Back To The Land

After years spent working successfully in commerce and public relations, an old pal of mine, Sandro Barosi, now 45, has decided to turn his life around and to become a peasant farmer. Despite the advice of friends (‘Be careful, you don’t realize how low down the ground is’), Sandro has gone ahead and bought an old farmhouse near Dogliani and started to make plans for his future. I’m telling the tale because it goes against the findings published in the annual report of the Italian National Statistics Institute on the employment situation here. The end of year data triggered little comment, but I personally think they are worthy of close attention. In Piedmont, for example, employment is virtually stagnant, but the in- and outflows on the job market are flabbergasting. In just one year, the agricultural sector lost 60,000 units. If a figure of this magnitude had been recorded in the industrial sector, unions and public bodies would have been up in arms and activating so-called social shock-absorbers, ameliorative measures against social strife. But not a word was spent about agriculture. This phenomenon is recognized as inevitable, since the elderly population which runs the countryside won’t live forever. But the true drama that generates this phenomenon is the increase in the number of uncultivated areas, the disappearance of empiric knowhow and manual dexterity, the abandonment of the land and the maintenance of common areas (river banks, ditches, woodland). This abandonment is the root cause of a national hydro geological disaster, with landslides, floods and fires ever frequently afflicting our peninsula. Ideas about how to act are confused and, as often happens in these situations, nothing is actually being done. I believe it’s necessary to encourage young people to return to the land; what is needed is a large-scale recruitment and promotion operation offering job satisfaction and attractive salaries. The two old models of agricultural labor are now in crisis. Today no one is prepared to repeat the wretched lives of our elders, large-scale mass farming is losing out as a result of the growing demand for quality from consumers. The only answer is a return to small-scale growing and breeding techniques, attention to organic farming, and systems of direct sales to that ‘little big’ section of consumers prepared to spend money on genuine, wholesome produce. In other countries, consumers have joined together to guarantee the profitability of small farms, at the same time demanding clean production systems. In other cases, investments have been made to acquire and restructure property. What to date has been an act of courage on the part of the very first organic producers now has to turn into a great movement capable of ensuring profitability to small peasant farms. These new enterprises have to embrace multidisciplinary activities such as farm holidays and the defense of the land. Before the world of farm holidays gets saturated by ladies from the city intent on restructuring their country houses, it might be worth verifying the close relationship between hospitality and product marketing. The cost of maintaining river banks, streams and woods could be funded by local bodies, a more than sustainable expense if we think of the social costs of flood or the money spent on repairing increasingly potholed roads. In short, this is one way of providing attractive jobs for educated young people not keen on spending their lives in front of computer screens. The new farmers are already here among us; now it’s necessary to create the conditions to make this important existential step forward. Recreating a diffuse fabric of small farms is fundamental for the future of our agriculture. And it will be such farms that defend our food safety in the future.

Carlo Petrini

First published in La Stampa 01/06/02

(adapted by John Irving)

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