Part III of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles
Much of what we know about wheat production can be traced back to a certain Nazareno Strampelli, an agronomist and geneticist from the Marche region. In 1900, in an era plagued by famine, Strampelli embarked on a quest to hybridise the “Rieti” and “Noé” wheat varieties to obtain a new variety that would not fall over in heavy winds or rains that the Macerata province was notorious for. His efforts, however, met strong opposition, in part due to deeply-rooted habits and seed producers’ objections. At that time, cross-breeding was not widely known – the preferred method was the long and slow selective breeding, or choosing the best of each harvest to plant.
Strampelli and his wife Carlotta (Source)
Strampelli rallied on, threatening to quit twice when the Agriculture Ministry refused to grant him land to conduct his experiments. Despite the obstacles, Strampelli managed to lobby for a “seed exchange” law that allowed farmers to exchange an equal quantity of traditional grains with results of his experiments for free. He eventually succeeded in bringing his first hybrid grain to the market in 1919 – a move that made him famous in Italy and abroad.
The next turning point came when the Fascist regime took power. Strampelli’s unwavering resolve piqued the interest of Dictator Mussolini, then worried about Italy’s rising trade deficit. Strampelli persuaded Mussolini to take a walk in the fields and assess his discoveries. Convinced of Italy’s potential to be self-reliant in grains, Mussolini was inspired to launch the battaglia del grano and Strampelli was appointed as a key leader in the mission.
Strampelli (far right) accompanying Vittorio Emanuele III and Benito Mussolini on a walk in the fields (Source)
The hundreds of new varieties developed by Strampelli contributed to the vittoria sul grano, where Italy’s wheat production increased dramatically and the country no longer had to rely heavily on imports. Nevertheless, as a dedicated scientist Strampelli refused to patent his crops, eschewed the glory bestowed on him and even rejected Mussolini’s offer to name him as Senator.
“L’uomo che allarga ogni giorno il suo dominio su tutto ciò che lo circonda non è padrone del tempo, il grande galantuomo che tutto mette a posto. E il tempo a me è mancato di fare tante cose che pure avrei voluto veder compiute. Le mie pubblicazioni, quelle a cui tengo veramente, sono i miei grani. Non conta se essi non portano il mio nome; ma ad essi è e resta affidata la modesta opera mia.
He who extends his domination over all that surrounds him is not a master of time, the great gentleman who makes things right. And time is what I lack, to do so many things that I would have liked to accomplish too. My output, that I cherish dearly, are my wheats. It does not matter if they do not carry my name; but in them I entrust my humble work.” – Nazareno Strampelli
Strampelli continued his studies on cross-breeding and very quickly the varieties he developed were exported all over the world – awakening geneticists, producers and politicians across the Atlantic and taking a live of their own.