When we try to find solutions to the plight of farmers facing constantly declining agricultural prices, it is frequently suggested we should ‘shorten the production chain’. The issue has been widely discussed, but I’m afraid I may be justified in sensing there are too many people who feel there are no feasible solutions.
It is commonly believed that nobody, except maybe in far-off America, has ever managed to pass from thought to deed and translate this commendable proposal into reality. But it is not a utopian idea and you do not even need to go across the Atlantic to find a worthwhile example of direct sale.
I recently came across an interesting case not far from home in Magliano Alfieri, near Alba, where I caught up with the recent history of the Cascina del Cornale (www.cornale.it).
Already back in the mid-1990s ridiculously low prices were being offered to small farmers, a humiliating smack in the face for all the hard work involved in growing apples and pears of decent quality. At the same time, mainstream publicity was using inappropriate images of a bucolic and peaceful countryside inhabited by happy families to push products that had more to do with industry than nature.
In a response to the unjust prices and distorted portrayals of rural life, the Traversa family decided to put into practice their idea of a setting up a cooperative offering local products without intermediaries.
Instead of continuing to funnel everything into the anonymous hotchpotch of large-scale distribution, which was totally unwilling to recognize that any extra value was added by producers opting for quality, the cooperative identified an attractive farm in Cornale that could be turned into a retail outlet, on the busy main road between Asti and Alba.
It is now possible to buy over 1,400 fresh and processed local products provided by small family producers from surrounding Piedmont and Liguria. There is no need for uniform branding—the producer’s name on the goods is a good guarantee of quality.
Apart from the place of origin, every label shows the original and the final price since it has been decided to make everything totally traceable and transparent so the customer can immediately see the markup.
Building on the success of the retail outlet, a farm holiday venture has also been set up. Some of the produce on display is served for lunch—and for dinner on Sundays—using simple recipes that bring out the best of the raw materials.
The most innovative idea is the Abbonamento spesa, or shopping season ticket, an advance payment plan very similar to the community supported agriculture schemes in the US, which I think we should look at very closely. To provide fresh products, which are increasingly rare especially in cities, a system has been devised to deliver farm produce right to the door every week.
For just 50 euros, certainly not an unreasonable amount, over 200 families in Turin, Milan and Genoa receive fruit and vegetables, meat, cured meat, cheese, yoghurt, eggs and dairy produce every 7 days, strictly observing seasonal availability. The purchasers do not decide what they will be getting in detail, but can trust their suppliers and have the pleasant surprise of receiving information about the producers of their food, together with useful advice on how to cook ingredients which are becoming less frequently used.
This commercial approach is the result of deep convictions and a particular cultural setting. For some time a group of people has been working in Magliano Alfieri to recognize and promote the rural dimension and its traditions. Their influence has been significant in driving the project forward and bringing the city closer to the products of the country.
It is said that an idea that does not get put into words is a bad idea and that words that do not get put into action are bad words. The project to shorten the food chain set up in Magliano Alfieri has shown it is more than a good idea, it is a successful venture and it deserves to be widely noted and replicated.
First printed in La Stampa on October 26, 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards