12 sacks of rice

Written by  Paolo Viana
The story of a symbiotic relationship between Ferrara and a valuable cereal
27th of September, 1475. Carts rumbling through the countryside around Porta Ticinese groan under the weight of their load of newly threshed rice. The peasants cast a curious eye over these golden ears bursting with heavy grains, the likes of which they have never seen before. The twelve sacks of this very special grain are a gift from the Duke of Milan to Ercole I, the arrival of which was announced in a letter extolling the virtues of rice in both the field and the kitchen.

There is a widely-held belief that these golden grains with their snow-white hearts are a spice exclusive to the tables of princes; but some time ago the Duke had decided to dedicate large fields, taken from the reclaimed lands which belonged to the Morimondo monks, to this cereal. In Ferrara, thought the Lombard official, they must have decided do the same.

And so it was. The twelve sacks of rice did not arrive in Emilia by chance. Ercole I, following in the footsteps of Borso d'Este, had started land reclamation in the Sammartina area, and had applied to Milan for this highly productive grain which could resolve the food supply problems of a population exhausted by war and disease, but which in the 1400s was still being imported from Africa and Spain.

The Este decision was a happy one: 20 years later, in 1495, rice was being sold in Ferrara for "only" four quattrini per pound, a sign that over two decades the Polesine rice fields had expanded so much as to bring the price crashing down. Other areas in the Po valley had seen a similar boom, but here the economic and agronomic factors that motivated investment overlapped with a genuine environmental symbiosis.

Indeed, this cereal crop seemed specially designed to preserve the newly reclaimed areas of the Polesine from new flooding, as the intermittent submersion of the rice fields balanced out any negative effects of the previous drainage. The soil around Ferrara contains a high concentration of bog peat, the result of millennia upon millennia of sedimentation of marsh grasses. Once exposed to the air, this composite loses its water content and "deflates". Moreover it subsequently oxidises and degrades.

In addition, the land sinks year on year due to the effects of geological erosion; in the long term the battle with the sea is an unequal one. So the compensatory effect of the submersion of the rice-fields is even more valuable, as it compensates for the tamping down of the soil, slows down the oxidisation process and blocks the rising levels of salt water from the neighbouring Adriatic.

In short, in the pursuit of greater profits, the Este Dukes chanced upon a means of maintaining the balance of the soil enabling them to complete the reclamation programme and preserve the reclaimed land in the long term.

The dedication of the Este family has left us this spectacular landscape where six centuries later the river still flows suspended above the paddy fields. The transformation of the Ferrarese countryside from marshland to this patchwork of fields took place between the 15th and 16th centuries, when thousands of acres of marshy brackish land between Copparo, the Po, and the Po di Volano were drained.

Borso d'Este started the work in Casaglie in the mid 1400s; then came the turn of Sammartina and Diamantina; and finally the great Este land reclamation scheme began under Alfonso II between 1566 and 1572. This huge project involved the Venetian nobility and financiers from Lucca and affected more than 15,000 hectares of the Polesine di Ferrara district. Hundreds of kilometres of new canals were built, existing ones were overhauled, and the rice-growing business received a boost that fuelled both envy and concern in Mantua and Venice.

Several centuries on, rice growing continues to be an area of contention. It continues to have a hold on the ambitions of states, and, today as in the distance past, has a strategic value in the food market. For the inhabitants of Ferrara this crop, uniquely able to maintain the equilibrium between environment, soil, and man that preserves the reclaimed lands in the Polesine, remains of crucial importance.

The cultivation of rice growing developed mainly in the primo circondario, in a square of land bordered by the Po and the Volano, the Mesola and Pomposa, Copparo and Codigoro; despite the passage of time it remains relatively unchanged and its destiny continues to be forged by intrigue and diplomacy as well as the vagaries of the soil itself, and the pressures of markets and governments.

The characteristics of the area continue to influence agricultural techniques, which are very different from those of the "old" lands of Vercelli and Pavia; costs are appreciably higher than elsewhere. EC regulations, the modern scourge which puts rice up as a bargaining counter on the negotiating tables of globalisation, are pushing agricultural businesses further into the red than ever before.

The area under cultivation fluctuates, reflecting commodity prices and forecasts for a future that seems as uncertain as the land over which the combine harvesters advance.

Peat is a very fertile composite with soft topdressing. This is the sole advantage for local farmers, because peat also makes plant health protection more difficult and releases a large quantity of nitrogen, creating ideal conditions for the piricularia fungus to thrive. This is the main pathogen that attacks Ferrarese rice, followed by infestations of prickly grass, ciperacea and alismataceae.

In such specialised circumstances, farmers cannot slavishly follow the rules of agriculture textbooks, but instead must rely on instinct and a sense of timing in order to get the best rice: Arborio, Volano, Argo or Baldo being the most grown varieties. To maintain vigorous growth the crop must be rotated every five to six years, using other cereals, beans or squashes. In short, whilst - climate permitting - other crops can flourish under standard procedures, rice requires a great deal of extra effort to ensure comparably good results.

This disparity has forced businesses to focus on cutting costs, for example by reducing the amount of water used by two-thirds. Today there are around six thousand hectares of rice under cultivation in the Ferrara area where a few decades ago there were more than double that; so there should be productive potential, but the irrigation network is inadequate and costs remain prohibitive.

Europe, unfortunately, has played its part: the recent reform of the common agricultural policy, in spite of its declared commitment to sustaining rural development and diversity, is likely to suffocate this crop, which plays a primary role in land reclamation and in combating the process of desertification.

From the top of the embankment the landscape looks peaceful and natural, but in fact this patchwork of rice fields is the result of ingenuity and effort on the same scale as that which went into building the pyramids or the great cathedrals. Rice cultivation lives in symbiosis with the Ferrara plain, and, more importantly, is increasingly vital: global warming is raising the level of the Adriatic, which will make it more and more difficult for Ferrara to stay ahead in its centuries-old battle with the sea.