“A Sunflower Year?” asked Francesca as we drove through the rolling Tuscan hills southwest of Siena. I pointed out to this Florentine that some years there were no sunflowers to be found in Tuscany, but in others the golden flowers created the Tuscan landscape of movies and postcards and tourists’ fantasies. 2010 is a Sunflower Year.
Twelve years ago, the first Italian film I saw was Il Ciclone. I’ve seen it about three times because as a failing beginning Italian language student, I’ve taken a lot of classes. It seems to be the film-of-choice for first-level Italian language teachers. Not because it’s easy to understand – most of the actors have Florentine accents – but because it is funny. The parts I remember the best are the scenes when the cute guy on a scooter speeds to the family farmhouse through fields of sunflowers. It was the perfect depiction of my dream of the Tuscan countryside – not vineyards or olive groves, but with fields of yellow flowers surrounding a golden rustic house with a terra cotta roof.
So why are some years filled with sunflowers and in others nary a bloom to be found. I had a client – a photographer and painter – who wanted to take photos of Tuscan sunflowers. We traveled the back roads from Florence to Siena to Montepulciano for five days before we found one field near Montalcino.
Of course, the answer that comes to mind is that Italian farmers are rigorous in their husbandry of the fertile soil and therefore, rotate their crops to preserve the nutrients and decrease the pathogens to allow for healthy crops every year. But it is incredible to think that Italian farmers are so cohesive to agree en masse that they should all grow sunflowers in a given year. Especially on the years that the sunflower crops have failed dismally when lack of rain wilted them on the stalk just as the flowers came into bloom.
No, of course, it is all about subsidies. It appears that the Italian government and the European Union have for years subsidized certain crops and that determines a Sunflower Year. Now in the age of biofuels, new subsidies have been created to Save the Planet. (Of course, the cost and amount of CO2 emitted from farming sunflowers and burning sunflower biofuel far outweigh the value of the relatively small amount of fuel that can be obtained from the plant.)
But after the momentary distraction brought by the realities of farming in Italy and EU subsidies, I am back in my golden haze, loving Tuscany during the summers when millions of the giant flowers turn their faces to the sun. I wish every year was a Sunflower Year.