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10th Dec 2022

Feature

Italy's new farmers: 'We want to live like our ancestors'

  • Bartolomucci’s farm (Photo: Ajmone Bartolomucci)
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Since the first emigration wave in the 1860s Italy's deep rural areas have been hit by depopulation. Families, especially youth, fled to cities in search of a brighter future and job leaving behind the elders. Winters were harsh, and the farmer and shepherd lives were no longer bearable. 

Today, 40 percent of rural and mountain villages have fewer than 5,000 residents while over 20,000 towns have lost more than 80 percent of their inhabitants. 

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  • Abruzzo-Molise national park, location of Arena’s estate (Photo: Silvia Marchetti)

But a reverse trend is underway, bolstered by the pandemic outbreak. 

There's a new generation of unconventional young farmers, cheese-makers, breeders and food artisans who are giving up potential careers and returning to their depopulated offbeat native villages to start farms and rural businesses.

Francesco Arena, 23-years old, recently graduated in service management at Milan's prestigious La Cattolica University and after working as design and luxury project manager decided he wanted to go back to his grandfathers' mountains in the Abruzzo-Molise-Lazio national park. He opened an organic farm where he now makes honey, extra virgin olive oil, jams, grain beers and mountain aroma liqueurs. 

Next step is opening a rustic B&B and breeding an ancient species of premium, indigenous black pigs in the wild, for which he's eying new tenders for innovative farming projects funding by Italy's Recovery and Resilience Plan, part of the European Union's Next Generation EU direct pandemic aid package. 

"After traveling a lot for work, I realised Milan wasn't for me, it was a constraint, a hectic life, always running towards targets, workaholic, time-killer. There was no point waiting to retire to fulfil my dreams," says Arena. 

"I've always felt the pull of my family's roots. I used to visit my grandparents' village as a kid, but only for holiday. The city could never give me the freedom and simple lifestyle I was searching for, surrounded by nature, which I found in this patch of land that yields top quality produce", he says.

Instead of ditching the desolate, sleepy countryside many well-bred millennials like Arena have made the opposite choice and returned to work on their ancestors' estate.

Young, high-tech, farmers

According to a recent report by Italy's farmers group Coldiretti during the pandemic there's been an eight-percent increase in new high-tech farms led by under-35 farmers. And more are soon expected to open. 

Italy is the greatest beneficiary among peer countries of the European Union's pandemic aid recovery fund, entitled to a total €200bn. Rome has already received from Brussels its first tranche of EU money (€21bn), while a second tranche €24 billion will land this summer. 

Roughly €1bn will finance the revitalisation of sleepy rural areas and small villages (dubbed 'progetto borghi'), while over €5bn will fund green, innovative agricultural projects and young entrepreneurial farming activities.

In an attempt to tackle a dwindling population in recent years local authorities have come up with all sorts of alluring schemes to lure young people to relocate to offbeat hilly areas, from paying so-called 'residency incomes' of up to €700 a month to tax credits, baby bonuses, cheap rentals and homes — but with little success. It's mostly retired people and remote-workers who apply.

Another millennial who has refused to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both doctors, and instead left chaotic Naples to embrace cheese-making and cattle-breeding is Ajmone Bartolomucci, 32. His dairy farm sells cow milk 'cacio cavallo' cheese and biological yogurt in the Comino Valley in the Ciociaria region, where Ajmone's family hails from. 

A former land of outlaws and bandits, the area suffered from mass emigration after the second world war but is just now living a revival. 

"We had a big rural estate in the valley, which was recently recovered to farming. My brother is a veterinary, my sister an agronomist so we joined forces, we've always wanted to live here and valorise what this land has to offer in terms of agro-food excellence", says Bartolomucci, who has a degree in animal technology. 

Each morning Bartolomucci delivers his fresh cheese to local supermarkets and boutiques, and in the evenings tends to his cows which he considers his 'buddies'. He says he's addicted to the slow-pace bucolic lifestyle surrounded by forests and green pastures, the peacefulness and tranquility, and that he'd never go back to being a city boy. 

Other rural millennials are also managing to live in two worlds at the same time. 

Artisan ice-cream

Rachele Brancatisano, a reporter and artisan ice-cream maker, has re-opened her ancestors' historical gelato boutique in the tiny remote hilltop village of Picinisco, north of Naples,

During the week she works at a radio program in Rome and on weekends, holidays, and summer she prepares 'la Crema di Berenice', a one-flavour ice-cream made with just fresh cream directly from the stables and vanilla, according to a secret recipe handed down between the women of her family. 

"My ancestors migrated to the UK in the 1800s where they were among the first to make artisan Italian ice-cream. In 1983 our village boutique shut so a few years ago I decided to re-open it to honour my granny. My aunt taught me how to make our special ice cream, which is cooked on a wooden stove like in the old days and mixed using a rudimental machine", says Brancatisano, 32.

Having brought back from the grave an old-style gelato fills Brancatisano with pride and gives her a chance to evade.

"Journalism is just brief news that come and go, delicious ice-cream makes everyone happy. It's a tangible result. I love it when I feel my arms and legs tired from stirring the cream, it's a stress-killer. I'm never hysterical", she says.

Author bio

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.

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