Approximately 80% of the Italians who immigrated to the United States between 1880-1920 were Southern Italian contadini, or peasant farmers. Farming was a way of life for Italians. It could be said that they invented the modern concepts of “organic,” “sustainable,” and “locally sourced.”
The contadini fed their families with what they planted, either with what they grew or by selling the fruits and vegetables. In the neighborhoods in which they settled in America, like Cleveland’s Little Italy, they continued this way of life. Even on the smallest plots of land, they would plant tomatoes, rapini, escarole, cucumbers, and fruit, like figs and grapes, often using seeds brought from Italy. Their techniques were all what is now called “eco-friendly” and included placing barrels under downspouts to collect rain water and composting. When it came time for harvesting, nothing was ever wasted. What could not be used or shared with neighbors would be canned for use over the winter months.