A Visit to Chianti Cashmere

In 1972, Nora Kravis visited Tuscany from Long Island, New York, fell in love, had a child, got divorced and never left.  She learned the language, put herself through veterinary school at Università di Pisa and settled down in Chianti to pursue a dream of country life surrounded by animals. Back then, this part of rural Tuscany was a backwater that no one visited or cared about.  Nora was able to scrape together a little money to buy 20 acres of rocky land with a pile of rubble that used to be a farmhouse - the kind of place that today would be a 7-figure bargain for expatriates looking for vacation property.  She got a horse for companionship (and as a means of transportation) and began to transform the rubble into her home.  Next, as Nora Kravis tells it, "the animals arrived by twos:  2 sheep, two pigs, two dogs, numerous ducks and chickens and hens and a rooster, and the horses:  first two and then four.... and two goats tied in the shade of tree."

Nora's was the first privately owned Cashmere goat herd in Europe and is the genetic source for reproductive goats across the country.  Over the years, those first two goats tied to a tree became a line of genetically selected cashmere goats that produce the material for a unique line of exclusive, hand-woven Italian Cashmere accessories, home textiles and her very own sustainable cashmere yarn for knitters who desire top-quality yarn.  She works jointly with highly skilled weavers to produce a line of 100% sustainable cashmere hand-knitted scarves, shawls, throws and other one-of-a-kind cashmere products.  

On my first visit to Chianti Cashmere, my group was welcomed by a swarm of excited, four legged puff balls.  Nora had a soft spot for this precious breed of dog, and in fact, had just welcomed a new litter of Bolognesi to her pack.  Today, she has only five Bolognesi left from those days.  Because of the increasing threat of predators, she had to switch her attention to larger guard dogs to protect her herds.  At last count, Nora had about a dozen Abruzzo guard dogs - a breed of shepherd dogs raised for centuries in southern Italy to combat wolves and bear.

In recent years, Nora has been outsourcing "goat teams" to clear and improve land throughout the Chianti area.  The cost-saving and environmentally sustainable practice of using grazing livestock instead of machinery to do the same work is beginning to catch on in Tuscany, and she envisions expanding the operation to other areas in the future.  On our last visit, Nora took us to some land owned by a wine estate where she had a herd of goats (and a couple of Abruzzi) working an area that had been secured with electric fences.  She offers this service in exchange for the landowner providing the fencing to add protection for her herd.  

If managing her goats and cashmere product operations in Tuscany isn't challenging enough - Nora has recently joined an effort by the US Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), a division of the US Department of Defense, in collaboration with agricultural scientists at Colorado State University, to revitalise the cashmere industry in Afghanistan, to develop a fully integrated cashmere supply chain in the country, facilitate foreign investment, create jobs and promote exports.  

There are an estimated 450,000 cashmere herders in Afghanistan, (7% of the global market), with the north and west of Afghanistan being the two major cashmere producing regions.  Herat is Afghanistan’s central hub for cashmere, from which most fibre is exported.  In spite of the potential, the quality of Afghanistan's cashmere is poor, there is low local demand for cashmere products, and herders don't really understand the true value of their cashmere on the global market.  In fact, most farmers prefer sheep to goats for their meat and skin. 

Nora's aim is to improve Afghanistan’s goat herds so they grow light, white, high-quality fibre that will earn a premium for farmers.  So she brought some of her premium cashmere goats from Chianti to breed with the native stock.  As you might imagine, a western woman bringing herds of goats to an Afghanistan war zone has proven to be quite an adventure, where getting around in heavily armed military helicopters accompanied by AK-47 toting bodyguards is the norm.