Giovanni Boschin, Agronomist at NeoruraleHub, illlustrates their philosophy in the promotion of a sustainable use of rural land through innovative solutions and collaborations with startups
NeoruraleHub is a project located in the North of Italy, that develops innovative solutions for the conservation and valorisation of natural resources with a focus on the agri-food chain. The ambition is thus transforming agricultural suburbs close to cities into providers of ecological and ecosystem services for mitigating and adapting to climate change. To do so, Neorurale promotes the sustainable use of rural land in Italy and Europe through the use of innovative solutions.
The re-naturalization of rural lands
The rural territories of highly urbanised regions – so-called peri-urban territories – are spaces in the suburbs of a city that are not used neither for urban development nor for rural activities. Mostly, they are used for waste storage and treatment , or logistics such as airports causing overall a poor environmental and landscape quality. The sustainable use of these areas, instead, assumes there can be a different, relevant value and allows the rural territory to regain – in the provision of environmental services – the economic importance lost in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
The term “Neorurale” refers to a rural territory in which services of an environmental nature are added to existing agricultural activities.
The naturalisation of the territory can have a positive impact by improving the landscape quality, increasing biodiversity, conserving renewable resources, and increasing overall life quality.
Neorurale is a rural area of 1,400 hectares, consisting of 7 farmsteads. About 20 years ago, it looked like a collection of rice fields without any ecologically useful environmental elements. Over time, trees and hedges were planted and canals were created, encouraging the repopulation of fauna and flora in the area. This has created biodiversity and aesthetically improved the environment surrounding the rice fields.
This experience has made it possible to verify that, if managed in an integrated manner, agricultural and environmental production can easily coexist and help each other. In this context, foods of organoleptic and environmental quality – such as their Riso Cavalieri d’Italia – are produced. They reduce the use of chemical inputs to create rice, so the product is produced with the help of nature, which enhances its organoleptic characteristics and turns it into a quality food.
“Landscape farming” benefits and techniques
Landscape production is a full-fledged agricultural production, and as such is:
Requires essentially the same machinery and technical skills as agricultural production;
It allows, even if applied on 10-15% of the Usable Agricultural Area, to obtain remarkable environmental results in terms of biodiversity and landscape;
It allows developing the concept of ruralisation, in other words, to transform the agricultural environment from a simple producer of material goods to a provider of services, in 4th generation agriculture.
The application of these principles has the potential to transform agricultural territory into a new economic and social engine, combining respect for the environment and the requalification of an important rural heritage.
The experience of developing environmental aspects in agricultural production has led to the application of various innovative agronomic techniques, including the creation of wet areas in the field margins of rice cultivation and areas for the development of pollinating insects,, the recovery of agricultural wastes as rice straw to reduce greenhouse gasses, and the adoption of conservative farming techniques.
As an example, conservative farming techniques include farming practices such as crop rotation and reduced use of machinery for tillage, trying to stimulate the development of soil microbial communities able to improve fertility characteristics of the soil itself. The development of these aspects has led to the creation of more sustainable agriculture in which the use of herbicides, pesticides and CO2 emissions have been reduced.
Bringing innovation to sustainable agriculture: agritech startups
Innovation needs the energy of leading people and those people need electrical energy, spaces and an environment to experiment.
In such a context, it is key to explore the innovative directions that fit with this sustainable management of the territory, and Neorurale does it with the Business Unit Farm, collaborating with startups in the field.
For instance, unsustainable businesses such as cattle breeding – consuming extreme quantities of water and resources per kg of protein- have been substituted with crickets farming with ste startup CRICKEaT.
CRICKEaT s.r.l. is a startup owned by Neorurale that has decided to change and redevelop an old barn located right inside the Innovation Center Giulio Natta, in Cascina Darsena. The cowshed is no longer used to raise cattle due to its lack of sustainability, such as the excessive consumption of water for the production of just one kilo of protein, but they have converted the place to a more sustainable form of farming: crickets. Indeed, producing one kilo of protein from crickets generates little waste and requires way less water and less land available for farming.
The Italian Ministry of Health declared in 2018 that insects and their derivatives are considered ‘novel foods’ and that, as yet, no species has been authorised for use in food. So today, insect flours or derivatives are only considered food for animal husbandry, but they are aiming to sell them by 2023.
Neorurale has also invested – still on the subject of old building requalification – in LocalGreen: a startup founded in 2018 that defines its product as “unimaginable” using “incredible technologies” just “18 km from Milan Cathedral”. Indeed, they propose an aeroponic vertical farming technology, which, unlike normal vertical cultivation using hydroponic technology, manages to save up to 95% of water, allowing production 365 days a year.
They are currently patenting a system that is not only limited to the use of this aeroponic technology but a whole vertical farming system in which the concept of cultivation is similar to that of the production chain.
Furthermore, following the principle of circular economy, they are recovering existing abandoned structures, ex-factories, in which to place their technologies.
Another startup selected by Neorurale is YouFarmer – The Bio Revolution. This is a startup founded in 2018 that wants to bring sustainability to people’s homes through the sale and delivery of healthy and fresh products, grown through regenerative farming techniques, by farmers who respect the land and its inhabitants without the need to leave the product in warehouses for days. YouFarmer selects certified low-impact farms throughout Italy.
The aim is to bring the producer as close as possible to the consumer, thus minimising transportation costs, CO2 emissions, waste and storage.
Each farm supplies areas within a radius of 20/30km in order to deliver fresh, quality products in the shortest possible time. The biodiversity of the soil and the products is respected as each farm has its own harvesting configuration based on the season and the region in which it is located.
Neorurale shares competence and know-how with all the startups that are part of their network.
For example, they support the Sustainable Agrovoltaics initiative launched by the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development (ENEA): an Italian network that aims to connect institutions, businesses and trade associations to define guidelines and regulations dedicated to the integration of solar and agricultural energy production.
The agrovoltaic plant model envisages a structure formed by photovoltaic modules that cover the ground on which the agricultural crop grows. The characteristics of this structure are different for each specific case, varying in size, height from the ground, distance between modules, inclination, etc.
One advantage of agrovoltaics is that it protects crops from rising daytime temperatures and sudden drops in night-time temperatures. In addition, the increased shading provided by the modules reduces the amount of water needed by the crops.