The produce was exotic, but the young Welsh farmers from the
Future Farmers of Wales on a study tour of North West Italy found
that many of their problems are shared by olive producers and
artisan Parmesan cheese producers as well as by other livestock
"We were struck by the sheer pride shown
by the Italians in their food.
And they learned the value that can be achieved by making
the very most of an authentic, regional, history. A
point of difference was the general acceptance that interminable
paperwork is a means of acquiring a premium and is a vital,
if tiresome, part of the job!
The Italian farmers, it transpired, blame the Euro for
many of the higher input prices, and young professionals
complain that their salaries can’t keep pace with
rising property and other prices. It’s not
just those trying to wrest a living from the countryside
who are struggling but the combination of factors means
that, as on Welsh farms, profitability is elusive!
Conversation during the four day visit centred on paperwork,
uncertain markets, rising feed prices, disease, climate
change, and the difficulty of gaining a fair return for
the primary producer. Then there was the huge capital
investment in land, stock, machinery and produce – Parma
Ham and Parmesan Cheese take years steadily maturing before
they are ready to sell. For the Future Farmers of
Wales it was an eye opener.
"The study tour took us to see producers and processors
responsible for some of the most famous and respected food
in the world”, said Chairman Geraint Hughes who is
based in Pwllheli.
“We were struck by the sheer pride shown by the
Italians in their food, and their willingness to support
smaller independent food companies. Farmers considered
EU protection status such as PGI and PDO a critical part
in maintaining their products' authenticity, and were more
than happy to service a thorough paper trail to ensure
the coveted EU symbols.
“The Club's members felt that Welsh farmers should
be more willing to acknowledge the value of paperwork to
ensure traceability in today's competitive markets. We
felt that Welsh farming can more than hold its ground in
terms of naturalness, history and quality, but we may not
be as confident when it comes to communicating our strengths
in the market place."
Very keen to communicate was Parmesan cheese producer,
Roberto Peveri. He has been producing Ciao Latte
Parmesan cheese from his 150 cow organic dairy herd since
2000. Adding value has increased returns, but with
a wheel of Parmesan Cheese taking two years to mature,
on top of the investment in machinery and storage facilities,
a big start up bank loan was needed!
Roberto produces 2,000 cheeses a year, each weighing 38
to 40 kilos and worth up to 400 Euros per wheel, so he
carries a stock of 1.6million euros worth of cheese. And
in a region where dairy farms sell for 30,000 euros a hectare,
Roberto’s is an expensive ‘way of life’.
“My father told me that if you don’t want
to work hard and if you want to earn a lot of money, then
don’t be a farmer”, he says.
“But I love being a farmer and I love my animals. Animals
don’t speak but they do communicate and it’s
important to establish a relationship with them”.
Accordingly he doesn’t believe in huge dairy units,
but prefers to add value on farm. He’s adapted
to an organic system to upgrade welfare and also to improve
his own lifestyle. The innovations mean that in a country
where young people are turning their backs on farming,
his son is the Master Cheesemaker and a vital member of
The cheesemaking process is as much an art as a science,
with temperature and turning critical, as well as the ‘feel’ for
the right moment to move onto the next stage. But
it’s also rigorously regulated in order to protect
the PDO status. This is a more tightly controlled
and highly prized level than PGI, with the region absolutely
defined and all inputs, chemicals and even plant species
The all important Parmazzione Reggiano brand is only burned
on to the cheese wheel after inspectors are satisfied with
an exhaustive paper trail and have tested each cheese in
the traditional manner – by tapping it with a hammer. A
big concern is that prices for the two million cheeses
produced each year are falling and a large proportion of
the producers have big bank loans to service.
The market for raw milk is improving though and one indication
is the fact the Germans who used to export milk to Italy
are now paying 55 euro cents a litre for it on the spot
market. They then sell it on to the Far East.
Roberto is generally happy with this progress and with
his business. The major source of discontent is with
the politics of his country and he’s keen to point
out that farming needs committed Europeans.
“I believe in Europe because in Italy the system
is a mess”, he says. “But agriculture
has to be supported. It’s not just about the
food, it’s about the countryside, the environment”.
Also happy with his lot in life is one of the world’s
leading producers of olive oil, Egidio Ramanzini, whose
home and olive grove commands spellbinding views of Lake
Garda. He, like so many farmers, is sitting on a
patch of real estate that is worth an eye watering sum
but which yields a very small return in terms of income.
The olive grove has been in Egidio’s family for
generations. It runs to 30 hectares and some of the
14,000 trees are up to 500 years old. More modern
varieties are just a few years old.
The family, which provides all the labour, is hugely enthusiastic
about producing the very best and in marketing it to squeeze
every drop of profit not just from the olives which are
processed and bottled on site but also from evoking the
myth and magic of their environment. This involves
shrewdly deploying scientific advice where Egidio feels
it’s appropriate and combining it with his own instinctive
He also has to complete at least 26 registration forms
each year showing the exact tree, its location and complete
history. The land is registered as being within
a certain geographical area, and is divided into small
parcels, growing trees appropriate to the region, and the
use of chemicals has to be logged. The process is a time
consuming but necessary part of achieving the coveted PDO
status and a premium price.
“Italy is the world champion at paperwork”,
he shrugs. “I make the oil and leave the women
to fill in the forms”.
Parma Ham production is carried out in a defined area with
a similar pride and attention to detail. And again
the process is checked at every stage, with a phenomenal
paper trail and regular testing of the hams with a special
needle, traditionally made of horse bone.
The production unit, Salumificio La Perla owned by Carlo
Lanfranchil, visited by the Future Farmers of Wales carried
a stock of five million euros worth of ham. Three
or four per cent of the production is rejected if the salt
isn’t deemed to have penetrated right through the
The problems again have a familiar ring. There is
the need to export more because the Italian market is saturated
and a feeling that if some of the older factories were
closed then modern units would thrive.
The pig farm supplying the unit, Allevamento La Badia
run by Signor Cervi, was facing severe problems and there
was an air of depression. The cost of producing pigs
at 160 kilos liveweight with the traditional much longer
ham amounts to 1.40 euros a kilo, but the return on those
sold to the abattoir is only 1.175 euros a kilo. The
ham alone commands a premium, the rest of the pig has to
be sold on the open market in increasingly difficult conditions.
It’s a situation which has been getting worse over
the autumn months, as cereal prices have doubled and which
is of serious concern to the farmers. Other
factors include the high value of the euro against the
dollar which is curbing exports and the loss of Chinese
and Japanese markets to the Danish.
They are calling for a campaign to tell the consumer that
they must be prepared to pay more for both Parma Ham and
Italian produced pork and other products. Production
also needs to be limited.
The tour of the Po Valley also included visits to a vineyard,
a farm producing the indigenous Bergamo breed for its own
restaurant, a co-operative of ten farmers with 450 dairy
cows and a farm shop and, naturally, some window shopping
It was organised by Hybu Cig Cymru’s man in Italy. Jeff
Martin’s brief is to promote Welsh Lamb in Italy. It’s
a frustrating business. Years of hard work boosting
the Italian consumption of Welsh lamb from just 1.5 kilograms
per head and getting it into 600 outlets as a branded product
were on hold at the time of the visit because of the EU
ban on UK exports as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak.
Jeff says he’s ready and waiting to get Welsh lamb
back into Italian stores – and he’s confident
that his customers are looking forward to getting the go
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