Respect for Small Farmers

Italy is quite different from the U.S., and I, quite frankly, think it offers a good role model for American agriculture.

by Rick Gush
Italian marketplace

Photo by Rick Gush

Everyone in Italy likes to eat local.

Italy is quite different from the U.S., and I, quite frankly, think it offers a good role model for American agriculture. I wouldn’t want to copy the idiotically criminal Italian political system or the tendency for Italian mothers to do the laundry of their 40-year-old sons who still live at home. As far as I’m concerned, the most impressive feature of Italian society is the fact that small farmers are respected here. More than respected—almost revered.

Small farmers and their products are highly prized, and their products sell for fair prices that do not fear low-cost foreign import competition. It’s hard for us Americans to understand the depth of Italian rigidness and pickiness concerning the food they eat.  When I was courting my Italian wife, I once brought freshly baked cookies from a local bakery to dinner at her house. She asked me where the cookies were from and I described the bakery. 

“Oh, we don’t eat things from them” she said, “They use cheap butter.”

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She thereupon dumped the cookies into the garbage. I was shocked, but gradually I’m realizing most Italians will not compromise at all with their food.

It is no surprise that Italy is the largest organic-food consumer and producer in Europe.  In Italy, people insist on paying more for top-quality ingredients for their kitchens. It’s a great place to be a small farmer. Even being a really small farmer is quite alright. Mom-and-Pop operations are numerous and thriving here. A huge number of Italians work regular jobs and also farm part-time and a great number of their products make their way into the marketplace.

Italian television participates enthusiastically in the general reverence for small farmers.  Every day, the television stations will broadcast programs that feature the operations and products of small farmers. The weekends are loaded with agricultural television content.  I counted 11 hours of agricultural shows last Saturday. Italy is also a great place for someone who enjoys watching television shows about small farmers.

This is not to say that farming is easy in Italy. Far from it. Italy is the land of heroic farming, where even the steepest areas are cultivated on thin terraces that are created by the extremely laborious process of building rock walls and backfilling with soil. Not far from our house is the Cinque Terre, where the seaside cliff terraces are so steep that the grape harvest was once lowered directly into boats anchored in the water.

My diet has certainly changed since I married my Italian wife. We have personal relationships with most of the stores and vendors from whom we buy our food. We know the people who make lots of the cheese we eat, the guy who grows a lot of the vegetables we eat and the grower of much of the olive oil we use.

I am really enjoying my own gardening activities here. I score a lot of points within my Italian family for my ability to contribute quality fruit and vegetables to our diet. All in all, I find that the plants and the bugs and the dirt are all quite similar to America here in Italy. The biggest difference is the societal respect for small farmers and their products. 

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