Blog | January 4, 2012

Women farmers keep Italy farming!

JenAn inspiring article in the New York Times today profiles women farmers in Italy who are keeping small-scale agriculture alive in the country. The romantic notion that Italy is filled with small farms , it seems, is just that—a romantic notion. The truth is, just like here in the States and elsewhere as multinational corporations work to dominate agriculture across the globe, small-scale, family farmers have a tough row to hoe.

Echoing what many farmers in the U.S. say, one of the Italian woman farmers profiled in the article said, “I couldn’t make a living only by selling strawberries and plums. Either you have a large farm, or you diversify, like we did.”

Italian women farmers are diversifying–not just their crops, but what it means to be a farmer in Italy, practicing what they call “multifunctional agriculture.” Women farmers are finding opportunities in agricultural tourism, farmers’ markets, organic farming and direct sales. But they’re also expanding to offer daycare at their farms, providing a much needed service in rural areas and enabling other women to join the workforce.

These opportunities are giving rise to the good news that agricultural schools across Italy have seen an increase in enrollment, particularly among women. “The agriculture of the future is very much female, as it has always been,” said Andrea Segrè, dean of the faculty of agriculture at the University of Bologna. Preliminary 2010 census data, issued in July, showed that the number of Italian farms had decreased by 32.2 percent in the previous decade, but fewer women than men had decided to throw in the towel.

The 2010 census found that there are 1.3 million women farmers in Italy, slightly higher than the number of women farmers in the U.S. (1,008,943 as of the last agricultural census of 2007). Mara Longhin, president of Donne in Campo, or Women in the Field, part of the Italian Farmers’ Confederation, said women “are way ahead of the curve” in diversifying, noting that most small farms cannot sustain themselves through crops or livestock. The involvement of women in multifunctional agriculture has helped society in important ways “like food security, rural development and the safeguarding of the natural landscape,” she said.

Nonetheless, women farmers in Italy face major challenges. Like farmers in the U.S, they rely on credit to run their businesses. Credit, particularly recently, is hard to come by–both in Italy and here in the U.S. But women farmers in Italy face additional challenges to accessing credit in the form of discrimination and sexism. Last season, Ms. Lauretti went to the bank for a loan to expand her business and was told that her husband would have to guarantee the loan, despite the fact that she owns the farm land and the house!

But she perseveres, farming with her 91-year-old grandmother, her mother and her 16-year-old daughter, who is studying teaching so that she can open a daycare on the farm. Asked how they’ve succeeded thus far, with four generations of women on the farm, Ms. Lauretti’s mother answers, “Sacrifices, many, many sacrifices.”

Are you a woman farmer? What challenges have you faced? Share your story with us!

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