.

“Farmers get information on weather and disease modelling, which is needed for good management of the crop,” said Dr Andrea Lari of Pessl Instruments, which manages one of these data-sharing networks.

 “Farmers can also save money through collaboration, because the average farm size is not big. Tools for sharing information could help us overcome some major challenges for Italian agriculture, ecological and economical, for example,” said Dr Lari.

Data volume in Valpollicella 

Another example comes from the Consortium of Valpollicella Wines, where a project on using moth pheromone traps has grown to cover almost 2,000ha of farmland, from just 50ha in 2011. Certification is likely to be available in 2016 for those farmers in the project who correctly employ the integrated plant protection protocol, as well as for those who correctly practice the methods of using pheromones to protect against moths.

Another programme in Valpollicella, Riduci, Rispetta, Risparmia (‘Reduce, Respect, Save’), is an environmental initiative which started with ten pilot farms and now covers at least 2,000ha. Farmers involved in this scheme meet together on farms, have training meetings on farms, and receive newsletters, emails and texts – all to help farms improve their sustainability.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Nature's metaphors (or the monkey's devil fingers)

The monkey has the fingers of the devil

When I started learning a little Tajik in preparation for a volunteering trip a few years ago, my bizarre phrase book contained this gem in the section under 'animals'. I'm starting on a bit of a tangent, but it's relevant, I promise.

My question this time is - how much of our language takes its inspiration from the natural world? Where have our animals, plants, trees and skies slipped into our ordinary parlance without us noticing? We have some beautiful idioms - maybe none as strange as the monkey with the devil fingers*, but still...

In the wake of new word hoarders like Robert McFarlane, I'm setting out to make my own list (to be continued):

to weasel
to ferret
have a gander
larking around
beetling away
crow about 
to leapfrog
to be a pig
budding talent
a blossoming young woman
put down roots

*I do have some doubts about this phrase, but I'll never know for sure. My phrase book was written by two people whose only common language was Esperanto, living hemispheres apart from each other.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Happy poetry day

Leaves burning
Hot embers in the forest -
A sacrifice to the summer,
But quickly put out
by October's rains.
Now the glow of
iron stones in a river.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

An excerpt on ecological conversion

From the Holy Father’s letter of 6 August 2015 to Cardinals Koch and Turkson:

As Christians we wish to contribute to resolving the ecological cris is which humanity is presently experiencing. In doing so, we must first rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation. We need always to keep in mind that, for believers in Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became man for our sake, “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us” ( Laudato Si’ , 216). The ecological crisis thus summons us to a profound spiritual conversion: Christians are called to “an ecological conversion whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (ibid., 217). For “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (ibid.).

1st September is the day of prayer for the care of creation

Friday, 24 April 2015


...continuing to quote from Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams,

In the following narratives [of Arctic exploration], it is not solely the desire of some men for difrerent sorts of wealth that becomes clear, but the suspicion that North America offered more than material wealth. It offered wealth that could not be owned, like the clarity of the air and the sight of 300,000 snow geese feeding undisturbed on the Great Plain of the Koukdjuak...We seem vaguely uneasy with the notion that a flock of snow geese rising like a snowstorm over Baffin Island is as valuable or more to mankind than the silver, tin, and copper being dug out of the Bolivian Andes at Potosí. These are not modern misgivings;  they daye in North America from the time of Columbus and Cabot...

Apologies for the long passage today. I like the idea of wealth that cannot be possessed, because it makes it a communal asset. If I don't possess A, it means that my friends can also enjoy it. But it does make me wonder about responsibility with relation to possession. If I own, say, a tree in my back garden, I have a responsibility to make sure it is safe and well looked after otherwise it will be my fault if it dies. If there's a tree on the patch of communal land outside my house, whose responsibility is it to protect that tree, to make sure it thrives and grows beautifully old?

Wealth that cannot be owned by any individual cannot be traded. It cannot be bargained for, charged interest on, entered into ledger books or spreadsheets. It makes me think of Oliver's song: "Who will buy this wonderful morning?" The rising sun is one of our most valuable assets and yet completely and utterly un-possessible. Just a thought.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The mind's intercourse with the landscape

In his book Arctic Dreams, the American author Barry Lopez writes:

"...language is not something man imposes on the land. It evolves in his conversation with the land - in testing the sea ice with the toe of a kamik, in the eating of a wild berry...A long-lived inquiry produces a discriminating language. The very order of the language, the ecology of its sounds and thoughts, derives from the mind's intercourse with the landscape."

As I walked to work today, I wondered about the intercourse of minds with the landscape in my own community, and the effect this may have on our language and therefore on our perception of our own environment. (Incidentally, the German word Umwelt, meaning 'environment' but which I translate literally as 'world around oneself' helps me understand better what we mean by 'environment').

If we're not letting our minds interact, study, perceive the landscape, what happens?

It makes me wonder whether it's a vicious cycle. The less time we spend outside, the less we understand; the more language we lose with which to describe our landscape and so more estranged we become from the natural world around us.

Perhaps today, then, I'd advocate spending just a little more time outside, looking, listening and letting our minds explore.

Monday, 6 April 2015


I've been doing some preparation for a church youth group session and hence pondering on the meaning of 'life'. (Not the answer 42, before any Python fans jump in).

What is the word 'life' for us? Is it just our physical existence? Or is it something more?

From the Greek New Testament of the Bible, I've discovered, there are two types of 'life' - bios, the earthly, physical existence; and zoe. Zoe is altogether more exciting.

Zoe is the adventurous, vital, genuine, vigorous, generous, authentic state of being.

What if life is more than simply existing? More than eating, breathing, sleeping? More than having our physical needs attended to? More than consuming and acquiring?

In Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams, he often talks about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit the arctic, and there's one particularly relevant point he makes in a passage on Eskimo hunters. Lopez writes:

They [Eskimo hunters] have a quality of nuannaarpoq, of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive; and they delight in finding it in other people. (p.202)

This is existing and much more.

More reading: 
Luke 12:13-15 & 22-23 
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams