Wisdom From The Field of Ninnu- An Interview with Gian Marco.
Instagram followee turned friend, Sardinian organic farmer Gian Marco shares his knowledge of synergy gardening, permaculture, wwoofing, changing the world and gives advice for those looking to take the plunge into the wild world of organic farming. Uplifting and philosophical, this conversation is for anyone wondering if there is another way and if so, what it might look like.
Back in March when we were first confined to our houses, I stepped out into the world of social media and joined Instagram. Not knowing exactly what I was doing, I began to clumsily message a few people who had projects that seemed to fall in line with my dream of permaculture and returning to the land, without expectations of it coming to much.
However, to my surprise, some of these people behind the profiles turned out to be very interesting with a lot to say. And not only that but they were willing to talk and to share that knowledge with the sincere seeker looking for a way out of the city.
Meet Gian Marco!
An organic farmer from Sardina, Gian Marco was one of these open and friendly people who were generous enough to reply to me and engage in conversation.
´Feel free to ask me any question, sharing is caring´ he said, unprompted.
Not one to pass up an opportunity for an interesting conversation, I set about asking him a few questions. However, each question led to an intriguing answer, which led to another question and another answer, before I bit the bullet and popped the question:
Would you be interested in doing an interview with me?
Speaking with someone for the first time over messages and then ´meeting´ face-to-face on zoom felt a little bit like a strange quarantine blind date. However, this is 2020- the year of craziness and strangeness, of unpredictable events and uncertainty. Why not use it to my advantage and take a risk?
And, luckily for me, he was more than happy to be my guinea pig and bravely agreed to an interview, even though I couldn´t tell him exactly what I was going to do with it once we did it!
So, based on our previous conversations and with the help of some of my readers in the Shared Earth Living Facebook group, I compiled a list of questions and then we took the plunge and met on zoom one lockdown Sunday morning.
Two years ago, Gian got the opportunity to take over his family’s farm in his hometown of Sardinia, Italy, and since then, little by little he has been bringing it back to life with the dream of transforming it into an organic farm. It is a slow process, one that can´t be rushed.
He started out with the olive trees. Not knowing much about their cultivation, he spent a winter learning how to take care of them, and only now, two years later is hoping to be able to harvest some olive oil.
´Plants have their time´, he reflects, ´And depending on the plant, their reactions to your actions can be quite long (…) It´s a constant learning journey that is always evolving. But it gives me back so much´
For some people, it may seem that one man pruning olive trees on his farm isn´t making much of a contribution to the world. But Gian sees it differently.
His vision for his farm extends beyond the plants and the trees. His intention is to one day be able to also use the farm for a holiday letting, hosting guests who are interested in having a taste of a different way of life. For him, this is a worthy contribution to what he calls ´the environmental cause´. It is also his idea for financing the farm in the long term debt-free since debts for him are ´the quickest way to failure´.
Activism- the passive way
In fact, this is one of the things that intrigued me the most in my first conversations with Gian on Instagram. In talking about his vision, he uses the term ´passivism´ to describe his philosophy about how to change the world.
By doing something good for myself, for the planet and for the rest of the world with so much satisfaction and positive energy, I like to think that people can dream about this and join the cause. Not knocking on their doors and telling them what to do but doing things without pretending to be followed.
Here people can try this way of life and at the same time realise that living in a sustainable way is easier than they think, for example producing less plastic waste, growing food and making good things with what’s available from the garden.
In this way, by living a life that is true to his deepest values, he is leading by an example but in a way that involves no force or sacrifice because he is doing what he loves. Hence, passivism!
´If someone comes to your ear every day and asks you, why you do that and not the other, tells you you shouldn´t buy plastics etc, that would keep me going in the opposite direction (…) People are always trying to make people do things and people are overloaded with this type of behaviour- I know I am! The way to make the world a better place is to go the way you want to go and stick with it. People who like it will take it as an example´.
He recalls the time when his mum bought a metal water bottle because she had seen him with his so many times, even though he had never said anything to her about the benefits of using such a bottle instead of the plastic ones. By setting an example, she just decided for herself.
Or in other words, ´be the change you want to see in the world´.
Community and the Sharing Economy
Part way through our zoom call, I realise that Gian keeps referring to ´we´. I had been under the impression that he was taking this project on alone, so who is ´we´ exactly?
´We´ are my family and friends who come by to help me out, the people passing through, all the people contributing to the farm in the local area´.
And I loved his answer because it seems to point to what this blog is about – co-creation and the importance of community. And Gian seems to have this idea so firmly incorporated that even though he is running the farm alone, he responds so naturally with ´we´ as if he is there with a team of people.
So, in keeping with this theme of community, I wonder how dependant he is on other nearby projects and if he has much contact with his neighbours.
He says that there are many ´hidden realities´ around, but that often, their farms keep them so busy that there isn´t a lot of time to hang out. However, when he does get the opportunity to chat with a neighbour, it is often a case of mutual sharing of information and tips. In this way, they solve problems together and for Gian, this is a source of great satisfaction.
´It´s a sharing thing´, he says. ´and that helps everybody, it helps the environment- healthy living (…) In other situations of commerce or having a ´proper job´, everybody keeps the things that they discover to make their business better to themselves. In this case, we do the sharing economy.´
But what exactly did he mean by sharing economy? Do they swap skills or produce? Barter?
In response, he explains to me that Sardinia has a culture that is still very much linked to the earth. People live in small towns and there is a low population density. Agriculture and raising livestock has always been part of their culture and sharing goes in all directions.
´We have always been used to taking our products to someone´s house as a present when we go somewhere. Sometimes it is a sharing of time simply. I help someone to do something and later they help me. There are always things that you can´t do alone, heavy jobs, long jobs etc, ´.
However, as small and traditional as they may sound, these people are well connected on social media! Gian goes on to explain that he also uses social media to post questions and doubts that he may have about things that happen on the farm. But this is not just purely an informational exchange, but a way of offering support and help him feel that he isn´t alone in this work.
Going it alone
Which led me to the next question: Does he ever experience loneliness?
It seems like I have hit on an important topic for him and his responds with an enthusiastic, ´very, very good question!´.
Gian grew up in this small fishing village. When he was in high school there were only 6 people in his class, and with the exception of a bit of tourism in the summer, it was a pretty wild place! So for him, he says he is used to this way of life.
But what about those people who feel that they want this way of life, what would he say to them?
Be ready for it! You have to be ready for it. After 3 days in a row without talking to someone- and 3 days might not seem like much- you have to keep your mind very clear. But farm living keeps you this way.
But luckily for Gian, he has the town just 7km away so it isn´t so difficult for him to do a bit of socialising now and again.
However, he reflects, ´the fact is that you do end up spending a lot of time on your own farm because it does need a lot of care and love also´.
Speaking of going into town, does he feel strange when he does venture into the city?
On the farm, everything is green, growing and positive. One of the things I notice when I go to the city is that no one smiles at you (…) in the way they do here. They are kind of course but they look at me like ´why is this guy so happy?! I usually can´t wait to get back to the farm!
He notes that the farm is such a relaxing place that it´s as if all the problems of the world stay outside, which helps keep your mind in a ´high vibe´ even in sad times, like the ones we have been experiencing.
He also points out that thanks to all the trees, the countryside is a good 4 degrees cooler than the city. Another good reason to stay on the farm!
Overall, Gian sounded like a very busy man.
And this got me wondering about how much free time he has to enjoy any hobbies or creative pursuits…especially because I have the idea that when I move to the country, I will suddenly have more time to follow a few neglected hobbies of mine, such as painting and drawing…am I deluding myself?
In answering Gian gives me an alternative perspective of what it means to have free time:
Anything done on the farm feels like a hobby. Growing, recycling, gardening, creating spaces and structures- it´s like making sandcastles!
He also challenges my idea of what it means to be creative, starting by giving me an example.
He told me that just the previous day, he had a pot of paint that was about to dry up. So in order to bring it back to life, he mixed it with other left over pots he had with the aim of painting his laundry room. However, he didn´t have enough paint to paint it all one colour so ended up mixing and matching and painting the room with many different colours.
He could have painted it all white, he reflects. But by just using a bit of creativity in order to recycle paints that would have otherwise dried up, he gave something a new lease of life- and made his laundry room much more interesting in the process!
´Creativity comes out anywhere´, he says.
´Everything has its own life, its own reason for living (…) when we let our will to create come out, opportunities to use our creativity can be found everywhere. With recycling and upcycling, it comes out constantly´
Reduce, Re-Use and Re-cycle
In fact, it seems like I have hit upon Gian´s area of expertise! But how did he learn these skills?
Gian tells me how his favourite game as a child wasn´t actually playing with his toys but taking them apart and seeing how they worked. And this seems to have set him in good stead for life on the farm now.
It´s not a matter of money, money is your last interest. It´s a way of life that requires less money. Everything has a use, nothing is rubbish.
He gives me the example of his solar panel which exploded last year. He says that there are so many things that he can do with it- it´s just a matter of having the eye to recognise it.
In the case of his solar panel, what could we do with that?
There is a huge pane of glass (…) It could be used in the plant nursery in winter, it could be glass to make a shower screen- everything has many, many lives, it´s just a matter of deciding what to do with them.
In this throw-away society, this perspective is very refreshing to hear.
Interestingly, Gian also has an interesting approach to problem solving.
Most of the times the idea doesn´t just come instantly but comes when you face the problem and realise that you already have the solution stored somewhere.
´Normally we start from the expectation of what we want to create,´ he says. But for Gian, it´s the reverse. ´I take something, imagine what I could do with it, experiment. Start with the thing in my hands and then let things happen´.
This seems to me to be very good advice.
So what about his prior experience with farming? As a city dweller I have the dream of returning to the land, but how possible is it when you don´t have much prior experience?
Luckily for me, Gian has some heartening advice:
People think that you can´t become a farmer from one day to the next. But I think if you´re willing, you can.
Gian goes on to tell me that even though he saw the farm growing up, it wasn´t until his thirties that he started to get into it. And even then he didn´t plant his first seed until his 40´s!
In fact, his first contact with organic farming was when he spent 6 months wwoofing in Australia when he was already in his 40´s. This was his first contact with ´this reality´ as he puts it.
And in his own words he says his first thought upon arriving was, ´What do these people do exactly?´.
Later on in his experience, he was again confronted with new experiences that helped shape his philosophy about the farm now, but at first sight, he admits that he wasn´t so sure.
He recalls a story from when he was volunteering at a permaculture project that gave permaculture courses. Suddenly everyone gathered in a circle holding hands and he admits that although he joined them in the circle, he wasn´t quite sure what to make of it.
I said to the teacher, ´I just want say, very nice but I´m not going to join any religion!´
I can understand what he felt here, because often when we get an insight into a different way of life or philosophy, we often feel a bit suspicious and our cynical streak comes out. I know mine does.
But what is great about Gian´s story is that although he felt a bit unsure at first, he maintained an open attitude, stayed and observed and was open enough to have a new experience. One which now he is very happy to have had.
And after 6 months wwoofing in Australia (volunteering on organic farms in exchange for a food, board and learning experiences), would he give any advice to anyone thinking of going on their own wwoofing adventure?
´Talk a lot with the host´, he says.
´Yes, I agree´, I say. Exactly what I didn´t do the first time and paid the price!
´Me too!´ he admits.
He goes on to say that although many places are on the wwoofing list, they may not be true wwoofing places, for example they may not be a real organic farm.
´Which´, he says, ´isn´t a problem but it is if you didn´t know that before hand!´.
He also points out that it´s really important to be honest with yourself. What kind of work do you want to do? What kind of experience do you have? He says many people find that it´s not what they thought.
He remembers one guy that told him, ´yeh, they sent me straight away to shovel cow shit!´.
However, Gian observes that this is just organic farming for you- a way of making compost!
So, research the host, but also research your self. Why do I want to do this and what are my expectations?
But as interesting as all this was, I still felt the need to know more about his story. What was his professional background before? Is it really possible for someone like me to start a new life in the country?
Gian laughs,´if I was to write my C.V, I would have to use a whole roll of toliet paper!´.
From gardening, manual jobs, farm labour and harvesting, tourism, P.R, receptionist- he seems to have done it all!
´This adventure puts together all my work experience together´, he says.
Whilst this doesn´t really fit my profile in the way of practical skills, I like how life can somehow come together and join up the dots later down the line. Maybe we are never really lost, it´s just a matter of waiting to see the full picture and seeing how the dots join up.
And what about the reactions of his family and friends when he decided to quit his former job and take over the farm permanently?
´My family are still unsure about what I am doing´, he laughs. ´Farming is seen to be very hard…by people who are not farmers of course!´
When I said that I wouldn´t be going back to my old job, people -mostly my family- thought I was crazy. They thought I wanted to live like a caveman or something!
However, he does note that for his family, having grown up in a generation where, by the age of 8, his mum was riding a horse down to the river to wash the clothes and his father was already working collecting palm leaves for brooms, farm life wasn´t always a choice.
They used to see farm work as something you have to do, not something that you want to do and that´s quite different.
So what was this deciding factor for him to dedicate himself fully to the farm?
Gian says that he had already done a lot of work in the field and if he had left it for just two months, all that hard work would have been lost. So he decided to just keep going.
However, as he recalls it ´it wasn´t a scary decision for me- it was an adventure. By putting all the skills together from before, I can have a global vision of my farm. Maybe money for the first year will be pretty short, but nothing to leave me afraid´.
So did you save up some money to help you make it through your first year?
Gian is quick in his response : ´Way less than what you think!´.
He tells me that he is being very strict with expenses and sometimes doing some other farm work to make a bit of cash.
If you are ready to work, it´s no problem.
Permaculture and Synergy Gardening
So what about permacultrue and synergy gardening? What is all about?
Gian is honest with his answer.
At first I thought permaculture was just gardening. But actually, it not. It´s a lifestyle where we try to get the most out of what we have, always respecting the environment. It could be the building of a house, an oven made from soil, water systems. Permaculture brings it all together.
And synergy gardening?
Synergy gardening tries to reproduce what nature does itself. For example, walking in the field you can find wild beet, along with calendula. The flower protects the other plant from parasites, whilst another plant will fix the nitrogen in the soil. So in this way they give elements that other plants need but don´t produce. And grow nice and lush!
So in synergy gardening, we try to reproduce this kind of interaction. We put plants together that help each other to grow without the help of chemicals.
Whilst it may sound like work for an expert only for a novice like me, he assures me that he started from the basics and is still learning.
´I am always learning and discovering something´, he says, which makes it very interesting and satisfying and a constant learning curve. And life never gets boring!´.
And has his relationships with nature changed as a consequence of this new knowledge and experience?
´Yes, he says, ´before I was a nature lover but nothing more. But after learning about synergy gardening, I started seeing the plants as living beings in their own right´.
I know they don´t have eyes or smiles but you notice that they are happy or if they are suffering. I get warned if they don´t feel good or when they are happy and doing well.
As if this may sound a bit too out there, he gives me an example to illustrate his point.
He tells me how the other day he planted some saplings, taking them from their tiny pot and planting them directly in the earth. The following day, now that they weren´t constricted in the small pot, they were in Gian´s words ´just loving life!´.
Having something that you see growing every day, trying to give it the best, it just gives so much to me.
Advice for The Back to The Landers
Of course, by this point, I am even more sold than before that I want to follow in his footsteps and explore the world of permaculture and synergy garden for myself! So what advice would he give to those dreaming of going back to the land? Gian is clear in his answer and doesn´t skip a beat:
First to prepare themselves. Get some experience. Try out the lifestyle first.
However, this is not meant to scare people. Rather he says ´I´m sure you will be more convinced about what you are doing and what you want to do´.
Plant anything anywhere and watch it grow, research its needs or what it doesn´t need and look for solutions if it doesn´t go well
He emphasises the importance of discussing every decision ´once, twice, 3 times, maybe even 5 times before doing something´.
You really need to make a big picture of the context and of yourself, what you´re willing to do and also your relationships. I´m doing this on my own but someone else could be inspired to do it together with others (…)
First, you need to make sure you have the same idea, and that you´re all prepared to soak in the rain. Also, study, get to know nature better, see how it works. It is also important to check what you already have and see what you can do with it- this is true for all plans in life I think.
Best and worst things
And for those of us who want to prepare ourselves, what is the most difficult thing about your lifestyle?
Tough times come in moments when you lose your horizon. In these moments, you need to take the time to remember what you´re doing and why your doing it. Then it becomes easier. Problems disappear and you get so much energy!
And the best best thing?
For this question, Gian is says he is so spoilt for choice that it is too hard to choose! But then he has it:
The best pay is always having a big smile on my face, all the rest doesn´t really matter.
It all sounds so wonderful, but I wonder if Gian ever sees himself doing something else in the future..maybe it will all get too much work by himself?
´When you get into your 40´s, you start to think about your health. You also want a way of living that isn´t a weight on your shoulders. Taking care of these things, it isn´t a job for me. It´s a moment to relax when I go out into the field and take care of the garden. I hope to continue this for the rest of my life, and hopefully after too!´
And what about your dream for the future?
´I´ll be happy when everything is growing nice and lush, and I´m sharing this with others who want to try a different lifestyle, that would be everything´.
Although he does note that a future project is to build an small off-grid cabin close to the farm house for him to live in, allowing him to rent out the whole farm house to visitors and expland.
´I am really looking to forward to that!´ he says. ´being even closer to nature will just be amazing!´.
And as a final question, I ask him what the name of his Instagram account means, ´su terreno de ninnu´?
´This was my father´s land, and this is what people used to call it: The Field of Ninnu. So I´m just continuing the tradition´
Thanks so much to Gian for agreeing to take part in this first interview! For me, it was an absolute pleasure to talk to him that Sunday morning during quarantine and equally enjoyable to write about. I hope others can gain as much insight and inspiration from it as I have.
A big thank you to the following members of the Shared Earth Living Community Facebook group who very kindly contributed their questions. You are also the co-creators of this article!
As always, if you have enjoyed this post please help support this work by sharing it with others. Let´s help this community of co-creators to grow!