Milan, Italy – Confronted by the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, and with little support from a debt-burdened government, an increasing number of Italy’s young people are returning to the land for agriculture production – a sector the generation before nearly abandoned.
Piergiovanni Ferraresi, 23, is one of these new Italian farmers. After graduating law school, he decided to return to his family’s farm instead of practising law. In the countryside just outside of Verona, in northeast Italy, Ferraresi transformed the farm into a modern agribusiness that produces milk, soya, and different varieties of grains. He has since hired two employees, including his younger brother Mario.
According to Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, 11,485 new agribusinesses were established in 2013 – a 2.6 percent increase from 2012. About 17 percent were started by individuals below age 30.
Despite a biting recession that has pushed most of Italy’s economic sectors into negative growth, agriculture grew 0.6 percent in 2013, according to ISTAT, Italy’s National Institute of Statistics.
A report from the INEA, a public research institute with a focus on agriculture, said in 2012 more than 800,000 Italian businesses linked to the farming sector employed about 849,000 people out of Italy’s population of about 60 million.
When I studied agriculture at university, there were maybe 20 of us attending the course. Today I think there are more than 100 students. It's absolutely incredible.
“It’s hard to find one single explanation for the phenomenon,” Raffaele Maiorano, president of Italy’s Association of Young Farmers, told Al Jazeera.
“First and foremost, it’s of course the economic crisis. But if I had to better articulate my answer, I would underline two other factors: The growing potential of the agricultural sector, and a change in attitude of Italy’s younger generations.”
Back to the land
Maiorano pointed to the results of a recent survey by Coldiretti, Italy’s association of direct farmers, which says that 54 percent of Italians under 35 would prefer to manage an agri-tourism business than work for a large multinational (21 percent), or be a bank employee (13 percent).
These results might also help explain this year’s 45 percent boost in students choosing a university degree in agriculture, and the 12 percent increase in teenagers opting for an agrarian institute over a traditional high school programme.
“When I studied agriculture at university, there were maybe 20 of us attending the course,” Pietro Luchini, 28, a Tuscan honey producer, told Al Jazeera. “Today I think there are more than 100 students. It’s absolutely incredible.”
But despite the general enthusiasm and business opportunities in agriculture suggested by economic indicators, starting an agribusiness is not always an easy task, especially for those unable to rely on family know-how and tradition.
In 2011, Luchini, the son of a doctor, began growing fruit and vegetables with two of his former classmates following graduation. The venture didn’t last long. Just a year after they started, they were forced to close because of low revenue and 14-hour workdays.
Of the three former colleagues, Luchini is the only one still working in the agricultural industry, and despite his first failure, he said he is happy he decided not to give up.
“Our honey is slowly finding its way, we are selling it all over Italy and thanks to our quality, we are starting to be noticed abroad,” he told Al Jazeera. “If everything goes as planned, we will soon be sending our first boxes to Australia. It’s pretty exciting.”
Coming home to roost
Other young entrepreneurs have decided to come back from abroad to seize the new opportunities in Italy’s growing agricultural sector. Guido Pallini, 28, worked in London at Nomura, Japan’s largest investment bank, for more than a year before deciding it was time to start a new life outside of Grosseto, a city on the border between the Tuscany and Lazio regions.
Now, Pallini breeds female buffaloes. With the milk he produces a plethora of different cheeses – ranging from mozzarella, to ricotta, to taleggio – that he now sells all across the region.
“Starting was hard, especially convincing Italian banks to give out loans in times like these,” he told Al Jazeera. “But things are slowly starting to move forward and the company is growing.”
When the business began to turn a profit, Pallini built an on-site renewable energy plant. Now, he is able to power his production line and sell the extra electricity to Italy’s largest electric utility company.
“Inno al Sole will soon be a zero impact farm,” he said proudly.
Environmental concerns is one of the reasons that prompted Maria Serena Minunni, 26, to start an agricultural business, while studying economics at the University of Bari, in Italy’s deep south.
“When I was a child, my parents always brought me to the countryside, and I enjoyed being surrounded by flowers and trees instead of iPads and computers,” she told Al Jazeera. “Today, my office is a field and I could not be happier.”
In Contrada Capopietro, just outside of Bari, Minunni grows organic fruit and vegetables, and produces olive oil and wine, as well as natural pigments that are used by a local fashion designer to colour her natural clothing line.
“The first months were not easy. If not for my parents, I am not sure I would have made it,” she said. “But after a while things, started to get better. I was then able to employ my brother as well as starting to think of adding agri-tourism to the farm to create another source of revenue for the business,” said Minunni.
Although agriculture has never been considered the core of the country’s economy, the Italian government has recently picked up the sector’s potential.
Agricultural Minister Maurizio Martina promoted “terre vive”, a decree that has put 5,500 hectares of government-owned land on the market, and includes a broad range of incentives for entrepreneurs willing to start a business in agriculture, such as guaranteed zero-interest loans and tax breaks. Martina has also vowed to foster the creation of 50,000 new companies in the next five years, along with 100,000 to 150,000 new jobs.
An increasing number of young Italians are deciding to revert back to the country, take a risk, and start a business. If the Italian government moves forward with its agricultural reform, the 0.6 percent sector expansion of 2013 might just be a first step of much needed larger growth.
“It’s a start,” Maria Letizia Gardoni from Coldiretti’s youth group told Al Jazeera. “But much more can be done because Italy’s agriculture has an enormous potential that still remains untapped.”