For the Marchionnis of Montelabbate, peaches are as much family tradition as livelihood.
On a scalding afternoon in late June, Matteo Marchionni steps out of his house and into work boots encrusted with the dusty brown dirt of the surrounding orchard. Soon his wife, Michela Baldassarri, appears, and then his mother and father, also in their boots. It is 5 p.m., time to start the harvest that they carry out almost every day from June through November.
A small head of dark hair emerges from behind a stack of wooden crates in a corner of the garage and two doe eyes peek out. “Rebecca,” Michela calls into the shadows. “You can’t come out with us today. It’s too hot.”
A little girl stomps out of her hiding place, whining, “But I never get to come with you and daddy!”
This sequence plays out so often that Matteo does not need to look at his five-year-old daughter to know that her bottom lip is out, her small arms are crossed, and crocodile tears are rolling down her tanned cheeks. But he can’t be angry. Little Rebecca has the same love of peach, apricot, and cherry growing as her father. After a brief exchange, she is granted two hours in the orchard. With a grin and a whoop of victory, Rebecca scampers over to put on her own miniature work boots.
Michela, 32, slides behind the wheel of one of three trucks just outside of the garage; Rebecca climbs into her mother’s lap. The two lead the way into the 20-acre plot of land with Matteo, 33, and his parents, Maria, 70, and Maurizio, 74, trailing contently behind. They park the truck amongst their 4,500 peach trees. Matteo and Maurizio disappear into the green jungle, each carrying deep, red buckets—now empty, but not for long.
The Marchionni farm is in Montelabbate, a town in the Marche region of central Italy that is famous for its sweet, succulent peaches. The plantation is one of 35 members of an exclusive association, “Pesca di Montelabbate”, established in 2011 to ensure the top-notch quality of local peaches. But the Marchionni men were working on their own standards of quality long before that. And while the association’s approval and the Marchionni label signal the high caliber of their product to discerning shoppers, they give no hint of how closely this family and these peaches are connected.
Matteo and his father like to say they were born under the trees of this orchard and never left. They have been gathering peaches side by side for as long as either man can remember, and they seem to know every seed and blossom.
As the first hour passes on this hot evening, the buckets, hooked over branches, grow heavy. The men collect the fuzzy fruit and chat about how well the crop has grown. Maurizio congratulates his son, who has been the manager and owner of the orchard since asking his father to pass it down to him in 2008.
Matteo’s great-great grandfather and great grandfather worked this land as farm hands for the previous owner. Later Matteo’s grandfather, Gino, was able to save enough money to buy the orchard and give it the Marchionni name. Family farms that include two generations are not unusual in Montelabbate, but few can approach the Marchionni’s legacy of five generations.
The men weave in and out of the trees, Rebecca close behind observing which peaches her two role models choose. Full buckets are lugged back to the parked truck where Michela and Maria are ready to start filling the empty crates stacked nearby. Rebecca works beside her grandmother and mother, delivering a monologue about her school day until her two hours have run their course. Another small tantrum, a stern look from mom, and soon she turns to walk back up to the house with Grandma.
As Michela single-handedly loads the fruit and stacks crates on the truck, Matteo hovers nearby in case she needs an extra hand.
The couple met in 2004 in a supermarket in Pesaro. She was working there; he was delivering his father’s peaches. He noticed her tattoo, an on-and-off courtship followed, and Rebecca was born in July of 2008. When Matteo said he wanted more children, Michela answered that they would have to be married, which came to be in June 2012. “I’m not one for flowers or roses, so there was no engagement,” she explains. “The wedding came fast.”
In the past, Matteo says, when the orchard was larger, there were many nights that he would work into the wee hours of the morning.“Sometimes it was just easier for me too keep picking all night long instead of sleeping. I never did mind though. The peaches were my life.” He says he is grateful that he now has Michela’s help (and a smaller plot of land). Michela has been working in the field with him since Rebecca’s birth, often from five in the morning until dark.
Nine o’clock nears on this hot June night. The three remaining family members secure the crates on top of one another. As Matteo pats the side of the truck and reflects on his farming life, his eyes shine through the dimming light. “Even though I went to school to get a degree, I always worked in the orchard and spent my time here,” he says. “It was clear to me that among these peaches, apricots, and cherries was where I belonged.”
Michela smiles at her husband. “I admire the love he has for the fruit we grow. It’s something that could never be changed, and I would never try to change it.”
The Marchionnis head back up to the house they all share, another day of work behind them. The sun, about to set, is the color of peaches.