t every agricultural fair and market the world over, I’d bet my last euro that you’d find a group of farmers hanging on a fence complaining that there’s no money to be had in farming. Anguished when their annual accounts show no huge cash profit, they take solace in looking at their new 4×4. Surely I’m not the only person to have noticed that for people with no money, farmers have an awful lot of expensive machinery sitting in their yards.
Farming in Europe can be frustrating. Take the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, which provides both generous grants and acts as a useful cushion against disaster. But it also sets commodity prices so that one day your pigs can be worth €2 a kilo and the next half that amount. The problem is that you still have to pay to feed them. Reason enough to make farmers weep into their wine.
At the same time, while farmers may not have as much cash hidden away as the local solicitor or dentist, their lifestyle remains enviable. They are self-employed, self-sufficient, work in a beautiful environment, and since the development of farm machinery, can go about their business with relative ease. Add a bit of imagination and a farmer can find alternative sources of income.
But the underlying truth is that Italians really don’t want to live in the countryside, at least not as farmers.
When we first arrived in Italy to work the land the pleasant supermarket lady was eager to know all about us. But when we showed her where we lived, she threw her hands up in horror: “Why do you want to live there? There’s nothing but the land and the sky.”
How to explain that if you’re coming from a one bedroom flat in London, land and sky are a big part of the attraction? But changing her mind was impossible. Even now when I’m at the supermarket, she gets a devastated look and tells anyone in earshot where we live and how terrible it is.
In fairness, you begin to see what the fuss is about after a couple of hard winters. One of the three Marios (the three big farms in our valley are all farmed by a man named Mario) has moved into town and commutes to work.
Some farmers go further, offering their ruined old farm buildings for sale to the constant stream of optimistic foreigners positively longing to live off the land. It’s a smart move. They get a nice wedge of cash plus payment for ground-clearing work or pool installation. The sons of the sellers often end up maintaining the farms as holiday lets after the owners get fed up with rural paradise and flee home. The pattern can ensure years of constant work. One of my sons has a summer job watering plants at the neighbor’s house in just such circumstances. The pattern can benefit local farmers, tradesmen and restaurants.
If a farmer doesn’t have an old ruined farm to sell, he can seek more imaginative options. Another one of our Marios noticed that while the price of pork seemed to fluctuate, salami prices remained constant. So he used his pigs to make cured meat and opened a shop. The third Mario runs the olive oil processing mill and in winter mans the snowplow for the municipality.
Even little guys like us have options. We can use our farms for workshops, children’s summer school, and hosting motocross races.
So all the complaining is just that: complaining. I’m not rich but I’m happy. I have opportunities that I wouldn’t have in the city. Most important, my children have a whole new range of possibilities. My eldest boy, now 13, wants to own a horse ranch and a herd of cows — not something you can do in a small garden. While he may change his mind, it’s still a glorious thought.
My third son, somewhat unfortunately, wants a Ferrari, which is less practical. But you can’t please all the people all the time. Which is why I’m not moaning about not making money. I’m also safe in the knowledge that if I ever do get any cash I’ve got the perfect venue for a great party.