'Heroic' Olive Cultivation in Italy Still a Struggle, but Fighting Back

Responsible for some of Italy's most characteristic olive oils and landscapes, moves are afoot to promote awareness of the country's heroic olive cultivation.

Olive grove in the Sicilian countryside
By Malcolm Gilmour
Aug. 8, 2018 09:32 UTC
Olive grove in the Sicilian countryside

Two recent ini­tia­tives in Italy have attempted to shine a light on the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by those who prac­tice olive grow­ing in chal­leng­ing ter­rain. A recent con­fer­ence in Tuscany, which bought together pro­duc­ers and experts, fol­lowed the launch of a cen­sus in January by the Ministry of Agriculture with the aim of map­ping out for the first time what has been referred to as the country’s heroic cul­ti­va­tion.”

We’re not deal­ing with a purely agri­cul­tural prob­lem, but one that affects every­one.- Giampiero Cresti, Toscano IGP

There are also signs of pro­duc­ers fight­ing back to cre­ate an eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able future in some parts of Italy. It is a recog­ni­tion that this type of agri­cul­ture is not only behind some of the country’s most char­ac­ter­is­tic prod­ucts but fre­quently plays a vital but unher­alded role in pro­tect­ing tra­di­tional land­scapes.

The term heroic cul­ti­va­tion” was coined to describe the pun­ish­ing nature of agri­cul­ture that is car­ried out in areas where the land is too steep, or too remote, for mechan­i­cal assis­tance.

Examples fre­quently cited include farm­ers grow­ing the prized lemons on the steep ter­raced land around the Amalfi coast, and the efforts involved in grow­ing grapes on the island of Pantelleria, which have to be trans­ported by boat to Sicily for pro­cess­ing. Three years ago, we also high­lighted the dif­fi­cul­ties encoun­tered by Massimiliano Gaiatto, who makes oil from olives that he grows on the hills sur­round­ing Lake Como.

One man acutely aware of the chal­lenges that farm­ers face is Giampiero Cresti, vice pres­i­dent of Toscano IGP, the con­sor­tium that pro­tects stan­dards of extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duced in Tuscany, a region where around 30 per­cent of olive cul­ti­va­tion is under­taken on land too steep for con­ven­tional farm­ing meth­ods. In April, Toscano IGP orga­nized a con­fer­ence bring­ing together pro­duc­ers and agri­cul­tural experts to dis­cuss the value of this type of farm­ing and approaches to pro­mot­ing and safe­guard­ing it.

The prin­ci­pal dif­fi­culty,” Cresti told the Olive Oil Times, is the impos­si­bil­ity of using machin­ery or tech­nol­ogy in the olive groves — every­thing has to be done man­u­ally with tools that are often old and no longer effec­tive.”

The very real risk,” Cresti added, is the aban­don­ment of this land due to a lack of labor and scant eco­nomic return. When this hap­pens, olive oil pro­duc­tion is not the only thing to suf­fer.

The aban­don­ment of the cen­turies-old agri­cul­tural sys­tems of water man­age­ment, for exam­ple, could lead to an increased risk of land­slides, while the dry-stone walls dot­ted through­out the Tuscan land­scape could also dis­ap­pear. In short,” cau­tioned Cresti, we’re not deal­ing with a purely agri­cul­tural prob­lem, but one that affects every­one.”

In recog­ni­tion of the risks Cresti described, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture launched a cen­sus in January aimed at map­ping out the extent of Italy’s heroic agri­cul­ture for the first time.

Any agri­cul­tural busi­ness, includ­ing olive farm­ers, that con­sid­ered itself to be farm­ing in ter­rain pre­sent­ing par­tic­u­lar dif­fi­cul­ties was invited to par­tic­i­pate. The then Minister for Agriculture Maurizio Martina, speak­ing to La Stampa news­pa­per, said that the sur­vey would make it pos­si­ble to work on ways to sup­port these heroic enter­prises,” adding that they were one of the most char­ac­ter­is­tic forms of Italian agri­cul­ture.”

Further north in Liguria, farm­ers face sim­i­lar chal­lenges to their coun­ter­parts in Tuscany but are unit­ing behind a project that aims to make olive cul­ti­va­tion on the region’s steep slopes an eco­nom­i­cally sus­tain­able prac­tice, with­out sup­port from the gov­ern­ment.

TreeDream was set up by Flavio Lenardon, orig­i­nally from Friuli Venezia Giulia but Ligurian by adop­tion. He was struck by what he calls the cathe­dral” of Liguria’s ter­raced slopes that rise steeply from the sea and are sus­tained by miles and miles of dry-stone walls, with the small plots in between home to many thou­sands of olive trees. A shiver ran through me,” said Lenardon. When I saw that most of these mar­velous walls were in a state of aban­don­ment, with the woods tak­ing over, I real­ized that we were los­ing our his­tory and our roots.”

Lenardon defines TreeDream, which has a tree held in an out­stretched hand as its logo, as a cul­tural move­ment.” The project unites olive farm­ers and oth­ers with an inter­est in pre­serv­ing the region’s agri­cul­tural land­scape. Its aim is the rebirth of olive cul­ti­va­tion at alti­tude and com­mu­ni­cat­ing the chal­lenges linked to this kind of land, bring­ing together all those who do not want to aban­don what their ances­tors built,” said Lenardon.

The con­se­quences of the project go beyond an increase in the quan­tity of olives pro­duced at alti­tude and could play an impor­tant role in pro­tect­ing vil­lages from nat­ural dis­as­ters. In 2011, flood­ing and land­slides hit vil­lages in Cinque Terre caus­ing wide­spread dam­age. The dis­re­pair of the area’s dry-stone walls and ter­rac­ing was widely believed to be one of the con­tribut­ing fac­tors.

Lenardon believes the key to a return to tra­di­tional olive cul­ti­va­tion in Liguria is an aware­ness of the spe­cial qual­i­ties of oils made from olives grown at alti­tude. It is well-known by now that the pres­ence of aro­matic and health-giv­ing com­po­nents is increased by sit­u­a­tions of water and cli­matic stress, such as those you find in areas of higher alti­tude,” he said. It’s a view sup­ported by oth­ers, includ­ing experts such as writer and jour­nal­ist Luigi Caricato who ded­i­cated a guide to high-alti­tude olive oils in 2005.

Unique oils from olives har­vested by hand in chal­leng­ing con­di­tions should com­mand higher prices but com­mu­ni­cat­ing that to con­sumers is not always easy. To help farm­ers who are part of the TreeDream project, Lenardon came up with a label, which he called Taggialto. The name com­bines Taggiasca, the most wide­spread olive cul­ti­var in Liguria, with alto, Italian for high.’ Olives from farms in the scheme are milled and bot­tled under the label and it has enjoyed suc­cess, win­ning a list­ing at the famous Milanese food hall, Peck.


Lenardon was clear on what is required to safe­guard Liguria’s heroic olive cul­ti­va­tion and, in turn, the preser­va­tion of its rural geog­ra­phy and cul­ture. All that pro­duc­ers need is for their prod­uct to be rec­og­nized for its real value. Support from insti­tu­tions should focus on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, help­ing our move­ment and oth­ers relaunch this type of olive cul­ti­va­tion,” he said.

There are also encour­ag­ing signs else­where in Italy. Olive Oil Times recently reported on the growth of olive cul­ti­va­tion and pro­duc­tion of olive oil in Valle d’Aosta, the small­est and one of the most moun­tain­ous regions of Italy.

At the other end of the coun­try a new project, with the name Regeroli, was announced in May in the south­ern region of Calabria with the aim of relaunch­ing olive cul­ti­va­tion at alti­tude in the region’s Sila moun­tain range.


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