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Live Like the Bees: A Self-Sustaining Farm Feels the Impacts of Climate Change

Live Like the Bees: A Self-Sustaining Farm Feels the Impacts of Climate Change

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When he was just 26, Roberto Podgornik left his job in an Italian factory and moved to a self- sustaining farm in France that followed the spiritual principles of Mahatma Gandhi. It was the beginning of a 40-year journey “backwards,” as he puts it, to the lifestyle he has developed with his family farm in the rolling hills of the Marche region.

A life lived in harmony with one’s environment is what Podgornik wanted to accomplish for himself. So after six months on the farm in France, Podgornik returned to Italy to buy his own plot of land just outside of Urbino. From that moment on, he has worked every day to respect the land, animals, and humans around him to make the world a better place. But this mission has not come without major challenges.

Podgornik replaces the top of one of his hives after inspecting it.

On a recent June day, Podgornik was talking to Matteo Ridolfi, 23, a student at the University of Urbino, about what his honeybees tell us about climate change and the need for human cooperation. Many Italians in their 20s today are more like Ridolfi. They live in big cities, out of touch with the reality of the impending climate disaster. Podgornik is speaking from first-hand experience, having witnessed many members of his community outside and around Urbino leave for bigger cities starting back in the 1970s and 80s.

“This life is a real choice, but it is not seen as one,” explained Podgornik. The way to change the negative impacts that we have put on this world, he says, is to take action and live how he does.

“I am a bit critical of academic environmentalists,” he says as the younger Ridolfi translates for another visitor. “They are correct in their science, but 30 years ago they told us that bees were going extinct, and what did they do about it? They did not take action.”

‘A World in Danger’

Image of bees from a documentary Podgornik shows in his kitchen.

Podgornik looks solemn when he says this, staring out at his own beehives alive with activity. His multicolored wooden beehives are home to thousands of bees that work as a superorganism to keep the ecosystem balanced and productive.

La Fattoria Dei Cantori – “The Farm of the Singers” – is almost 100% self-sustaining. But with each year that passes, honey production from his bees decreases due to the climate disaster that scientists have been warning about.

Podgornik heads to his kitchen, where he pulls out an aged laptop held together by tape. On an old flash drive he has the documentary “Un Mondo in Pericolo,” (“A World in Danger,” 2013, about declining honeybee populations) saved to show the serious state of the climate crisis around the world.

Podgornik explains that in certain parts of China, the bees are completely gone, leaving humans to do the vital work for them. Individuals hand scrape the pollen from the flower stamen, package the harvested pollen, resell it to farmers, and by hand place the pollen back onto other flowers.

Podgornik explains his farming process to Ridolfi.

It is obviously an impossible task. Human beings cannot do the work of billions of bees, who are essential to the pollination of plants and trees, providing life itself for human beings. “Without the bees,” he says, “we would only live for four years.”

Going backwards is not always a negative thing. It’s how we find our origin.
— Roberto Podgornik, founder of La Fattoria dei Cantori, a self-sustaining family farm

When asked what there is to do about climate change and the impending decimation of the honeybee population, Podgornik begins to tell the story of the Prodigal Son. This Bible parable tells the story of a young man who leaves home with a large fortune given to him by his father. In no time, he has used all of his riches and is forced to turn home, ask for forgiveness, and work.

“Humanity needs to turn back. Stop going forwards. Going backwards is not always a negative thing,” he says. “It’s how we find our origin.”

We have everything and we don’t need it all, says Podgornik. “It’s something we each need to learn ourselves, how to go back ‘home’ and learn about where we came from.”

This origin, he says, is being connected to the reality of our natural environment again. The lifestyle that Podgornik and his family live is attainable, he says. Their way of life has inspired many to change their own course to mirror his.

Roberto Podgornik has developed his organic farm, Fattoria dei Cantori, over the past 40 years.

But people don’t make that choice often. “Capitalism killed this culture. This is not seen as a real option anymore,” he says.

Podgornik’s passion for saving the ecosystems on his own farm and beyond is tangible, along with the immense sadness in his voice when he speaks about the future. He is scared.

Podgornik walks Ridolfi out of his house, waves goodbye, and turns back towards the beehives.

Ridolfi walks through the trees that frame a long dirt path, winding away from Podgornik’s farmhouse. He is quiet for a while, taking in the loud buzzing and the wind blowing across the fields.

“I hope that he feels his conscious is clean,” says the younger man. “He does everything he can.”

An earlier version of this article identified family members as if they still lived and worked on the farm. Podgornik is divorced and those family members have not been part of the farm for many years now. 

Translation of interviews and other language assistance by University of Urbino student Matteo Ridolfi.