The citron of Calabria in southern Italy had almost died out due to extreme weather and lack of economic value. But growing the crop under a canopy of solar panels has given the fruit a new lease of life – with lessons for many climate-stressed crops.
On a warm late winter morning, Antonio Lancellotta, a 35-year-old farmer, shows around one of his family's unorthodox 1.8-acre (7,280 square meters) greenhouse in Scalea, southern Italy. Rows of lush citron trees (Citrus medica), heavy with white flowers, fill the space. Yet, above the trees, at about 12.5ft (3.8m) above the ground, alternating lines of transparent plastic sheets and photovoltaic panels roofed the field. The Lancellotta family was one of the first in Italy to experiment with "agrivoltaics," where crops are grown underneath solar panels.
"Look at the quality of this citron," Lancellotta says, holding a large heart-shaped yellow fruit. "Perfect."
Over the centuries, thanks to a mild climate, locals in this corner of Italy specialized in growing these large Liscia Diamante (which translates to "smooth diamond") fruits – which can weigh up to 11lb (5kg) each – to meet the demand of perfume makers who used the rind's essential oils. Jewish priests traveled from far away to select the fruits for use in prayer during the seven-day religious festival of Sukkot. Every family had a few citron trees: the area prospered and took on the name of Riviera dei Cedri.
However, in the last 50 years, the Liscia Diamante almost went extinct as Calabrians migrated elsewhere searching for a better life, and cheaper industrial substitutes replaced essential oils. It made little economic sense for those who stayed behind to keep growing the fruit.
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