De Cillis’ Sicilian Ancient Grains

Part II of a five-part series on Italy’s grain battles

Following Mussolini’s declaration of the battaglia del grano, agricultural commissions were immediately established in all regions and provinces to further the Commander’s endeavour. There was an urgent need to set up an experimentation centre for grain cultivation in Sicily, the Mediterranean bread basket, to complement existing centres in the Italian peninsula. However, it was only in August 1927 that the Stazione consorziale sperimentale di granicoltura came into fruition, two more years before a Director was appointed, and yet two more years before a location for the Stazione was decreed.

Ugo de Cillis, a native of Caltagirone and Director of Agricultural Experiments in Tripolitania (then an Italian colony) from 1925 to 1929, took up post at the Stazione with an uncompromised resolve to advance wheat cultivation techniques. To him, the road to superior grain varieties could not be undertaken without considering the local, autochthonous varieties, “which were extremely exquisite in terms of physical properties, as well as from biological and cultural viewpoints.” After all, these local grains had adapted to the countless variables and diverse climates in Sicily.

Ugo de Cillis and the original building of the Stazione (Source)

De Cillis further noted that farmers in the Sicilian hinterland, with their unique sensitivity to grain quality, had achieved consistent and predictable harvests. On the other hand, farmers in the mountainous and coastal areas had extremely heterogenous fields that contained a mix of different local varieties and unidentified hybrid ones. With these insights, de Cillin laid out the strategy for the Stazione – in Sicily improving grain cultivation in meant developing stable, pure versions of local varieties.

From the summer of 1931, de Cillis started lobbying tirelessly to obtain samples of every single grain variety then cultivated in Sicily. Facing slow progress, he sent F. Casale on a tour of the island to systematically collect samples in the form of wheat sheaves and 10kg bags of grains. The name, locality, terrain and properties of each of the 341 samples were meticulously documented.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Stazione team “purified” each sample following these guidelines:

  • If the population was generally uniform with a small number of anomalies, the anomalies were eliminated;
  • If the population was non-uniform but could be clustered into two or three types, each type was then cultivated separately the following year;
  • If the population was excessively non-uniform and clearly a hodgepodge of varieties, it was eliminated.

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Sicilian ancient grain specimens at the Stazione (photo taken on 19 Dec 2016)

The resulting 70 varieties are what are known today as Sicilian ancient grains. In the Stazione at Caltagirone, which continues its mission to advance agriculture techniques, there is a wall displaying carefully bottled sheaves of these ancient grains. Farmers can also request for samples to grow in their fields. And the decision to conserve these samples was extraordinarily wise, given what unfolded in the next couple of decades after the vittoria sul grano. Going back before the Fascist era, a humble and noble geneticist on the Italian peninsula had opened a can of worms.

Part III: Strampelli’s Seed Exchanges

References
De Cillis U. 1942. I frumenti siciliani. Pubblicazione n.9 della Stazione Consorziale Sperimentale di Granicoltura per la Sicilia.
2005. La battaglia del grano e l’istituzione della stazione consorziale sperimentale di granicoltura per la sicilia. Pubblicazione della Stazione Consorziale Sperimentale di Granicoltura per la Sicilia.

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