Harvesting an economy

 

Harvesting an economy

 

Date: December 18, 2013
by: Mallory Gnaegy | A&E Editor

 
 

Michael Yourison started his business to help save Lugnano, Italy’s economy. Before he started importing Umbrian olive oil and other products to the Sarasota area in 2009, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about olive oil. He heard the town’s livelihood, its olive oil harvest, was struggling, and thought he could help by importing the product. So he put all his pits in the pot and out pressed and squeezed his business, Buonafide Foods and Wines.

Yourison spends part of his year living on Bird Key, and the other part of the year in Lugnano, a small town in the city of Umbria, in central Italy. The town has a co-op of 280 farmers, and Yourison and his wife, Suzy Steelman, participate. Each November, they spend two days hand-picking olives from the 30-plus antique olive trees on their property. In their town, farmers help each other pick the harvest. The couple also participates in celebrating the harvest with their friends and neighbors.


Yourison estimates that 85% of the little community with a population of more than 1,500 is in the olive oil industry. So when farmers celebrate the harvest, it means the whole town celebrates.

It was November 2008, at Sunday lunch harvest celebration, that Yourison learned his farming friends and neighbors might be in trouble. They were discussing how mass-produced, inferior olive oil flooded the global market. People were less willing to spend a little more for the superior product. Thus, the farmers of his co-op were contemplating not harvesting the following season.

“The red flag went up and we said, ‘Something’s not right. Maybe we could do something,’” he says.

Yourison has a history in supporting the little guys. He’s worked in the whole-food industry for most of his career. He worked for an organic poultry producer in Pennsylvania before opening his own brand that involved raising free-range organic birds. He learned that small food producers take the time to develop their products, and it reflects in the quality they produce.

His history with the Umbrian area started in 2003, when he and his wife decided to buy a little, part-time home in the Italian countryside. Steelman went to college there and speaks fluent Italian, and although Yourison struggles with the language, they both share a love for Italian culture.

When they came across the town of Lugnano, they felt they found something special. The city has a medieval feel with heavy stonewalls and expansive green rolling hills. It’s a traditional and simple farming town offering a familial charm from hard-working farmers known for producing wine, olive oil and truffles.

A week prior to closing on their house, the couple’s neighbors invited them over for a celebratory dinner (of course, his wife did most of the communicating). It felt like home before it was even home, even if they were the token American couple.

“We could be a part of a community, and not as an outsider looking in,” Yourison says.

As a part of the community, he wanted to help. Following the harvest celebration lunch when the flags went up, Yourison started researching and learning about the product. Part of that research was taste-testing. He brought samples back to Sarasota just to see if the product would go over well. His foodie friends loved it, and the local chefs were impressed. Many of them wanted to carry the high-end product (approximately $20 per bottle) in their restaurants.

“I think what I learned is that people, chefs and owners are seeking products of great quality that have been raised in accordance to good farming practices,” Yourison says.

He started bringing back products twice annually. It ended up that the farmers decided to continue the harvest. Yourison doesn’t credit himself, but he likes to think he helped a little. And if anything, he’s the only supplier of the Umbrian wine in the region.

“These products are different and unique to the market that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says.

Since the first import to Sarasota in 2009, he’s started importing other products — truffles, pasta and wine.
His focus is on quality. He’s aware of what goes into the development of the food products he imports. He knows the farmers. He’s met the vintners. He’s participated in Italian harvest parades and drank newly produced wine straight from the barrels. He’s handpicked the olives and sampled it from the cold press.

He’s been on a truffle hunt.

He has become one of the little guys.

Places in town to find Buonafide Foods & Wines products:

Restaurants:
Carmel Café and Wine Bar, 8433 Cooper Creek Blvd.
Caragiulos Italian Restaurant, 69 S. Palm Ave.
Mediterraneo, 1970 Main St. No. 1
Andrea’s Ristorante, 2085 Siesta Drive
CasAntica, 1213 N. Palm Ave.
Pattigeorge’s, 4120 Gulf of Mexico Drive
Treviso, 5401 Bay Shore Road
Melange (formerly Lan), 1568 Main St.
Sandbar Waterfront Restaurant, 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria Island

Retailers, olive oil:
Morton’s Gourmet Market, 1924 S. Osprey Ave.
Yoder’s Fresh Market, 3434 Bahia Vista St.

Retailer, olive oil and wine:
Olive Oil Outpost, 401 Pine Ave., Anna Maria Island

Retailer, wine:
Time Saver Food Store, 5353 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach

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