Organic Farming in Italy’s Shrinking Areas: what Opportunities for Newcomers?

By Simone Cappati (Master in International Development Studies)

A handful of committed Italian NGOs and small-town mayors believe that organic farming has the potential to tear down cultural and language barriers while revitalizing the local economies and safeguarding the natural landscape. Can organic agriculture truly provide a lifeline for the emplacement of migrant newcomers in Italy’s shrinking spaces? My Master’s Thesis research took me to the hamlets nested in the Camonica Valley or speckled over the rolling hills of Monferrato. There, I met refugees that had traveled over land and sea in search of a better future, and Italian agripreneurs that had returned to the land of their forefathers looking for a new challenge. Their serendipitous encounter is where this story begins.

Off the beaten tracks of Northern Italy, a couple hours’ train ride from the sprawling urban centers of Milan and Turin, lay a multitude of scattered small towns. In these villages, where people know each other by name and families go back generations, time seems to have frozen. And yet, the passing of the years has left a mark – in the peeling plaster of the walls, the empty, dilapidated houses, and the old fences succumbing to shrubs and undergrowth. These are the tell-tale signs of a shrinking space, where economic decline goes together with a decreasing population and landscape degradation. Parts of the Camonica Valley and the Monferrato started shrinking in the 1970s, when the locals abandoned their family farms, once the backbone of the local rural economy, and began flocking to nearby cities looking for a job in the factories. The old wisdom of the farmers faded into oblivion, and traditional practices were slowly forgotten.

“We have paths to clear, woodlands to clean up, we have a lot of things that need to be done, things that we, the local residents, do not want to do. Our young generations do not want to work in agriculture.” (P., agri-preneur)

The two NGOs visited during fieldwork. Adapted from Wikimedia commons.

Despite their socio-economic marginalization, these areas are no stranger to solidarity. Local NGOs such as K-PAX and PIAM have long been working with vulnerable communities, from victims of sex trafficking to migrants and people with disabilities. As the flows of migrant arrivals to the Italian shores increased in the early 2010s, these NGOs embarked on a shared endeavor with their respective local municipalities by joining the Italian System of Reception and Integration. Over the years, more migrant newcomers were being resettled into these towns, slowly bringing a much-needed injection of labor into these lands. The migrants started to get involved in a number of activities, including working as laborers for organic farms owned by Italian agricultural entrepreneurs. Indeed, the migrants were not the only newcomers to these shrinking areas – several young Italian agri-preneurs had also returned to the land of their grandfathers to restore their family farms. These newcomers “by choice,”[1] who moved out of the city and back to rural areas as a lifestyle migration, brought purchasing power and innovation into these shrinking spaces.

Since then, migrant laborers and Italian agri-preneurs have been engaged in an unfolding process of emplacement[2] together with long-time residents: they are creating a new place by building a network of connections and resources within the specific conditions of the shrinking areas. But how is this evolving over time?

Working together on an organic farm in Cerveno (BS) © K-PAX

Agriculture bridging cultures

At first, these two groups of newcomers faced some opposition from the long-time residents, as they embodied a set of values, practices, and cultural identities that somehow clashed with these traditionally conservative areas. How to win over the initial distrust? Organic agriculture offered an opportunity for the Italian agri-preneurs and the migrant laborers to get to know each other, toiling side-by-side in the terraced fields or weeding out mountain paths. They exchanged stories, dreams, and goals and compared agricultural practices, often learning from each other. Agriculture was bridging culture and language gaps while highlighting unexpected commonalities.  

The levels of distrust went down when they realized that working the land in Algeria or Pakistan was the same as doing it here, and actually some experiences they had were very similar. […] Farming could really be a channel that helps people get closer to the ‘Stranger’ (M., former mayor).

The long-time residents, too, began to appreciate the hard work the migrants put into restoring the landscape and revitalizing old farms by taking up manual labor that the younger local generations had moved away from. Slowly, migrants started to be seen as a resource rather than a threat, as the initial opposition gave way to a more welcoming attitude.

Tending the land in the Camonica Valley (BS) © K-PAX

Sharing benefits and burdens

Organic agriculture is hard work for everyone involved, as testified by the long hours that both agri-preneurs and migrants spend working together in the fields. However, there are significant differences when it comes to status and division of labor.

Migrants are only employed as laborers to fill a market gap for low-skilled manual labor. Caught in an endless series of short-term contracts that coincide with production peaks, they enjoy limited financial stability and virtually no upward mobility. On the other hand, Italians are returning to the fields as entrepreneurs – they own the lands and the means of production and are fully in charge of their personal, ‘sustainable’ life project.

The migrants working in organic agriculture are expected to subsume into the lifestyle of the agripreneurs and share their vision – even if they may not fully comprehend it. They may even end up living under the same roof with their employer and their family, especially if the farms are located in remote areas, to cut on commuting time.

“For small organic farms where there is a big human investment, it’s difficult to fit in. The employers are basically telling [the migrants]: ‘This is what I want to do, this is my life project, my dream’ and they are asking them to share it. But maybe a young man who crossed the sea all the way from Africa has a different goal in life.” (M., PIAM)

This set-up speaks of a concrete risk for hyper-exploitation of migrant labor, which is indeed seen as a resource, but a rather disposable one. Migrants are often described as having “less demands” than Italian workers, as they come from “desperate situations.” The lack of long-term investment in the aspirations of the individual migrants is partially mitigated by some educational initiatives launched by the NGOs, which aim to increase the migrants’ knowledge base, their contractual power, and ultimately their agency.

A silver bullet?

Organic farming remains one of the channels that may usher emplacement processes between newcomers and long-time residents in Italy’s shrinking areas. However, left to its own devices, it risks sliding into abusive mechanisms that do not sufficiently protect the best interest of the most vulnerable. NGOs and municipalities must play a guarantor role by vouching for the migrants’ skills while linking them up with ethically oriented employers. Going forward, stronger synergies and partnerships among the various actors of the system (NGOs, municipalities, agri-preneurs, and education institutions) will be crucial to foster a more ‘connected’ space for both newcomers and long-time residents in Italy’s shrinking areas.

[1] Perlik, M. & Membretti, A. (2018). Migration by Necessity and by Force to Mountain Areas: An Opportunity for Social Innovation. Mountain Research and Development. 38(3): 250–264.

[2] Glick Schiller, N. & Çağlar, A. (2013). Locating migrant pathways of economic emplacement: Thinking beyond the ethnic lens. Ethnicities. 13(4): 494–514.