Italian alternative farmers and the covid-19 pandemic: Voices from the lockdown (Simona Zollet, PhD Candidate, Hiroshima University)

FEAST HQ Report, WG3

As part of the multi-country research project on small-scale and alternative farmers’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic coordinated by FEAST, we carried out a questionnaire survey of Italian farmers. Italy was one of the first countries to be severely affected by the pandemic, and the lockdown (in effect between March 9 and May 18) saw nationwide closures of all non-essential businesses and services, and drastically reduced mobility for most citizens.

As most of the early information on the impacts of the lockdown on the farming sector concerned large-scale conventional farmers and food processors, this survey was designed to capture the voice of those farmers – mainly small-scale and alternative producers – who were being left out of the narrative. Data was collected between April 24 and June 1, 2020, an ideal time frame as it allowed some time for the reality of the lockdown to take hold and for farmers to reorganize and adapt to the new restrictions.

Figure 1: Number of survey participants for each Italian province

The survey was disseminated among farmers through the help of a constellation of formal and informal farmers’ groups and associations that represent small-scale and alternative farming in Italy. The questionnaire was completed by 132 farmers, relatively well distributed across Italian regions (Fig. 1). While the survey may not be statistically representative, to our knowledge it is currently the only research effort made towards capturing the situation of small scale and alternative farmers in Italy during the lockdown.

Among the 132 respondents, the majority were organic or biodynamic farmers, both certified (48.9%) and uncertified (42%). The remaining 9.2% were farms using conventional or reduced pesticide approaches. More than half of the farms were smaller than 5 hectares (farms within this size are considered ‘small farms’ in Italy and make up 73% of all agricultural holdings in the country(※)). The farms represented in the questionnaire were also highly diversified, and mainly growing vegetables (68.2%), followed by cereals (41.9%) and fruit (35.7%).

Unlike in Japan marketing channels in Italy were strongly affected by the lockdown (Fig. 2). During the lockdown direct deliveries to households saw the largest (and only) increase (+40,4%), while all other channel decreased in importance, albeit by different amounts.

Figure 2: Changes in marketing channels during the lockdown

 

 

Especially striking is the decrease of markets and farmers’ markets (the third most important channel prior to the pandemic), which were shut down at the onset of the lockdown. This was a hard blow for many farmers, for whom farmers’ markets represented not only a major (or sole) source of income, but also and a locus for direct interaction with citizens and other producers.

The rapid increase of direct delivery channels, however, shows farmers’ capacity to quickly reorganize their operations to adapt to the lockdown. This was likely facilitated by the fact that direct sales (of various kinds) were already an important component of alternative farmers’ marketing channels. Moreover, as most farmers were already selling locally (either on their own farm or during farmers’ markets), transitioning to direct deliveries was relatively easy. In small or remote municipalities, direct deliveries by farmers and small local shops suddenly became a major way to procure food, as common citizens were not allowed to move outside the boundary of their municipality to shop.

The explosion in popularity of direct deliveries among consumers was generally described in extremely positive terms, even though some farmers lamented the increased time and labor commitment needed for delivering products to individual households. Interesting in this sense is the fact that nearly one third of respondents (30.9%) reported an increase in their income compared to the same period in 2019 (despite an average revenue decrease of 10%). This can likely be attributed to the increase of people purchasing food directly from farmers. More analysis however is needed to understand whether there is any significant pattern in the type of farms that reported a revenue increase.

When asked about their worries in relation to various aspects of their personal life, income, support systems and farming activities, farmers unequivocally showed their concern for ‘community’ in its various dimensions. The highest-ranked source of worry for farmers was the decrease in community-based activities (almost 80% of respondents were ‘extremely worried’ and ‘worried’ about this). This was followed by worries about community and customers’ health and by the difficulty to interact with other farmers and participate in farming events. This is not surprising, considering how most alternative farmers rely on their local communities – and the associated marketing channels – for selling their products, but it also underlines the importance they place on direct interaction, not only with citizens but also with fellow farmers.

More direct economic considerations appeared subordinate but connected to these concerns about community (e.g. the decrease in marketing channels). However, respondents were generally not worried about aspects such as the decrease of the selling price of their products, which may point towards a relative economic independence of these farmers from other actors in the food supply chain, such as processors. Similarly, farmers were not strongly concerned about sourcing farming inputs and tools, which again may signify their capacity to source these inputs locally or to self-produce them.

The survey also captured farmers’ vision for the future and their predictions regarding the impacts of COVID-19 on their farm, and more widely on the local and national agri-food system. Farmers’ views on these topics can be qualitatively divided in two types. One group expressed a relatively optimistic view of the future, and saw the pandemic as a window of opportunity to radically rethink food habits and modes of food production, distribution and consumption. Comments referencing this view were the majority in numerical terms, and this may signify that alternative farmers have been, on the whole, less negatively affected by the lockdown compared to other types of farmers, and that they are trying to actively harness the increased interest in local and sustainable food and farming induced by the pandemic. Some farmers talked about a ‘rediscovery’ of local products for the purpose of everyday consumption (‘local products’ in Italy are often associated to niche or specialty items, rather than to everyday fare), and with it a rediscovery of proximity relations. If this kind of relationships can be established, they argue, farms will be able to withstand crises such as the current pandemic.

Other farmers, however, had a more pessimistic view about the future. Several critical comments addressed the lack of political and institutional support for local food systems during the pandemic. Many remarked upon the preferential treatment given to the big players in the food system – mainly supermarkets – which were allowed to remain open with little safety measures in place while farmers’ markets were immediately shut down. Finally, several comments addressed the concern that the economic crisis that will inevitably follow the pandemic will further decrease citizens’ purchasing power and thus push them toward the lower cost options represented by supermarkets.

These are both possible future scenarios, and given the extreme uncertainty regarding the progress of the pandemic, it will be crucial to keep following the evolution occurring in locally-based modes of food production, provisioning and consumption to see which changes will take root and become part of the ‘new normal’.

(※) Source: 2010 Agricultural Census