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Those farm women, thrilled at their first sight of the sea… The agronomist Giuseppe Mauro Ferro remembers the precious testimony of his father, Antonio Ferro, a pioneer of rural reform. In the ’50s between Puglia, Basilicata and Molise huge areas of marshland were transformed into fertile land. The skill of the technicians, the hard work of the peasants and a forward-thinking political plan were the basis of the “miracle” by Giuseppe Mauro Ferro
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Montescaglioso (Matera). Local peasants, 1949

I am the son of one of the hundreds of agricultural technicians involved, in the early ’50s, in the land reform.

My father, the agronomist Antonio Ferro, at a very young age started working for the Land Reform body of Puglia, Basilicata and Molise, in the area of Policoro, in the vast flood plain, now magnificent, which stretches from Taranto to Calabria, sheltered to the north by the final curve of the Apennines on the Ionian side. Today it has become a highly fertile area of irrigated farms, most of which can produce crops earlier than Sicily. But at that time malaria was widespread in the area, which was marshy in winter, dry in summer, and served only for extensive grain-growing, leaving the towns perched in the hills, from Ginosa to Mottola, etc.

It is worth mentioning my father’s memories here: in the over 6,000 hectares of the Berlingeri barons, as soon as the wheat had been harvested and before the people were allowed in to start gleaning, hordes of turkeys were let loose!

The works carried out were gigantic: dams to regulate the water upstream, the reclaiming of marshland with collective irrigation plants downstream, the establishment of a network of small farms with the provision of stabilized earth roads (so successful that the techniques and equipment needed were also exported to Persia), housing and villages containing the services (schools, medical center, church, offices and shops). My father remembered that the area was so poor and the population so small that whole families had to be imported from Basilicata to occupy these new farms. Imagine this scene: after the meeting in the square during which government Minister Fanfani handed over the title deeds to the new peasant occupants, an elderly woman asked my father to arrange to take the women present down to see the sea (!). They were loaded onto some “Leoncini” (trucks fitted with benches to carry people) and when they reached the sea they expressed their emotion with this gesture, begun by the oldest woman: with no concern for the traditional costumes they were wearing, they hitched up their skirts slightly and entered the water, dipping their hands in and crossing themselves.

After several years at Policoro, my father was appointed Director of the Colonization Center at Gaudiano, in the Ofanto valley. There, too, malaria forced the large land-owners to take on extra workers to make up for the many deaths. An unforgettable sight was the throng of reapers, and before that, of bean-pickers, sleeping on the pavements of Lavello wrapped in their cloaks.

While the new Rendina dam regulated the flow of water for the winter and summer, building continued on the network of roads, houses and rural settlements, and on the experimental farm strawberries and even asparagus made their appearance while the poultry center distributed chicks. Today the Ofanto valley is full of intensive peach orchards, grapevines and olive-growing.

After some years at Gaudiano, my father was transferred to Gravina di Puglia (Dolcecanto Colonization Center), and later to the provincial head office first in Bari, then in Lecce, with Brindisi in the interim.

The processing stage had made progress: from cooperatives of farm services and mutual support associations for stock-owners, there were now specialized cooperatives at the first level: oil-pressing plants, collective wineries, fruit and vegetable cooperatives, as well as federations of cooperatives: for wine, olive oil, fruit and vegetables, glass-houses and cut-flowers.

There was a memorable visit by the US Ambassador, prof. Gardner and his wife. It was explained to them that the area called the Arneo was so stony that at first it had been included in the land reform zones only because of a popular uprising; later however the small farms, which seemed destined to fail, became the source of great wealth thanks to widespread collective irrigation systems that made the extremely shallow soil a fertile source of sought-after early produce. As the couple stood gazing at the white expanse of flower glasshouses all down the Rodegaleto valley, the daughters of one of the peasant landholders brought bunches of gladioli and beautiful roses for them and their security detail and Mrs Gardner was deeply moved.

Dear Dad, when you died a Senator commented, “It’s a whole epoch that has come to an end”.

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