Producers in Southern Italy in Crisis as Challenges Mount

From the hot and dry summer to the Covid-fueled labor shortages and unrelenting spread of Xylella fastidiosa, many farmers in Puglia find themselves in an emergency.

Nov. 10, 2021
By Paolo DeAndreis

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Italy’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region is under­go­ing an unprece­dented cri­sis, span­ning water and labor scarcity to the spread of the deadly olive tree pathogen, Xylella fas­tidiosa.

On top of all this, local asso­ci­a­tions denounced a cum­ber­some bureau­cracy attrib­uted to insti­tu­tional slow­downs that affect com­pen­sa­tion and long-needed action in Puglia.

We have always faced chal­lenges con­nected to our agri­cul­ture, but today we are in a so-called per­fect storm in which a series of unfa­vor­able events are tear­ing down the whole sec­tor.- Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli, Apulian pro­ducer

The 2021 har­vest­ing sea­son will be remem­bered as Way of the Cross [painstak­ingly dif­fi­cult],” said Raffaele Carrabba, pres­i­dent of the local branch of the Italian Agricultural Confederation (CIA).

See Also: An Estimated 33,000 Jobs Lost to Xylella Fastidiosa in Puglia

Carrabba empha­sized how yields are well below aver­age, along with local olive oil prices. These fac­tors have added to the strain fac­ing many pro­duc­ers. For some, the sit­u­a­tion has been even worse, with sev­eral reports of olive thefts in Bari and Foggia fur­ther stress­ing local olive farms.

The CIA has asked the gov­ern­ment to let olive farm­ers hire local cit­i­zens receiv­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and other forms of pub­lic eco­nomic sup­port to help com­plete the har­vest.

The farm­ers attribute the cur­rent work­force short­age to local insti­tu­tions’ slow response to inter­ven­tion requests sent in by farm­ers.

The farm­ers also warn that due to the Covid-19 pan­demic, many sea­sonal work­ers from Eastern Europe have been unable to travel to south­ern Italy and par­tic­i­pate in the har­vest.

Local asso­ci­a­tions warn that given the grow­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, many farm­ers are aban­don­ing their olive trees.

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While the Xylella fas­tidiosa bac­te­ria is spread­ing in a large area across south­ern Puglia and is now show­ing up in the Bari province, many labor­ers did not earn any income for years,” said Luigi Visconti, the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Lecce work­ers union.

Considering only the last 12 months, the agri­cul­tural work­ers’ offi­cial lists in the Lecce ter­ri­tory [in the south] show a decrease of more than 1,000 reg­is­tered land labor­ers,” he added.

More than half of the Italian olive oil pro­duc­tion comes from Puglia, and, given the high costs of pro­duc­tion, most farm­ers end up sell­ing their olive oil as soon as pos­si­ble, what­ever the price.

According to data from the Institute of Services for the Agricultural and Food Market (Ismea), extra vir­gin olive oil is cur­rently sell­ing for €5 or €6 per liter in the main mar­kets. However, local sources told Olive Oil Times that some oil sells below that price.

GoFasano, a local Apulian news­pa­per, reported that prices set in many sales are cur­rently waver­ing between €35 and €40 per 100 kilo­grams, which is well below the offi­cial quo­ta­tion prices.

We will not accept any spec­u­la­tion on the prices of olive oil, which is of extra­or­di­nary qual­ity,” said Savino Muraglia, the pres­i­dent of the farm­ing asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti Puglia, and an award-win­ning local pro­ducer.

See Also: Puglia Warns Farmers of Ineffective Xylella Fastidiosa Cures

He empha­sized once again how pro­duc­tion costs have more than dou­bled in the past year with sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences on the pro­duc­tion chain, includ­ing grow­ers and oil millers, who need to see their work being com­pen­sated cor­rectly.”

Muraglia added that there needs to be intense scrutiny of the mar­ket to pre­vent spec­u­la­tion and pro­tect prices at ori­gin.

Some of the most impor­tant pro­duc­ing areas within Puglia are also expe­ri­enc­ing a sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tion of yields, indi­cat­ing that the quan­tity of olive oil obtained from olives is less than aver­age.

In the Bari and Andria, olive oil pro­duc­tion has reached an aver­age of 12 or 13 kilo­grams of oil per 100 kilo­grams of olives, far below the aver­age 15 or 16 kilo­grams obtained in the last few years.

Olive farm­ers in Terlizzi, slightly north of Bari, have warned that sky­rock­et­ing pro­duc­tion costs, low olive oil prices, the impact of Xyella fas­tidiosa and the work­force short­ages are lead­ing to many har­vest delays.

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At the moment, the only solu­tion to cur­tail and face these chal­lenges is to delay the har­vest, with the hope of obtain­ing bet­ter yields and bet­ter prices from olives,” the Free Farmers of Terlizzi wrote in a press release.

But such a pro­ce­dure would jeop­ar­dize the next sea­son because the plants would undergo veg­e­ta­tive stress that could com­pro­mise the pro­duc­tion of new olives,” the local com­mit­tee added.

According to Coldiretti, drought and abrupt weather changes in many groves have led to a 30-per­cent pro­duc­tion decrease, com­pared to the pre­vi­ous decade’s aver­age.

While Coldiretti added that olive oil qual­ity remains excep­tion­ally high, fur­ther dam­age is being done by the con­tin­ued spread of Xylella fas­tidiosa, which is leav­ing a trail of des­ic­cated olive trees in more and more groves.

What we are see­ing here is a grow­ing num­ber of trees los­ing their typ­i­cal traits, their color and the vital­ity of their branches,” local grower Daniel Maiellaro told Olive Oil Times. Many farm­ers went back years ago to the best prun­ing prac­tices, but that does not seem to be enough to stop Xyella.”

See Also: Italy Pledges €30 Million to Small and Medium Producers

In Brindisi, in south­east­ern Puglia, farm­ers warn that the phe­nom­e­non now affects all olive groves, with con­se­quences on their pro­duc­tiv­ity and a col­laps­ing yield that in some areas can reach 50 per­cent less com­pared with pre­vi­ous years.”

In Lecce, which is slightly south of Brindisi, Coldiretti said, Xylella fas­tidiosa has led to the loss of three out of four olives and a 70 per­cent col­lapse in 2021 olive oil pro­duc­tion.”

In Ostuni, between Brindisi and Bari, 1,000 more olive trees will be destroyed because they are at risk of being infected with Xylella fas­tidiosa.

Almost 100 infected trees have been found in the Plain of the Monumental Olive Trees in the past week, 86 of which are in Ostuni.

Most of the infected trees were found within red zones, areas where the dan­ger of con­ta­gion is sig­nif­i­cantly greater. Since 2013, an esti­mated 150,000 hectares of Apulian olive groves have been infected by Xyella fas­tidiosa.

According to the Agricultural National Informative System (SIAN), olive oil pro­duc­tion in Puglia has declined since then, with decreases as high as 80 per­cent in Lecce and other sig­nif­i­cant declines in Taranto and Brindisi.

An esti­mated 21 mil­lion trees sprawl­ing over 8,000 square kilo­me­ters, at least 40 per­cent of the region, have been infected by Xylella fas­tidiosa.

According to Coldiretti Puglia, new olive orchards have been planted in only four per­cent of the affected areas. In those cases, olive cul­ti­vars resilient to Xylella fas­tidiosa, such as Fs17 or Leccino, were planted.

Overall, 386,000 Xylella-resis­tant olive trees have been planted across 3,400 hectares. However, farm­ers said that these recla­ma­tion projects are not enough to revi­tal­ize pro­duc­tion in the near future.

The olive sec­tor is now in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion,” local pro­ducer Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli told AndriaViva mag­a­zine. Many might now say that they will aban­don their lands, their pro­duc­tions. We have always faced chal­lenges con­nected to our agri­cul­ture, but today we are in a so-called per­fect storm in which a series of unfa­vor­able events are tear­ing down the whole sec­tor.”

In the next few days, a series of work­ing meet­ings among stake­hold­ers and local and national author­i­ties will take place in Puglia and Rome, focus­ing on strate­gies for restor­ing Apulian olive oil pro­duc­tion capac­ity and cur­tail­ing the spread­ing of Xyella fas­tidiosa.





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