The Vatican Has a Farm, and Pope Francis Is Going to Open It Up to the Public

Just 15 miles outside Rome, Castel Gandolfo is a local-food paradise.

An aerial view of Castel Gandolfo, in Lazio, Italy. (Photo: De Agostini/Getty Images)

Dec 18, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A visit to a local farm has become something of a sacred rite for any number of farmers market enthusiasts. But the Vatican has announced what promises to be a bona fide agro-religious experience: public access to the papal farm outside Rome. Who knew the pope was a locavore?

Pope Francis has decided to open the farm at Castel Gandolfo to public tours next year, after similar guided excursions of the formal gardens surrounding the papal summer residence proved popular, reports The Associated Press.

No doubt plenty of devout Catholics will be eager to see where the Holy Father gets his tomatoes. But at a time when a nagging wariness in both Europe and the U.S. over the ramifications of industrial-scale agriculture has spawned something of a cult for smaller, more organic farms, the farm at Castel Gandolfo would seem like heaven on earth.

Just 15 miles southwest of Rome, the estate is perched in the rolling hills overlooking the clear waters of Lake Albano, amid the sort of picture-perfect Italian countryside that, for centuries, has been a retreat for emperors and popes alike. Pope Pius XI established the farm in the early 1930s, and it adheres to mostly "traditional"—if not strictly organic—growing practices. Farm manager Giuseppe Bellapadrona termed the agricultural practices “natural” when writer Anne Hanley visited the farm for back in 2012.

“We use copper sulfate to fight fungal diseases. And of course, the manure from our animals goes back into the soil,” Bellapadrona told Hanley. “And if, for example, we have a plot of green beans with a bad attack of greenfly and it’s early in the season, we’ll dig up the plants, burn them, and start again in a different part of the garden. But if we don’t have time to do that, we will use chemical pesticides. Of course, we’re very careful about spraying well before harvest time.”

In what could be described as the envy of all CSAs, a van departs every morning from Castel Gandolfo to deliver the farm’s produce, eggs, dairy, and meat to the Vatican, where it is not only welcomed into the pope’s kitchen but sold as well at the Vatican supermarket that serves the employees of the Holy See.

Terraced vegetable gardens produce everything from artichokes and bell peppers to carrots and zucchini. Some 80 cows munch on local hay, grass, and clover (“nothing treated or processed”) in a shed made from spruce wood. They yield more than 120 gallons of milk each day, and the dairy production adheres to the same strict rules that govern the making of Parmesan cheese to the north. The “milking parlor,” according to Hanley, “is tiled in a restful, old-fashioned shade of lavender blue.” Meanwhile, the chicken coops are decorated with majolica tiles that detail “scenes of poultry life”—a bit of artistic embellishment that may pale in comparison with the Sistine Chapel but isn’t too bad for chickens.

Among the estimated $330,000 worth of food the farm produces each year is 320 gallons of olive oil, made in the traditional way from the olives grown on the property; the olives are crushed “in a wide, shallow basin with two immense stone wheels standing on end,” Hanley writes.

Talk about artisanal.