Social agriculture is defined by the National Forum for Social Farming (FNAS) as an innovative, inclusive, participatory and generative model of agricultural practices that deliver recreational, educational and assistance services. It aims at the social and labor inclusion of disadvantaged people, which through social agricultural practices are able to contribute to food and agricultural production (Di Iacovo, O’ Connor, 2009). According to the recently published Report on Social Agriculture in Italy (Giarè 2018), social agriculture experiences have the characteristics of being a generative welfare, as they aim at developing practices for a transversal development of the territory, supporting growth, skills and professionalism of those people who are at risk of social exclusion. Social agriculture provides the tools for the creation of cohesive, intelligent and competitive communities able to provide meaningful responses to population’s needs and to the productive industry.
Do you live around Belluno, Alpago or Feltre (in the Province of Belluno, Northern Italy) and have an idea or desire to start an innovative business/entrepreneurial activity?
This invitation brought about 60 local people from all sectors – politicians, students, farmers, architects, volunteers, cooperatives and associations among others-, to the inaugural meeting held in Belluno on May 8th.
During the opening meeting of the Innovation Action, the Local Action Group (LAG) Prealpi e Dolomiti, the University of Padova and Etifor, introduced the program by contextualising it within the geographical area of Prealpi and Dolomiti, providing a brief overview of the present situation, its characteristics and trends. The director of the LAG discussed how the topic of youth entrepreneurship was relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically linking the program to SDG n. 8 (decent work and economic growth).
On the 2nd and 3rd of March, SIMRA’s team from the University of Padova participated in the 12th edition of the conference “Fragile rural areas”, held in Rovigo, Italy. This years’ theme was “Abnormal Exchanges. The nested markets for rural fragile areas”.
“Nested” markets are, according to Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s definition, markets that have less to do with globalised systems of exchange, and more with exchanges in real meeting places. Van der Ploeg has long studied the phenomenon, coining the concept of “nested” markets, and was invited to give the opening speech at the conference. He emphasised the multi-level nature of such exchanges, pointing out that “nested” markets are markets animated by ethical and social values, related to the quality of products, human relationships, the development of the territory and environmental protection. In his view, nested markets are a segment of a larger market that emerges from economic as well as social and political motives, and presents peculiarities such as unique infrastructure, with an aim to transform the global system. The way in which he characterises “nested” markets closely relates to the topics at the core of SIMRA.
“Adotta una mucca”, (“Adopt a cow” in English) is an Italian initiative from the Valsugana Valley in the Trentino province. Its objective is to introduce tourists, children and families to mountain life and culture. Adopters can visit various Alpine huts, learn how mountain products are made faithfully following old recipes and enjoy cows on mountain pastures.
Social farming, or care farming as it is also called, defines short or long-term activities that use agricultural resources such as animals and plants to promote and generate social services in rural areas. Examples of these services include rehabilitation, therapy, sheltered employment, life-long education and other activities that contribute to social inclusion (Di Iacovo and O’Connor, 2009).
Social farming activities emerged in the northern European countries (e.g. Belgium and the Netherlands) in the mid-20th century; and they soon spread throughout Europe as a result of a growing perception of the positive impacts on both the social and the economic welfare, particularly in peripheral rural areas (Gallis, 2013). While social farming has developed differently in the European countries, it can be seen as a way of addressing specific social needs and promoting innovative patterns of rural development that are rooted in local resources. On the one hand, social farming activities, by combining the agricultural environment with rehabilitation and care services, benefit peoples’ quality of life and their social inclusion. On the other hand, social farming activities represent an opportunity for farmers to broaden and diversify their multifunctional agriculture, to open up new markets and offer alternative services that go beyond food production.
In Italy, social farming is quite a recent phenomenon; interesting social farming experiences have developed since the early 1970s, when social farming was mainly based on the ideas of ’68 movement and on other community-based initiatives (i.e. the community-based, Barbiana School of Don Milani, Community of Capodarco); however, their establishment increased once psychiatric institutions closed down in the 1980s. Social farming activities present in Italy are considered a reliable system of social care today. The providers are normally organised in social cooperatives. However, there are also private farmers offering social farming services. They offer a range of initiatives, yet the two main fields are work placement and employment oriented initiatives, and childcare, education and training.
The employment-oriented initiatives aim at labour integration and social inclusion on the farm and address specific people with different problems and disabilities (i.e. people with moderate physical disabilities, with mental health difficulties and learning difficulties or people experiencing social exclusion) or vulnerable target groups (i.e. long-term unemployed, ex-prisoners, addicts). They are included in agricultural activities such as horticulture, vine or olive growing, animal care, food processing, direct selling of farm products, or other activities such as working in the farm-restaurant. In this way, these vulnerable groups of people have the opportunity to increase their capabilities and skills, improve their social life and experience an alternative practice of reintegration into society and the labour market.
Childcare and educational initiatives include flexible care and education of children and students with the aim of transmitting sustainable nutrition and environmental education by directly involving them in farm activities. In Italy, these educational farms (called fattorie didattiche), have grown considerably in recent years, and have become important, especially in rural, peripheral and peri-urban areas as they provide a significant contribution to the social welfare system, where services (i.e. social, health or care) are marginally available or lacking.
Italy has strong regional, social farming networks that bring together providers and demanders and are a key component of marketing, as they serve as platform where farms present their specific practices. In addition to the regional networks, Italy has a national forum on social agriculture that was initiated in 2011. It is a driving force in promoting social farming as an innovation of the agricultural system (Newsletter FNAS Italy). Only 4 years later, on 18 August 2015, Italy implemented the national framework law n. 141, providing a framework of principles and procedures for recognising social farming practices that respect the social needs of the territory, the local available vocations and agricultural resources.
An interesting initiative of social farming in Italy is the social cooperative “Mit Bäuerinnen lernen-wachsen-leben” (Learning- growing- living with women farmers) located in the Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen/ South Tyrol. The history of social farming in the Province of Bolzano is relatively young and is connected to the foundation of the cooperative in 2006. The cooperative initiated its activity in 2007 by offering day care for children on farms with the objective of providing childcare by women farmers or other family members and encouraging the interaction with nature. Thus, the farm has been expanded to a place of learning, offering a complementary and alternative setting for environmental education. Away from the classical environmental and nature education towards a direct integration of agricultural resources and the environment as teaching elements, the farm aims at stimulating the curiosity of children in learning, as well as developing their awareness for environmental, sustainable and rural resources. The childcare service includes individually adapted care accommodating up to six children, flexible care hours, the integration into the family structure, the transmission of traditional and cultural values, environmental education, and summer care as well as care for children at different events. The currently active 106, day care mothers, who are organized in the social cooperative, offer effective, childcare services in South Tyrol. Especially in peripheral areas, this service supports existing public services and responds to local demands.
Some of the social cooperative members also offer educational farm activities for school children, were they spend a few hours on the farm and practically get to know the cultural environment of the farm life.
In 2014, the social cooperative expanded its social farming services offering elderly care due to a pilot project. With this service, the providers directly react to the steadily growing number of old people in South Tyrol; while in 1975 the Province counted 43.500 in 2015 it increased to 100.000 (ASTAT Info No. 64 09/2016). Originally 10 women farmers that have increased to 32 today offer the service on request, whereby they can normally accommodate a maximum of two old people up to the second level of care. Besides responding to the aging society, the service also addresses the growing concern about the efficiency of the institutionalized and available public services. Thus, it allows old people to receive family orientated care and be actively integrated in farming life. The qualified course “elderly people on farms” as well as the course for “day care mothers” are a prerequisite for offering these services.
Besides the valuable contribution the social cooperative is offering, it is expanding its existing activities across the territory and is also planning to introduce new social farming activities. Potential new activities could include activities for people with disabilities, holidays on farms with specific care service, horticulture and animal therapy. Adopting new practices stimulate new cooperation between the farms and private and public institutions, but also strengthen rural- urban relations.
Social farming activities have been established due to the changing demands of today’s society (i.e. ageing population, changing family structures, revalorisation of rural life in an ever urbanising society, high influx of migrants and increase of people with chronical diseases). They are a practical and innovative response to societies needs that many institutionalized social services are not able to provide adequately. Hence, social farming contributes to social and economic wellbeing as it stimulates vulnerable people’s independence and their personal development based on active collaboration and help on the farm. It promotes women farmer’s empowerment. It provides an additional income in peripheral rural areas as women can directly practice their pedagogical, health, care or therapeutically profession on the farm. Moreover, it stimulates the economic sustainable development of peripheral areas by guaranteeing services to people in order to prevent further depopulation.
The innovative aspects of social farming are twofold: on the one hand, innovation includes the development of new initiatives for specific target users (e.g. social farming for cell-phone dependent children and youth, art therapy for autistic children…); on the other hand, innovation is grounded in the creation of new forms of horizontal and vertical collaboration (e.g. between the agricultural, social, economic, health care, educational, tourism and regional development sectors), as well as the establishment of new private-public partnerships.
Di Iacovo, F., O’Connor., D., (eds.), 2009: Supporting Policies for Social Farming in Europe. Progressing Multifunctionality in Responsive Rural Areas. ARSIA, Firenze.
Gallis, C., 2013: “What is Green Care? Introduction, History, and Origins” in: Gallis, C. (ed), “Public Health in the 21st Century, Green Care for Human Therapy, Social Innovation, Rural Economy, and Education”, Nova Science Publishers, New York.
O`Connor, D., Lai, M., & Watson, S., (2010). Overview of Social Farming and Rural Development Policy in Selected EU Member States. NRN Joint Thematic Initiative on Social Farming.
Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano – Alto Adige, Istituto provinciale di statistica, ASTAT Info N. 64 09/2016, 1 Ottobre 2016 – Giornata internazionale delle persone anziane.
In the middle of Italy there is an ancient land full of mystery, a region of mountains and caves, with clear springs, with small running rivers which flow over limestone. Wildlife roams free, and nature feels wild and pure. The locals are descendants of an ancient people called the Samnites, a people of pastoral warrior origins, roaming nomadically with their stock.
There is an old legend that says that each samnite tribe in the area had a special animal they followed, a white bull, a kingfisher etc, when the animal would wander so would they.
We at the Heartland Association chose this area in order to create a special model of Eco-tourism, integrated into the local fabric of life, one that helps repopulate the abandoned lands of the mountains, a model that energises green issues, such as responsible tourism and organic farming, putting them into a cohesive framework, turning this area into what it is already called: The Green Heart of Italy.
We have been working in the campsite industry for 15 years, mainly in the UK, and we own and operate a company, Spirits Intent, which manufactures nomadic tents, like yurts and tipis. Over the years we have created, or helped to create over 300 yurt campsites.
But all through those years we looked to create a deeper meaning, back at 2009 we started looking to get campsites to build a central “palace” in the middle of their campsites, a place where they can create events, a place that brings their clients into the real magic of living in a nomadic village, into the feeling of a tribe, into the magic so to speak, to give their clients something more than only a back to nature experience, we wanted people to also return to the tribe, to come together on those campsites not just sit in their own glamorous tent alone.
So when we got to make our own site here in Abruzzo, we focused on creating the most spectacular tent venue. It’s called the zodiac tent, and adjoined 12 yurt complex with a massive central covered area; it’s a reproduction of a 12th century court tent of the mughul empire; it’s called the zodiac tent because it was made in the image of cosmos. The 12 yurts were the 12 zodiac signs, and the central tent that joined them was the celestial sphere, an image that represented the view of the cosmos in the 12th century, a tent that represented the whole world.
The idea is to take people into nature and let them feel their natural roots but also to wander across time into the tribal feeling of being together. It’s not just a holiday in nature, it’s an event centre with a heart, where people come together through life coaching events, allowing to bring real change into their life.
We have founded our site on an 11 hectare abandoned farm which is 1 km away from nearby neighbours in any direction, and it gives us the space to allow our visitors to totally detox from society, to remember another time, the land here offers a link with the past so that helps as well.
At the foot of the Majella massif we have found a land rich with nature, with small rivers, with free wildlife, a place that is rich with tradition and with a link to history that has never been disturbed. You can feel the Samnite tribes that lived in the land as if they only lived here 50 years ago; there is no cut in the strings of history. Tradition and culture run a continuous identity we never even imagined still exists anywhere in Europe. In the UK we are used to rural communities that have no more traditional identity because of the amount of buyers from the city; every house or farm has someone that came from somewhere else, the sense of rural identity has been lost.
But alongside all of the existing treasures we have found a land that has been de-populated heavily, neighbouring farmers that can hardly keep farming, local villages on the brink of being left abandoned, and whole areas in the country are left to be taken over by nature; places were families lived and farmed, even small churches are now overgrown and left to fall.
We decided we must help, we want to give something back for all the warmth they give us, to help this area make a stand, to come back and share its amazing history, its abundant nature.
So we decided to create a model for Eco-tourism using our 11 hectares of land, using our own yurt campsite, using our 15 years of experience. One that can be copied directly into other places across the region, to help use that new type of tourism, that is a little unknown in central Italy, as a platform for development, to open it to a new type of visitor, the slow and responsible type.
The Model is quite simple, we aim to use the fact that rural communes have been contracting inwards towards the villages, and this usually means there is a wealth of abandoned land up for development. The idea is simple: the lands at the edge of each local municipality get developed into a green park, at the heart of each of those green areas, there is a small tourist operator- a campsite or an organic farm with a b&b for example.
The old roads get developed slowly (using shared resources to minimise expenditure) into a sort of responsible tourism attraction, creating a network of walks in nature, into places where people can come and enjoy the outdoors, small handprinted signs sharing the history of the place, its wildlife,
Focusing on the one person at a time sort of tourism, rather than creating modern attractions that bring busloads of people. We believe the most important feature of this type of development is not to change the identity rural communities have, but to help them share their treasures of rural life and natural products in a sustainable way. Methods of giving houses away to investors if they renovate them, for example, or the whole sale of villages, we believe, is wrong because it encourages the loss of local identity.
Small investors can then come and take those abandoned areas, and develop them into a small attraction for visitors, the farmers around that area can support the activity by growing more and more organic produce that can be sold directly, and bit by bit the area gets developed into a natural haven. Finding people wanting to go back to nature isn’t hard. Yes, southern Europe is a little behind on that level, but there is a new trend full of people wanting to go back and create a small farm in nature, or start a little campsite, to farm naturally and live in an integrated relationship with the surroundings.
Basically we are implementing all we learned in the 15 years of campsite building into a very rural mountain area in Abruzzo, Italy, in order to help it develop using the small financial resources it has, but building on the wealth of nature and traditions it is famous for, because we believe this is the only way those areas can be brought back from becoming extinct: by using organic farming and eco-tourism hand in hand, creating a small network of attractions for visitors and small high quality restaurants that offer local product and traditional food, complementing organic farming with small touristic farm stays, an integrated network of back to nature, using the old traditions that have usually only just started disappearing.
In order to get this type of tourism to take hold, we are trying to get the region of Abruzzo to understand the concept of Eco-tourism, and see if it can develop some incentives to help small scale investors to develop those abandoned places. What we think is the best route of action is to create some planning by laws that maintain that eco tourism operators, organic farmers, or anyone who is willing to develop the countryside in that manner, is allowed to do so by building on farming land using low impact methods, like wood and mud buildings, straw bale, or even tents.
We are now looking if change of land use into a campsite, for example, is necessary, as this would create a lengthier and more complicated process for individuals, in a way it would be best if one were allowed to simply develop straight on agricultural land, because in most cases this is what one finds, so the local planning office needs to shed some light and be brought in on the scheme.
The idea is to use our own land and site, to use our experience in creating Eco-tourist campsites as a guinea pig. We intend to take a little more heat, in the hope that what we can establish here can later be copied elsewhere, saving others the time and hassle of going through the process.
We believe that because of the fact that rural communes in Italy usually lack the funds to fix the small roads and maintain them, a sort of deal can be struck where the small scale investor is asked to pay less tax to the commune from his business, in return to maintaining and developing those areas, with the understanding that because he or she developed the outreaches of the municipality it’s often hard to get all services to the site, and some kind of deal is struck so the investor can make a living, with consideration that in fact the municipality is asking the investor to develop some of its infrastructure in return.
The most important aspect for us is that we have created an actual pilot rather than another study. All too often all the available funds get lost on creating studies or on paying consultants, they make nice graphs and collect local projects that hope for funding, but in the end no local cooperation takes place, no network of local attractions is created and there is a lack of a central body to lead small scale innovation.
We believe those little green areas, those small time investors can become the hub of those networks in each municipality, it takes a certain type of individual or organisation to do that, but it’s often that sort of person that will go and live at the edge of society so to speak, a person that develops nature, that would focus on changing others too.
We have found others here too in Abruzzo, small scale organic projects. We were amazed to see that not only they worked their fields by hand, teach an endless string of volunteers. They have even got into the local administration in their municipality in order to change things in the village.
It’s that type of individuals that needs the help, that needs the funding, people who spend years dedicating themselves to save nature, saving seeds of ancient grains, learning traditions, talking to the locals, helping in their fields.
We are now looking to create a network across Southern Europe, one that is going to use Eco-tourism to change local communities, we are looking for small operators, people trying to find a place to build a small organic farm, to own a small campsite in nature, but also bigger cooperations and funding bodies. We aim to help the region change some by-laws and make planning for that sort of tourism applications easier, to create laws that allow one to build eco buildings and low impact structures for tourism on agricultural land, without the need for change of use, we hope to establish a sort of network, of similar projects, so as to have a power in mass, to create this as a platform for change.
It is an amazing experience to be able to help a whole region. We are now not only operating our own site (also called Heartland) but also working with the Heartland association to promote all green issues in Abruzzo. We are part-organisers of the Naturafest Abruzzo festival, which takes place this year on the 1-2 of October in the town of Lanciano. This festival is a sort of gathering of all the local organic and small scale tourist operators, a window for us to bring those issues to the public, and to come together as a whole.
If you are interested in co-operating, if you too are part of a rural community that needs to find sustainable progress, we are open to working with you, to help you implement the same methods to reach greener goals. You can view some of our work on http://spiritsintent.com/group-consciousness/
The website also has our contact details for anyone who wants to get in touch. The Heartland association has been created to focus on those issues, feel free to get in contact to become a member or if you need some help to establish a similar project because those are the aims of our Association, to help Southern Europe to make a rural stand.
Author: Nitsan Morag (Spirits Intent)