By Daniele Bucci
In January, Italian farmer, Daniele Bucci, attended his first ORFC and left wanting to make big changes in agriculture. By March, he was doing just that as he and other farmers in his region radically restructured their farming practices in order to feed the local population.
My name is Daniele. I’m a farmer and I live just out of (Faenza,) a small city in Emilia Romagna, in the north-east of Italy, three hours’ drive from Milan. Milan and the surrounding area were the most heavily hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Living in the countryside never made my family and me feel in danger under this new threat. I kept working hard in the fields under the spring blue sky, with open spaces to walk, play with my kids and be in contact with nature. These are all aspects worth the hard work of farming, sometimes undervalued. Being in a lockdown period made me value the lifestyle we’ve chosen.
I run a seven-hectare organic mixed farm called Podere Cimbalona Farm which is located on a flatland and characterised by fresh deep soil, with little structure, and a silty-clay-loamy texture. There is an old vineyard, different types of fruit trees, vegetables and a small flock of hens for eggs which I sell directly at the farm shop. Only 10 years ago this farm was still a conventional one, producing only grapes, kiwifruit, peaches, grains and sugar beets. We’ve been through a long, slow path to turn it into an organic farm, with the aim to meet the final consumers’ food demand. I believe this had a new beginning during the last few months.
During the COVID-19 pandemic many farmers had to face the fact that everyone was locked indoors and no one could reach their farm shop. Government rules were clear: “Getting out is strictly forbidden. Permission is granted only for purchasing essential goods and food.” Farmers’ markets were closed, farm shops were closed, and consumers were obliged to buy food at the nearest shops – mainly supermarkets – just round the corner. Police were patrolling streets and asking for ID and certification if someone was found outside.
How could we deal with all this? How could we keep selling fresh food that cannot be stored longer than few weeks or even less?
Farmers rearranged their type of selling with delivery boxes, in order to offer good fresh local food to their customers forced to stay at home. Many farmers had to rent a van, or equip themselves with online payment methods in order to reduce the chance of contact. They faced this situation with great courage. In no time, many farmers gathered their products in one barn and set an on-line Google form to let customers order food. They rearranged the delivery system in order to reach new customers. From many single farms, now it’s possible to order vegetables, fruits, cheese, milk, eggs, meat, bread, pasta, flour, wine, beer all coming from local farms. I’ve seen small farms able to respond to difficulties in a smarter and more efficient way than has ever happened before. Everyone was willing to contribute in any way they could and the consumers’ response was rewarding.
This situation brought many people look for a different way of buying food other than supermarkets. Those who feared contracting COVID-19 in closed spaces, others who just didn’t want to spend hours in a long queue outside shops – all started to feel the need of good, healthy food. Our first action against any type of virus is to care for our immune system. Confined as they were to their kitchens for months, people began to cook more and realised that fresh vegetables actually do have a better taste.
Many people realised what a great alternative to supermarkets local farms are, supplying better products, better service, for about the same price. Moreover, packaging is always lower compared to supermarkets, and it is environmentally friendly anyway. Above all, I’d like to mention that new relationships were born during this lockdown period. Farmers got the chance to tell consumers about their life, their job, their difficulties, and people started to appreciate who is producing their food. Little by little, they got closer to what they eat, to those who are producing it and how.
On our farm, we started the season towards the end of April but made the decision not to start a delivery service. This was partially due to a lack of labour but we also thought that people – who had been locked in their apartments for two months – might appreciate spending some time outside with the soil under their feet. Our selling system makes veggie pick up very quick, so no queue needs to be made. Despite that, many customers stood in our front yard willing to meet people, keeping the right distance and chatting about this weird situation. They walked around the farm, enjoyed the greenery and the chickens and many thanked us for the opportunity.
Since we started the season, we have had no rest. Dealing with a threefold increase in orders, compared to the ones we used to handle, has been challenging. Sometimes we had to close the order ahead due to lack of veggies. I wonder how this will evolve, but certainly there have been positive aspects for the small farmers’ community.
Another aspect worth speaking about, is the number of job applications we received during the lockdown. My phone was ringing every day and my mailbox was full of CVs sent by seasonal workers looking for a job.
Summer labourer’s in the fields are mostly from north Africa and eastern Europe, but this summer many fellow countrymen are working on farms, rediscovering the beauty to work under the sky. On my farm we usually hire three workers during the summer season; this year none of them had ever worked on a farm before. Agnese is a musician, Mirko is a chef’s assistant, and Luca a physiotherapist, but due to a ban on their professions, restrictions and the need to social distance, they are now enjoying working on a farm.
In such a dramatic world-wide period we should never forget that good aspects are hiding here and there. In time of need, communities have come closer together to solve the problem and new relations have been established. People have re-discovered good nutritious local food, and are willing to support small farms that operate in a sustainable way.
My personal opinion is that the COVID-19 issue will slowly fade away. I wonder if our government will be ready to make the same drastic decisions regarding even bigger issues like environmental pollution, climate change, soil erosion and food supply inequities?