ENVR E-143: Sustainable Food Enterprises in Rural Areas: Evaluating American versus European Practices in Tuscany


  • Professor: Mark Leighton
  • Term: Spring
  • Days: W
  • Time: 8:10-10:10PM
  • School: Harvard Extension School
  • Course ID: 25371

Globally, metropolitan areas have prospered economically while rural areas have been left behind. The course focuses on sustainability opportunities and enterprises in these rural landscapes. Emphasis is on the benefits of small-scale organic farm enterprises, typically with diverse production systems, common historically and now resurgent in the farm to table and local food movement as alternatives to industrial agriculture. Although of global relevance, the course focuses on comparisons between New England and Tuscany; in both these regions, ecological and economic sustainability challenges in the rural landscape include producing food and wood products for niche markets, managing watersheds, conserving biodiversity, and other environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, and diversifying income streams with ecotourism. Optimizing this mix of functions while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, other forms of pollution, and energy consumption addresses sustainability goals. Online required class sessions, typically every other week during the semester, discuss readings on models and analysis of sustainable food production systems, including organic, permaculture and forest farming systems.

The centerpiece of the course is an intensive—and mandatory—experience, May 2-10, in residence at Spannocchia, a historical Tuscan farming estate near Sienna. The educational mission of the Spannocchia Foundation is to promote sustainability in organic agriculture and animal husbandry, forestry, biodiversity conservation, ecotourism, and energy and waste management practices. Students work in small teams, conducting fieldwork on the 1,200 acres of the estate, evaluating models for these practices from ecological, economic, and policy perspectives, and debating creative ideas for sustainability futures with local experts. Students also help establish experimental trials to test hypotheses about improved production and financial performance. These field exercises and discussions at Spannocchia are augmented with an optional all day field trip to a biodynamic winery site and onwards to San Gimignano. Students should not have other work or study commitments during this period.

The course involves some hiking and fieldwork on several days over uneven ground; because these are critical course activities, students must be physically able to participate. Although mild, sunny spring weather is common, unusually cold and rainy or hot days can occur, not unlike New England. Rooms in the villa and fattoria at Spannocchia are shared doubles, spacious and historical. Meals feature organic products from the estate. View the Spannocchia website for photos and descriptions of accommodations, programs, and the estate property. Students with documented disabilities should contact the accessibility services office no later than two weeks before the course begins.

Costs: in addition to the course tuition, students are responsible for:

815 Euros (approximately $910 at the current exchange rate) for May 2-10, paid to Spannocchia by January 26. This includes room and board, and educational fees.

US health insurance that provides coverage outside the United States.

Transportation to and from Spannocchia.

Shared per capita cost of bus/van rental and driver for the field trip (optional).

The cost of passports and visas (if the latter is needed).

Prerequisite: A prior relevant course (ENVR E-129, ENVR E-140, ENVR S-142, ENVR E-210, or other relevant sustainability courses) and familiarity with Excel spreadsheets is helpful, but not required.