The Swiss valley on the verge of becoming 100% organic
Val Poschiavo in the canton of Graubünden is a global pioneer of organic farming. The people there have been cultivating the land this way for about 30 years and are aiming to be 100% organic within the next two years.
It all began in the 2000s, when Val Poschiavo, a small Italian-speaking valley in Graubünden with around 5,000 inhabitants nestled between the Engadine and Lombardy, began to question its business model. "In order to give new impetus to the region and to give a boost to our landscape and local production, we took steps to have our valley included with the Rhaetian Railway on the UNESCO World Heritage List," explains Cassiano Luminati, coordinator of the UNESCO recognition project and current director of the Polo Poschiavo, a competence centre for continuing education and support for territorial development projects. One of the most emblematic examples of Swiss infrastructure is located in this Alpine valley: the astonishing Brusio spiral viaduct, with its red Bernina Express tourist trains. "We are proud to have earned this valuable international recognition in 2008. Thanks to the steps we have taken, all of the farmland you can see from the train falls within the official boundary. This has enabled the various stakeholders in our local economy to draw up a common development strategy." The idea of making the whole valley organic sprang initially from the notion of bringing together all the local stakeholders. The concept gradually gained ground and was put into practice in 2012 at the Alpine Conference – the decision-making body of the Alpine Convention – held in Val Poschiavo. Since 2015, Val Poschiavo has branded itself as the Smart Organic Valley. "It all started with a book about the concept of smart land, based on criteria divided into five distinct areas: landscape, skills, resources, mobility and governance. The approach in the book matched our own values and objectives, so we chose to adapt this urban concept to the scale of our valley," recalls Luminati.
Smart Organic Valley
The name in English was much discussed and widely supported by the local people. Val Poschiavo is a successful model from both a conceptual and human point of view. More than anything else, its concept is unique in the world: at present, it is the only region that has succeeded in converting almost all its producers to organic farming. "Some of us had already trained in organic farming in the 1990s. So this way of living and working has been part of our daily life for some ten years now. Our goal is to be 100% organic within the next two years," says Luminati. "Speaking of territory, we want to take it a step further, because organic certification in Switzerland only exists for products".
"In order for our project to become reality, we needed the support of all sectors of the economy. And it is mainly because the project resonated with so many of our fellow citizens that everyone signed up," says Luminati. Currently, more than 90% of farmers have switched to organic and 60 local producers are participating in the radical organic project. This Italian-speaking part of Graubünden is home to all kinds of producers, from cereal growers to butchers, cheesemakers, fruit and vegetable growers and herb growers. "The common goal has enabled us to network, coordinate and develop mutual aid in our drive for change," the former chairman of the Val Poschiavo regional association says proudly. This new-found harmony has had a direct impact on the environment and the quality of life in the valley. "It's in the environment and local biodiversity that the impact has been most noticeable. Our land has become productive again and crops such as barley and buckwheat, which had disappeared from the valley, are now being grown once more. The return of local species has allowed us to rediscover the agricultural landscapes of the past," enthuses Luminati. The new synergy is confirmed by the intergenerational mix: the valley's 50 or so farms are run by both old hands and young graduates – local families and newcomers alike. "I come from a family that always practised organic farming, so it made perfect sense for me to adopt this way of working," says Annina Raselli, a young organic farmer from Poschiavo. "Choosing to forgo using chemical substances means more work, but it guarantees that I'm not harming nature and I'm able to offer 100% natural fruit and vegetables to my customers. Mother nature has no need of us, but we depend on her. The Smart Organic Valley project promotes local, responsible consumption, and I'm proud to be part of that."
Saving the local heritage
Part of the reason why everyone came on board with the project was that it makes it possible to safeguard the valley's common heritage. "We had to raise awareness before we let everyone switch over. We submitted the project to the authorities and set up several tools including a training centre. The rest of the process was done on an individual basis. That reassured us that people were doing it for themselves and for their own businesses more than anything else," says Luminati, who was also a local councillor in Poschiavo between 2002 and 2015. This positive new direction has made it possible to safeguard local skills that were in danger of being lost, such as drystone walling.
In addition to going organic in their production, the farms in the valley have also opted for renewable energy. Most of the farms have installed solar panels on their roofs. "We have also innovated in transport. Our valley is only accessible by car or train, and we became the first region in Graubünden to test and adopt the electric postbus as a means of public transport," says Luminati. The positive dynamic in this Graubünden community has also had an impact on political life. "We have noticed that our fellow citizens are getting more involved than before and that discussions have become more open. The inclusion of all the inhabitants of Val Poschiavo in all local decision-making by the authorities has led to their growing involvement. Each of us realises just how privileged we are to live in this valley. We are proud to be seen to be setting an example to the rest of the world. This recognition encourages us to persevere in this direction and to think of further improvements for the future. We are currently working on a 2040 vision to have the Smart Organic Valley concept certified." Not just smart for the planet and the soul, the project has brought long-term harmony to the entire valley.