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Agri-Food Co-Operation in Italy's Red Belt

Emilia Romagna tops Italy’s food export league table representing 16% of the country’s total agri-food exports. The turnover of its agri-food sector is estimated to be worth €25 billion. A humid climate and rich, clay soil, supports 70,000 farms that produce enviable yields of fruit and vegetable crops, second only to its livestock sector in terms of production output. But as well as location and geographical advantages, what contributes to the agri-food power-house that is Emilia Romagna today? I visited the region as part of an agri-food and drink press tour organised by the European Network of Agricultural Journalists to find out...

Well firstly an entrepreneurial culture has produced a high percentage of self-employed and small businesses. Like Northern Ireland its private sector is dominated by SME’s. There are over 420,000 active enterprises, with an average size of approximately 4 employees and 90% of registered companies have fewer than 10 employees. This combines with a strong Co-Operative Movement that is part of the region’s DNA and political history.  Emilia Romagna is known as Italy’s ‘red belt’ due to successive communist and social democratic administrations that have governed there since the second world war. 778 co-operatives produce 60% of the turnover of its agri-food sector and they represent one third of all co-operative firms in the Italian agri-food system.

One Co-Operative success story is that of tomato processor ARP (Agricoltori Riuniti Piacentini). Optimum conditions mean E-R is the No.1 tomato-producing region in Italy, which in turn is the biggest tomato-producing country in the EU.  ARP was established in the 1950’s by 15 local farmers with the vision of “farming and transforming the fruits of the land of Piacenza and giving a more sustainable economic support to its local farmers.” ARP is processing 250,000 tonnes per year of ‘pomodori’ literally ‘golden apples.’ 74 farmers are now part of the Co-Operative which has become the biggest tomato producer and processor in Italy with a turnover of €57 million. 60% of its production output is destined for export markets across retail, food service and industrial/co-packing sectors. Customers include Aldi, Spar, Heinz, Dr Oetker, Princes and Knorr. A price per tonne of crop, grown entirely in open air, is agreed depending on the quality. During the 70-day cropping and harvesting season the factory operates 24/7 to process tomatoes into tomato paste, tomato puree, crushed or chopped tomatoes. These are packaged in a variety of formats and sizes depending on customers’ requirements including customised packaging solutions and private labels. To offset the seasonality of tomato production ARP also processes and packs borlotti beans and peas.

During my visit as part of a recent agri-food press & PR tour of the region, Commercial Manager, Loris Mazza, explained that the key challenge facing the business today was maintaining quality at the high cost of production. A much-needed 10% saving was being achieved through solar energy. Stringent product quality standards include total traceability from seed to finished product and a ‘100% made in Italy’ guarantee are the cornerstones of ARP’s market positioning against global competitors.

A regional agricultural policy that rewards co-operation and supports quality products made using traditional practices has resulted in Emilia Romagna holding claim to the highest number of PDO/IGP products of any Italian region with 41 out of the 259 EU classified products holding protected denomination of origin status. According to Emilia Romagna’s regional Agriculture Minister, Simona Caselli, “it is this model of quality agriculture based on local produce and traditional products taking account the history and culture behind them, along with a respect for the environment, that is providing a sustainable economic future for the sector.” Co-operation as a way of working between farms and other small businesses has benefitted Emilia Romagna’s artisan producers such as Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and PDO wine makers. Some of these producers have organised very successfully as Co-Operatives such as Latteria Sociale San Lucio which I also visited. This in turn is part of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium of producers which is responsible for marketing the product worldwide.

Co-operation as a way of doing business for mutual benefit extends to agri-tourism too. The regional tourist board has been very successful in marketing Food and Wine roads that stretch the length and breadth of Emilia Romagna. Tourist itineraries link farms, with restaurants, wineries, cheese and ham makers, craft and art workshops. An impressive example we visited on the tour was 'Terre Traverse', a group of 16 farms, country-houses and a castle that have come together to form an Association in order to create what they describe as a ‘virtuous circle of agriculture, culture and tourism.’ They are all situated in ‘Verdi Land,’ so named after the famous Italian composer who in addition to his musical accomplishments was considered to be a ‘shrewd farmer and gourmand’. Terre Traverse celebrates Verdi’s legacy delivering a rich and diverse visitor experience ranging from open-air musical and theatrical performances, to walking tours, traditional dining, cookery workshops and visitor accommodation.

Meanwhile back in Belfast, the Head of NI Year of Food & Drink, Howard Hastings, recently stated that next year ‘will shine a light on the farming community, and celebrate so much of the employment that derives from that.' He indicated that our tourism sector ‘needs a more joined up approach’ to sell Northern Ireland as a food destination. There could be benefit in looking to ‘Via Emilia’ - Emilia Romagna’s way of creating and marketing one of the most acclaimed agri-food roads in Europe.

A copy of this article also appeared in Farmweek and is available to download farmweekart2.pdf

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