Like many farmers, Martin Busin works from dawn till nightfall, but he still needs the help of his cafe-au-lait cow, Miss, to bring in tourists to keep afloat his smallholding in Italy’s mountainous Alto Adige region.
With little farming land and over a million high-cost small farms, Italy started opening farms to tourists in the mid-1960s as a way to revive agriculture. It has been Europe’s leader in agritourism ever since.
”Our farm is too small to live off agriculture alone. We needed other activities to survive,” said Busin (44), who with his wife Waltraud, also 44, turned to ”agriturismo” about 20 years ago on their small farm in the hamlet of Trodena in the Dolomite mountains.
The farm is profitable thanks to letting two traditionally decorated apartments in the family’s house to tourists and to a small spa featuring a sauna and hay bath, which add to the feeling of relaxation given by the sleepy village.
Agritourism began in Italy as an effort to stop an exodus from impoverished villages after World War II, especially in the south, as the country was breaking away from its rural past.
Years on, it is still vital for Italy’s agriculture, which used to be the main driver for the country’s economy and now accounts for just 2% of gross domestic product.
Unlike in many European countries, small, family-run farms still dominate Italian agriculture. The average farmer’s income has fallen 10% since 2000, according to Italian farmers’ body Confagricoltura, more than in the rest of the European Union.
High energy, labour and other production costs, a scarcity of natural resources and high social security costs have hit Italian farmers, along with worsening weather conditions and EU subsidy cuts.
In 2006, Italian farmers saw incomes fall 4%, while average incomes of farmers in the European Union, not including Bulgaria and Romania, rose almost 3%, Confagricoltura said, citing data from the EU statistics agency Eurostat.
Like about 2 700 farmers in Alto Adige, famous for skiing resorts and wine making, the Busins have bet on agritourism profits, now at 40% of their total budget, and will soon convert an old hay barn into apartments.
Nearly 16 000 small farms welcome holiday makers in Italy and another 700 farms are expected to open their doors to tourists this year.
Sector officials expect numbers to grow in the next few years on a wave of tourist demand and a move by the EU to break the link between farm subsidies and production volumes and spend more on rural development.
”Potentially, I can see about 50 000 farms doing agritourism,” said Giorgio Lo Surdo, director of Italy’s oldest sector body, Agriturist
The EC has set aside more than €77-billion for rural development projects in 2007 to 2013, aiming to boost agriculture’s competitiveness, environmental programmes, diversification and quality of life through projects like agritourism.
Over €8-billion are earmarked for Italy, where depopulation risks exist in some rural areas, especially in mountainous regions with poor infrastructure and where intensive farming is not possible.
A typical Italian agriturismo offers accommodation and a restaurant where most of the food is home made or at least produced locally. Visitors are often welcome to see how the food is made or even help out with some farm chores.
One of the Busins’ farm attractions is to see how Miss, a winner of a cow beauty contest in Alto Adige in 2006 for her good looks and record milk yields, is milked — to classical or popular music.
Italian agritourism revenues are expected to rise 10% this year to €1-billion, boosted by growing interest in spending a holiday in remote rural areas unspoilt by mass tourism, according to farmers group Coldiretti.
About three million tourists, a quarter of whom are foreigners, are expected to spend holidays on Italian farms this year, a 10% rise from 2006, among them families on a budget.
Guido Pasqualino, who runs his small advertising agency in Milan on a shoestring budget and enjoys gardening on his plot of land outside Italy’s financial centre, has been spending most of his holidays at ”agriturismi” for more than 10 years.
”I like it because it’s cheap and usually located in beautiful places,” said Pasqualino (59). ”Living in the countryside, I hate noise and fuss. In an agriturismo it is always quiet and there are people to talk about agriculture.” — Reuters