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The olive culture of tomorrow: expropriation or return to productivity

Maintaining olive trees in such conditions is anti-democratic. It is necessary to reassess the productive role in olive culture without hiding behind the rural landscape. The thought of the President of Georgofili Academy, prof. Franco Scaramuzzi, between tradition and innovation

The conclusion of the seminar organized by the Georgofili Academy in Sassari last November 12th, reported blow, deserved further analysis.

“The participants to the study day on the intensification in olive culture express the validity of the two directions of reference at present (traditional and super-intensive culture), which should not be seen in opposition, reaffirming either the need for a responsible series of strong interventions to support and protect the existing olive culture in order for it to confirm its economic and productive importance, and for public and private intereventions to support the development of a broad experimental and demonstrative program, with the installation of super-intensive olive groves in all interested regions, localized everywhere appropriate conditions are existing”.

This paragraph summarizes several concepts and aspects which where object of a a long interview with prof. Franco Scaramuzzi, the Georgofili Academy President.

The olive tree is also landscape and environment. How to include a new productive olive culture in such framework?
Agriculture and therefore olive culture too, is not just landscape and environment, but first and foremost it is production. Agriculture has always been multi functional, protecting the territory and its resources, without losing its main goal: to produce food. This is true for olive culture too, as hinted by laws and traditions from the past, which used to have a different function and other goals. The prohibition to take olive trees away from their location was meant to protect the investments, not to preserve the landscape.

Why is that law given an environmental value, in a “modern” key?
The current sensitivity for ecology and environment makes us forget that rural landscape is dynamic and changeable by definition, because of the changing times, needs, cultural techniques. In that law an “ante litteram” ecologic spirit was seen, while it was meant to protect the investment of fathers from speculative dynamics on the price of oil. A sudden decrease in the price of oil could induce to cut trees, with a long term economic damage, since a tree is productive in 10-15 years, in light of a momentary and contingent volatility of prices. Such legislative protection allowed the Italian olive oil production to remain stable.

What has changed from the past?
Back in the day, people used to say that they planted olive trees for their grandchildren. Nowadays, the production can begin after three years if an olive tree is well irrigated, fertilized and treated. A marginal culture has evolved into a rural culture which can produce profit if well managed.

Olive farmers still complain that they are not able to generate enough profit
They are right, since they manage old and little rational plants. The production costs of the olive culture “for the landscape” are very high. On average, if the price of Tuscan oil goes down below 67- euro per Kg, the farmer actually loses money. Around this sum of money, profit is very low. This is due to the fact that it has been imposed to cultivate olive trees which do not have reason to be cultivated from an economic and agronomic standpoint. Their preservations makes us accept to have them in precarious conditions, with approximate pruning, fertilizations, and recently even phytosanitary defense. All this just to trim down costs. But if were in the olive farmers’ shoes, when they have to manage an activity which loses money because it is considered of public interests, we would ask why these terrains are not expropriated, if they are of public interest. Is not it anti-democratic to force somebody to maintain alive a business which loses money?

Expropriating looks excessive to me. Are not there other solutions?
In the mountain regions of Northern Italy, farmers who manage the high altitude farms known as a “masi” are financially supported by local administration and private investors (hotels, ecc) to maintain pastures green. Otherwise, the cultivation of forage in altitude and livestock farming would be anti-economic. In small realities, the participation of society is a feasible solution, but in olive culture, considering the extensions of terrains, the necessary sums of money would be huge, not to consider the problem of estimating the financial award, and the necessary burocracy to provide this funding, with the relevant controls. The way to save Italian olive culture is to rethink the obligation to cultivate.

Is super-intensive agriculture the way, then?
No, the way is profitable olive culture. Some farmers can decide to produce low cost extra virgin olive oils, to enter in competition with Spain, and others who choose a more traditional, although mechanized, olive culture.

To produce with Spanish costs, also Spanish infrastructures and land
extensions would be necessary, though.

While analyzing costs, the extension of cultivations is an element to take under consideration, and Italy’s handicap is the utilizable agricultural surface. The structure of cultivated land in our country is a problem, although it is possible to hear that small is beautiful at conferences. This is not conceivable and it is false, both technically and economically.

This means that the conditions for a super-intensive olive culture are not there yet, in Italy
If we keep debating on ifs, there will never be any. It is necessary to start with experimental fields, to evaluate the response of the model in different regions of the country, maybe after adapting it. It is necessary to research and then disseminate the results obtained by these tests.

We would just adapt the Spanish model to Italy, then.
Look, the idea of super-intensive cultivation was born in Italy, almost fifty years ago. The idea of rows of trees, the mechanization of agriculture…all these ideas were developed in Italy, suggested by the success of fruit cultivation. Unfortunately, also the livestock breeding was copied, the “palmetta” and “ipsilon”, and this was an incentive for farmers to take this way, which turned out being wrong and intensive farming lost love. Today, we have to restart from that research, while treasuring the past and new experiences.

by Alberto Grimelli
03 january 2011, Technical Area > Olive & Oil

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