The Popular Campaign for Peasant Agriculture in the Context of Italian Agrarian System



 Research paper written by Federica Sperti

 for Centro Internazionale Crocevia

October 2016


Structure and production of the farms in Italy

The total area of Italian territory is more than 300.000 hectares, composed by 22% of plain lands, the rest by mountains (35%) and hills (42%). in 1961the Total Agricultural Area was the 88% of the total area of the country, in 1982 it fall  to 75%, in 2010 reduced to 56%.

Between 1961 and 2010, the number of farms decreased of the 62%, while the Total Agricultural Area reduced of the 35% and the Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA) of the 26%.


Taking into account the 2013 data, farms result to be less than 1,5 million, in progressive reduction in the last decade; between 2010 (census data) and 2013 the contraction amounts to 9.3%. The agricultural area decreases as well, however in lesser extent compared to the number of farms: between the Census 2010 and 2013, the decrease amounts to 3.3% for the UAA and to 2.4% for the Total Agricultural Area. Therefore, the average farm dimension increases, from 7.9 to 8.4 hectares. The reduction of UAA is higher in the North-West (-5.7%) and in the Centre (-6.3%), while it results more contained in the Northeast (-1.7%), in the South (-3%) and in the Islands (-0.9%).

The working days given in the whole to the farm remain substantially unvaried compared to the census 2010 (approximately 253 million days). These data confirm the typically family-based character of Italian agriculture: the working days of family direct farm labour (approximately 196 million days) represent the 77.4% of the total. Comparing these data to those of previous years, we can observe a decrease of this component against an increase of the extra-family labour. Regarding this typology of labour, we assist to the increase of the working days with an open-ended contract as well as those of the fixed-term labour, including the occasional labour and the labour not directly employed by farmers (labour rented). Although, it is necessary to remind that the reduction of the working days is less than proportional to the reduction of the number of occupied people: those who remain in the fields work much more to maintain the production levels and the income.


 Who works in the fields?

The agricultural work is concentrated in a more or less absolute way in farms at direct management of the farmer, with only family labour employed, representing the 92.8% of the total. Instead, the number of farms managed by wage-earning work remains unvaried: a modest 6.4%.

Inside the mentioned 92.8%, we register a contraction of family labour amounting to the 13% compared to 2010; in the same time, however, we register an increase of extra family labour of 7.5%. The number of employees in the family labour results in decrease in all the geographical areas (-15% in the North-West; -10.8% in the North-East; -13.3% in the Centre; -12.6% in the South; -15% in the Islands). Regarding the extra family labour, the frame is more complex and more irregular at geographic level: the variations, compared to 2010, swing between -8.9% in the North-West and +20% in the Centre.

Despite the flexion of family labour, the Italian farming system can be still confirmed at family character.


An overlook to the peasant agriculture in Italy

In Italy, the diversity of agro-ecosystems and of socio-economic conditions produced a plurality of productive structures and agricultural markets. Thus, it is possible individuate some typologies and principal orientations:

  • Farms that are totally integrated in the agro-industrial market. They are characterised both by high intensity of capital and technology and structured commercial chains; they are mostly allocated in high-income areas;
  • Small Farms (from physical and economical point of view) produce through an highly labour-intensive and  low capitalisation model, almost oriented to  territorial markets  at local or national level; only sometimes they are export oriented;
  • Small self-consumption farms with a limited direct sale; they are characterised by high intensity of labour and scarce or inexistent capitals, displaced in territories considered marginal (Popular Campaign for Peasant Farming, 2013);

We find a similar subdivision even in the data of the General Census on Agriculture (2010), where the farms are divided according to their economic dimension in:

  • Farms with a gross income higher than 20.000 euros/y: 310.000 units, coinciding to 19% of the total farms. The 70% of these has an income lower than 100.000 euros.
  • Small and medium farms, with a gross income from 10.000 and 20.00 euros/y: 225.000 units, coinciding to the 14%.
  • “Non-commercial” farms (gross income lower than 10.000 euros): 1.086.000 units, equivalent to the 67% of the total.

The mentioned data endorse the hypothesis that in Italy the predominant model consists in the family farming; farms that dispose of a low basis of resources, not strictly market-dominated, therefore presenting a relative dependence to the dominant market, result in majority.


Economic results of farms

In 2013, Italian farms occupied 992.000 work units (WU), realising a production of 43.9 billion euros and an adding value of 24.9 billion euros. In compare to 2012 we can register an increasing production of 3,3% and an increasing adding value of 4,9%. A consistent quote of production (91.6%) and of adding value (92%) is obtained by specialised farms, which represent the 88.6% of the total farms.

Farms producing just for self-consumption[1] represent the 10.4% of the total and realise respectively the 0.3% and the 0.2% of the production and of the national adding value. The 53% of production and the 49.1% of the value added are realised in the North of the country, which hosts the 24.1% of the total farms. In the Northern areas farms absorb the 27.2% of the employed labour and sustain the 35.5% of the overall labour cost; their Gross Operational Edge (GOE) result amounting to 34.7% of production and the 38.6% of value added, while the labour cost quote is 53.4% of the national total amount. Consequently, the quote of their Gross Operational Edge coincides to the 36.1%.

It is important, however, to dwell on the people who work on farms. They are classified by the total of farms, as follows[2]

Owner                                        1.455.383 Permanent workers      68.962
Spouse                                          552.015 Temporary workers     86.171
Relatives and others labourers     543.533 Irregular labour         713.816
Not directly employed labour     139.197

Structural differences

Farms with less than 1 hectare are 30%, those up to 5 hectares are 71.7%, but those with more than 50 hectares are 3% and control 42.5% of the UAA.

Large farms, employing more than 10 SWU (Standard Work Unit), occupy just 2.7% of the workforce and produce 5.4% of production; while farms with less than 10 SWU produce the remaining 94.6%, whose 25.5% it is produced by farms with less than 1 SWU, the so-called “subsistence farms”, which obviously are not subsistence and self-consumption but work for the local market.

This diversity and capillarity is an Italian specificity. Our heritage of great wealth and diversity of agricultural products rests on this.

Today, this diversity of agriculture is seriously questioned by the dominant agricultural policies that seek to reduce the plurality of experiences in the unique standard of commercial enterprise (intensive, specialized, capitalized) within an agro-industrial model of production to compete in  the global market  Sector-policies and  regulatory bodies are framed in support of  this model purposes, one-way directing the resources of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The annulment of these structural differences through the drive towards a single homogeneous model would lead to the disappearance of that diversity and of at least one million farms and their social, economic and cultural fabric.


The relevance of the agri-food sector

The Italian agri-food sector (composed by farms, food processing enterprises, wholesalers, hypermarket, small retail shops and catering operators) represents 8.7% of GDP (119 billion euro).

If we include the generated spill-over – that is to say essential services such as transportation, packaging, logistics, energy, instrumental means of communication and promotion services -, the agri-food sector globally gets to represent up to 13.9% of the Italian GDP, growing since 2008 until today.

The agri-food sector has such a socio-economic importance to be considered a strategic asset for the Italian economy. It is highly fragmented, with thousands of industries with very low turnovers. The industry size related to this sector in Italy is smaller than in main European countries.

The structural weakness caused by the very small size is reflected in the fact that small food industries appropriate of a low share of the added value produced by the entire food chain which is dominated by the hyper-markets.

Number of workers in the food industries


Source: ISTAT. Industry Census 2011

 The data just above confirm the enormous concentration of large size food industries (with over 250 employees) in two regions, Lombardia and Emilia Romagna, the same regions  where the majority of CAP supports were collected in the last 50 years. The direct link between the CAP and the support to agri-business development needs no further proof.


Source: Associations of Federalimentare, data selected at the purpose of this document

The growth of total turnover by 85% from 2007 to 2013 is not a surprise: the biggest spread was in 2008 on 2007, two years in which the surge in agricultural commodity prices, led by financial speculation, has come to promote the agri-food industry.



Source: Scenarios and tendencies of Italian agriculture between tradition and innovation

The economic results of the agri-food sector – ISTAT

Comparing farms and food companies in 2008 and 2013, the added value per employee in 2013 is equivalent, but  that of workers on farms has increased by one third compared to 2008,   enterprises only 16.2%.

The cost of wage work (per work unit) in farms decreased of 22%, while in the companies it increased of 6% compared to 2008, when the unit cost levels were essentially the same.

The strong decrease in wage contracted work in agriculture (-22%) is related to the massive presence of irregular immigration or illegal labour.


Markets for small farms in Italy

Data from the last agriculture ISTAT census show evidence on how the lack of financial resources constitutes an obstacle to the competitiveness of the sector only for SMEs.

Small-scale farms mostly refer to the internal market and the main strategy is the defense of market share. The prevailing strategic attitude, therefore, is defensive.

The small scale farms face economic crisis cutting to the bone the labour remuneration; thus, resisting better and longer than the agricultural companies and large scale farms.

The competition on the internal market between peasant farms – small and medium scale – and industrial agriculture, created original forms of resistance by peasant farms. Indeed, in Italy the survival and consolidation of these farms lays on their ability to define and defend their autonomy in production and marketing, including alternative channels (such as, for example, the Solidarity Purchase Groups or the direct markets).


Peasant agriculture, however, needs to build strong and autonomous aggregations, from an economic as well as social and political point of view, such as networks, and territorial systems that enable it to sustain and consolidate.


Amongst the key issues, the commercialization remains open. However, the real point of analysis is not the access to market, but the manner this access is realized:  who control the value chains, the production costs, the producer prices, who and what determines the market power in the dominant agribusiness regime. If the peasant agriculture is integrated to the dominant market system (cfr. FAO, Rome, 1957), it must align and subordinate itself to its logic and its power relations, losing in terms of autonomy and of control on natural resources and model of production, as much as in terms of organization of work and of supplying local and alternative circuits. The result is that it is usually totally destroyed, due in particular to the indebtednesses.

Therefore, if we intend to support peasant farming as an alternative model to protect and revive, and if we intend to avoid that they should adequate to the logic of the global market, we need to build appropriate circuits, such as territorial markets. They are markets measured on the decentralization of demand and supply and on warranty rules for those who consume; they are provided of tools, public rules and policies that are specific and different, aimed to change the rules of the game and the balance of power that dominate agribusiness. .


The food industry in Europe

The importance of the entire food chain in Europe[3], including agriculture, food and drinks industry and distribution, is considerable in terms of turnover, added value and employment[4].

All these components, which in Europe are considered as the scope of the bio-economy, are estimated at just under 400 billion for agriculture (including fisheries and forestry) and over 1.000 billion for the food industry, while the overall food distribution globally is more than 2.200 billion euro.

The European food industry is dominated by large scale companies  (over 250 employees), which provide more than 50% of value added and 35% of total employment, therefore, they are linked to the presence of multinational companies and numerous SMEs.

This last element should not be overlooked, as it could encourage a downward conversion through a dialogue  between farmers’ movement, workers’ unions and SMEs.

European SMEs present a very fragmented structure because of the diversity of their typologies. Numerically (79% of the total) the “micro enterprises” (with less than 10 employees) predominate, but in terms of turnover and added value they have relevance just for 8%, although representing 16% of employment.

The importance, in terms of added value, of the different components of the food chain changes substantially: it is a little lower than 660 billion euro, whose just over 200 billion refer to agriculture and food industry, while the retail distribution exceeds 150 billion, compared to slightly more than 90 billion of the wholesale distribution.

The employment levels reach 24 million of active employment, whose mainly 12 million are occupied by the EU agricultural sector, compared to 4.2 million of food industry and 6 million of retail.

The structure of the European food industry presents profound differences between the main sectors and even between individual countries, as it is shown by the data on the average size of companies, ranging from less than 8 workers in Italy, 9 employees in France and almost 20 in Germany, with an EU average of about 14 workers.


The market outlook for the EU food productions is significant not only in the family market, but in particular for exports in the world market. The internal market of the European Union represents the largest trading area of food in the world, with about 500 million people and a purchase on food household consumption that exceeds of 1,000 billion euro, where many countries still have levels of food household consumption higher than 20% of the total. The processes of population growth and urbanization, still in place in many countries, nourish and sustain European food demand, where a significant role is played by processed products.

More generally, the large increase in food consumption is linked to the process of economic development, population growth and urbanization that increasingly characterizes the economies of emerging countries, which are changing the economic geography of the world and the structure of global food supply. The overcoming of the urban population on the rural one since 2010 and the growth of a substantial middle class, especially in Asian countries, amplifies the possible prospects for European food exports, mainly focused on processed products, on which the EU has established a leadership.


Foreign companies in Italy

Respect on 114 major food, beverages and tobacco industries in our country, 27 are foreign-controlled (multinationals) and 87 are nationally controlled. Multinational agribusinesses, although representing only 0.3% of companies (183 in total, including the smaller size ones), produce 14% of total revenue, 14.2% of the value, 17.3% of investment in research and innovation and employ 30.600 employees, 7.1% of the total employees. In 2013 they had a turnover of about 18 billion euro. For food, beverages and tobacco, international trades within the same group represent 71.8% of total exports of the “Italian” companies[5].  Support the agri-food exports will strengthen the multinationals working in the sector, presumably at the expense of the still existing Italian SMEs.

More in general, foreign multinationals account for over a quarter of national exports of goods (26.2%) and almost half of the purchase of goods on the international markets (46.2% import).

The European Union is the area where the largest share of foreign investors in Italy come from, both in terms of companies (61.0%) and revenue (56.1%) and value added (57.6%).

United States are the country with the largest number of foreign-controlled companies and employees in Italy (2.172 companies with over 263.000 employees) and they retain this record in industry and services.

The largest multinationals are very interested in investing in Italian national agri-food sector, because, despite the historic slump in family consumption, this sector does mark a record in exports thanks to the image captured with primates in safety, typicality and quality of Italian products.

However, as it is known, the arrival of investment funds in the food sector makes companies more fragile. These funds operate in the short term, looking for quick and growing profits – things that does not fit onto the primary sector for its own nature – ready to leave the company if profit do not respect their expectations. This will increase the downward pressure of prices paid at  farm gate.


Foreign multinational companies in all Italian industrial sector



A law in support of Italian peasant agriculture

During the 90’s, people started giving more importance to the quality of food and nutrition; from 2000 onwards the interest in the protection of the complexity of the rural territory has been added. Indeed, in those years farmers’ organizations (in particular those part of La Via Campesina) countered to the framework outlined by the so-called industrial or “mining” agriculture the defense of peasant agriculture, based on the principles of food sovereignty within decentralized food systems, besides be culturally and ecologically adapted to the specificities of each territory.

Small-scale agriculture is given a role from both an ecological and food sovereignty point of view, since it is the most common model of agriculture and thus of fundamental importance in the EU. However, it is required also to them an alignment with the EU general objectives in terms of agriculture and rural development, including the prospect of greater EU presence on the global markets.

In this context the Campaign for Peasant Agriculture makes inroads, promoted by a network of associations and peasants. It began in 2009, through a popular petition asking the Italian government to establish a definition and a recognition of peasant farming as cultural and socio-economic distinct model, in order to produce   a set of rules supporting this model.

The purpose is to obtain legal recognition of peasant agriculture, as specific and separate figure from that of “entrepreneurial farms” and from the large-scale agriculture. There is not a request of derogation of the rules, but tax and bureaucratic systems are calibrated according the specificity of this new juridical figure. The petition got an immediate success, arriving to obtain, within the first month, more than 2.000 subscriptions and provoking the progressive participation of several other associations.

Following this positive outcome, the initial petition was converted into a law-proposal presented in 2010, and then revised and resubmitted in 2013 to the Agriculture Committee of the Chamber of Deputies in the form of guidelines for a draft law.


The guidelines for such  law discuss the ambiguity in the concept of family farming; “family” adjective it is considered insufficient because it does not describe the production models, nor it indicates the direction taken in relation to the market.

According to this, it was proposed to use the concept of peasant farming  or  peasant agriculture which, thanks to its historical construction, is considered capable of reflecting family forms as prevalent, without reducing them to exclusive (since the property can be collective and, the work associative) and at the same time to characterize a specific way of farming.

The rural dimension is the protagonist,  including agronomic practices and economic structures characterized by forms of family-run, community bonds and direct land labour, limited farm size, entrenchment in the local context, conservative and sustainable agricultural practices, production for self-consumption,  for direct sale in territorial specific markets, control of the reproductive cycle through the reproduction of local seeds and native breeds, and finally, the direct transformation of its own products.

The peasant farming model is recognized as the most appropriate to stop the continuing rural depopulation, being the primary vehicle for work and employment, re-using local resources and reducing environmental costs. It is based on a harmonious relationship with the natural heritage, focused on local and national circuits, not completely dependent on the market and not particularly interested in exports. The peasant farming system is indeed a large box containing different ways of thinking agriculture in terms of production models, which looks at the diversification of production as in opposition to monocultures at high environmental impacts, and in terms of orientation to the market, to which it is relatively dependent, without expectations neither need of complete integration.

Since there is a plurality of farming systems, appropriate and diversified measures according to different farming models are needed, in the interests of justice, social equity, land management, maintenance of agricultural biodiversity.

The Campaign has attempted to summarize the bill proposals presented by various parliamentary groups in the fields of peasant agriculture (2025, 2143, 2935, 3361). The focus is on two structural points.

First of all it defines peasant farming and foresees a set of rules that can regulate the activity in a simplified manner in comparison to the agricultural activities in general.

The second focuses on the preservation of territories and rural territory through the contrast to abandonment, and repopulation of the countryside based on the presence of communities that want to protect the land they live in, even from an economic point of view.

The four bill proposals submitted to parliament that are in phase of synthesis are all coherent in terms of contents: all of them define peasant farming as a specific model, all of them identify the same basic problems that people living in such contests face, all of them recognize the positive values that this agricultural model plays, both directly and in collateral way.

Some additional elements were added to the synthesis. So peasant farming is recognized as an overall model of agriculture, which covers simultaneously, cultural and social aspects, different  typology of farms and techniques used, their environmental impact, the final product and the  sector of sales. Only the overall set of these elements can give a definition that guarantees as recipients of the regulatory specificities only those who actually deserve them.

Furthermore there is a simplification of sanitation rules and legislation for peasant farms recalling the fact that, since peasant farming is linked exclusively to product of own production, mostly sold directly to the final consumer  and in a well-defined territorial area  The traceability requisites required from the European and national regulations are guaranteed at the highest level because there is formally indicated  the responsibility of the producer, and  this justifies a simplification on requirements and standards for production models working on a different scale.


The legislation, build on the recognition of the positive functions, direct and collateral, that peasant agriculture put in practices opens a space of viability for this agricultural model, and then it must include a number of aspects related to agricultural activity, decisive in allowing today’s farmers to work and express their contribution to society.

In addition, the law proposal concerns:

– The access to local markets as

– Facilities to short chain retailers,

– The simplification of rules on the hospitality and rural restaurants,

– Specific rules on urban planning;

-Regulations guaranteeing the full legitimacy to non-monetary exchange of work between farmers,

– Measures on taxation and social security

– Standards of guarantee of rights and monitoring of the issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food and agriculture by farmers.


For what concerns the protection of agricultural land in front of increasing  population living and working in rural areas, it is recommended that agricultural state-owned lands – and, more widely, of public ownership – remain public and that rents, concessions, gratuitous loans are considered privileged instruments to encourage a return to agriculture.


Indeed, such law proposal is based on the fact that claiming the nature of peasant agriculture means drawing attention to the need for a radical rethink of the agrarian question and food policies of global scale. The aim is develop the capacities of countering the power relations that govern the contemporary global food system, mostly corporate oriented: in other words, revert dispossessions from agribusiness.

In front of the possibility that the classical approach of agricultural modernization (based on growth, competitiveness, productivity and overcome of peasant condition) is substantially reproduced – even if in a new guise – the peasant movements have on several occasions argued that peasant agriculture is “the model of the future”, thanks to its ability to produce quality food, at the same time respecting the ecological balance and creating fair work.


The guidelines defined by the Campaign for Peasant Agriculture request the recognition of a specific rural world, together with the role of the farmers who produce outside the direct control of the dominant market, taking part as protagonists to the protection of the territory and the well-being of the community that benefits of their work.

The Campaing is reclaiming the legal recognition of these experiences, in addition to the simplification of the tax and bureaucratic regimes, but also the development of policies promoting access to land and peasant markets, the peasant control over agricultural biodiversity and short supply chains.

The message we want to go through all the channels is the sustainable and future-looking dimension    of the peasant agricultural model.


Progresses have already been made: dialogues with deputies and senators who are more sensitive to this issue have been opened, with their help four law proposals have been drawn and submitted to the Chamber of Deputies; the first one in February 2014; the second one in January 2015, the third one in March 2015, finally, the fourth one in October 2015. In this phase, the final version law is going to be written, then submitted to the Parliament for approval; in this phase the Italian peasant movement and the numerous associations taking part in it will try constantly to protect the spirit of the Campaign.


[1]  This data contains a part of reemployments and that part of production that is not traceable, and consequently that is traded in the neighbour markets. Therefore, the concept “self-consumption” should be corrected

[2] ISTAT “Tavola SPA20 – People for work category. Detailed for region – Year 2013”

[3] INEA, Annual Report of Italian Agriculture 2013, Roma 2014

[4] Data and Trends of the European Food and Drink Industry 2014, FoodDrink Europe

[5] ISTAT, 2013



  • CHAMBER OF DEPUTIES No. 2025 – Law Proposal under the initiative of Deputies Zaccagnini, Bordo, Melilla, Piras, Quaranta, Farina, Kronbichler, Marcon, Pannarale, Airaudo, Catalano, Costantino, Duranti, Fratoianni, Palazzotto, Pellegrino, Placido, Scotto, Zaratti – Framework law on family farming, presented on January 30, 2014
  • CHAMBER OF DEPUTIES No. 2143 – Law Proposal under the initiative of Deputies Parentela, Bernini, Gallinella, Gagnarli, L’Abbate, Benedetti, Lupo – Intervention for the support and the promotion of family farms, Presented on February 26, 2014
  • CHAMBER OF DEPUTIES No. 2935 – Law Proposal under the initiative of Deputies Cenni, Albini, Amato, Antezza, Beni, Berlinghieri, Capone, Capozzolo, Carnevali, Carra, Casellato, Castricone, Dal Moro, D’Incecco, Fontanelli, Fossati, Gnecchi, Grassi, Guerini, Iacono, Iori, Lodolini, Maestri, Manfredi, Marchetti, Marchi, Ribaudo, Romanini, Sanna, Sbrollini, Scuvera, Tentori, Terrosi, Tidei, Tullo, Verini, Zanin – Rules for the protection of land, the recovery and valorisation of abandoned agricultural lands and the support of family farming activities, Presented on March 5, 2015
  • CHAMBER OF DEPUTIES No. 3361 – Law Proposal under the initiative of Deputies Schullian, Alfreider, Gebhard, Plangger, Ottobre, Marguerettaz – Provisions for the identification, recovery and utilization of abandoned agricultural land and interventions in agriculture and in mountain areas, Presented on October 12, 2015
  • Framework Law on family farming AA.C.2025, 2143, 2935 and 3361 – Lecture Schedule n. 356, October 19 2015
  • ISTAT – SPA 2013 (Sample triennial analysis)
  • ISTAT, Tavola SPA20 – People for work category. Detailed for region – Year 2013
  • INEA, Annual Report of Italian Agriculture 2013  (edited in 2015)