Learning from the Italians

By Marilyn Bay Wentz

Bigger is not necessarily better. Quality counts. Rural lifestyle and picturesque farm vistas are worth retaining.

These are some of the values repeatedly espoused to a group of ladies working in the areas of rural development and cooperatives as they toured rural areas and value-added cooperatives in northern Italy this past fall.

I had the privilege to be one of these eight women. Some were producers, some worked for cooperative organizations. Some worked in economic development. I am communications director of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Regardless of our specific areas of expertise, we all had an interest in learning economic, social and cooperative structures that could benefit family farmers and ranchers and their rural communities.

Organized by Cooperation Works!, the cooperative tour was a precursor to our attendance of the Third World Congress for Rural Women, Oct. 2-4, 2002, in Madrid, Spain. The tour of northern Italian cooperatives turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

In Italy, we visited a farmer-owned cooperative that produced and distributed Parmesan cheese and another that produced and sold a wide variety of table wines. We discussed the role of cooperatives in society with Professor Stephano Zamagni, a leading thinker and lecturer in the area of social economics.

Despite his role as an advocate of cooperative development, Zamagni told us, “There needs to be a variety of ‘species’ in the sea.” He believes cooperatives are most effective in industries requiring minimal capital investments and large amounts of labor, whether farm or industrial. “Corporations, on the other hand, are probably best serving industries with high capital needs, such as automobile manufacturing,” he said.

Throughout Italy, 8-10 percent of Gross Domestic Product is from the cooperative sector. In the Emilia Romagna region it is estimated to be much higher, as much as double that of the national percentage.

“Italian consumers have more trust of products produced by cooperatives,” said Zamagni.

We also visited a center that coordinates and encourages cooperative activity through innovation, research, and marketing. Interestingly, this center receives a great deal of its funding from the government, who sees the center as playing a central role in economic development and social services for the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. The cooperative system has been so successful and trusted by citizens throughout the region that the national government in many cases provides funding for social services—such as the care of the mentally disabled and the elderly—directly to worker-owned cooperatives. The satisfaction among service recipients in these types of cooperatives is much higher than in areas where these services are provided by government institutions.

While cooperative managers and leaders with whom we spoke were cognizant of the need to be competitive with non-co-op products, they appeared to be more focused on delivering a higher quality product and superior service than on producing foods at the lowest price.

The trust of cooperative products and services, the desire for quality and the tremendous level of private and public support of cooperatives has resulted in a prosperous society. The Emilia Romagna region has the highest levels of employment, the least poverty and the highest educational levels in Italy.

The question is which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the attitudes of social justice, working for the benefit of all, and taking care of those less fortunate create the climate for successful cooperatives or did the cooperative mentality lay the groundwork for a successful, more egalitarian society?

According to Zamagni, it really is a chicken and egg scenario. The societal thought system creates fertile ground for successful cooperatives and this makes individuals more aware of the needs of others and willing to provide for these needs.

The next question I had to ask myself was what do I take back from this experience that will benefit RMFU members. Western farmers and ranchers are certainly charitable, but I have to say that we pride ourselves more on rugged individualism than creating a society that is profitable for all. Our history, geography and culture, and thus our philosophy, is very different from the Italians of the Emilia Romagna region, yet I believe there are things we can learn:
Bigger is not necessarily better.

The teaching that only those who expanded would be able to survive has not held true. In fact, some of the biggest producers have gone down the hardest. Expansion required them to mortgage their heritage, and many have lost it all.

While in Italy, we spoke with someone who told us that a family could support itself on the wool grown from a flock of 200 sheep. We know this is not feasible here, but maybe we need to ask why it is not and work toward changes in our system.
Quality counts.

I mentioned that we visited a Parmesan cheese factory. The Parmesan cheese vats we saw piled to the ceiling weighed 38 kilograms (about 84 pounds) and had a wholesale value of hundreds of dollars each. When I went to a shop in town to buy a slice, it cost nearly $22 per pound. During the visit I asked what the other seven were thinking, “Why can we buy Parmesan cheese in a can in the United States much more cheaply than your Parmesan cheese?”

The response was emphatic, “That’s not real Parmesan cheese.” The tour guide went on to outline the protocol for “real” Parmesan cheese, including cattle grazing on certain types of grasses on the north side of the river, etc., etc. This protocol, which is translated as product identity, has kept Italian farmers in business for years. More than 200 products are so defined. Italians and other Europeans are willing to pay for these specialty products.

The product identity system is so important to the Italian agriculture sector that the Italian government recently brought suit against the European Union to ensure protection of this program and the farmers who benefit from it. The Italians won the suit.

Rural lifestyle and picturesque farm vistas are worth retaining.

Ask any Italian—city dweller or rural citizen—and he or she will unequivocally tell you that maintaining picturesque rural farms is important to them and an area in which the government must be involved. Many Italian farm families supplement their income through tourist ventures (bed and breakfasts, hunting) and value-added, on-farm processed food sales.

Not everything in the Italian model is applicable to farmers and ranchers in our area, but some of the products and marketing ideas can provide food for thought in our cooperative and economic development arenas. It also is refreshing to understand the Italian way of thinking about the value of family-farm agriculture as an important part of society.