On Italy’s steep Amalfi Coast, ‘flying’ lemon farmers jump among the treetops

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Amalfi, Italy CNN  — 

Above the green hills of the Amalfi Coast in southern Italy, an agile farmer leaps across terraced lemon groves overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Balancing between one wooden pole and another, the not-so-young acrobat defies gravity, bending to pick lemons and transport them in crates weighing more than 25 kilograms (55 pounds) between vertical gardens more than 400 meters (1,312 feet) above the ground.

A strong aroma of rosemary surrounds him, blended with jasmine, sage, and, of course, the unique bittersweet scent of citrus. The sound of waves below masks the hum of car traffic and noise from tourists in the main square of the UNESCO-protected town of Amalfi.

“Not blood, but lemon juice runs through my veins,” says 87-year-old farmer Gigino Aceto, whose family has been growing lemons here since the 1800s.

From dawn to dusk, Aceto’s life revolves all around lemons. He sleeps in his lemon groves and feeds on lemon food. He was even conceived among these plants.

“In my parents’ old days, the lack of space and intimacy meant that love was made outdoors, underneath the citrus trees,” he says with a smile.

Gigantic fruit

Low-hanging fruit: The Amalfi lemons are known for their large size.

The lemons are the beating heart of the area’s complex, biodiverse ecosystem, which has remained unchanged for centuries. But Aceto is among the last guardians of this vulnerable tradition now threatened by industrialization, changes in society and climate change.

The large Sfusato or Amalfi lemon is cultivated in an area that stretches along the Tyrrhenian Sea between Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. One single lemon can weigh up to three kilograms.

About 2,000 metric tonnes are currently harvested each year around the Amalfi Coast, according to local figures, but surveys show that these lemon grove areas have been in decline for the past 60 years.

“In Amalfi alone, lemon terraces have decreased from 72 hectares to 48 between 1954 and 2015, while wild forests and urbanization advanced considerably,” says Giorgia De Pasquale, an architect and researcher at Roma Tre University, who is looking for ways to preserve family lemon-growing businesses.

De Pasquale has been working to get “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System” status for Amalfi’s lemon groves – a designation under a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization program.

“The process taking place in Amalfi is identical throughout the coast,” she says.

A cure for all

With its light-yellow color, intense fragrance, juicy texture and sweet skin – it can be eaten sliced like an apple – the Sfusato has become a staple ingredient in the area’s traditional cuisine.

It’s used in pasta dishes, sauces for salads and grilled fish, desserts – not to mention Italy’s famous Limoncello liqueur. And because of its properties – it is rich in vitamins C, B, E, potassium and magnesium – the inhabitants of the coast have found myriad uses, from cleaning clothes to natural medicine.

“The first thing we do as we wake up with a headache is to put a little lemon peel in our morning coffee,” Aceto explains. “When we cut ourselves, we run to get a lemon to sanitize. If we feel sick, there’s nothing that lemon spaghetti cannot fix.”

Brought here in the early Middle Ages during trade with the Arabs, the lemons were once used by sailors, especially in Northern Europe, to fight scurvy. They also played a role in the fight against cholera in Naples in the 1950s.