Rural Development and Alternative Agriculture in Italy: Cultivating the Future by Governing Expectations of Change

Photo by Michele F. Fontefrancesco.

In the wake of the “Friday for Future” demonstrations across the world, as well as the shift in food consumption driven by consumers’ new preference for organic, local, and sustainable products (Corvo 2015), the future of agriculture has emerged as an important topic in contemporary public debate. This discussion has centered on the potential of alternative forms of agriculture, such as biodynamic or organic farming. The reason for the success of these forms may be their capacity to address the angst concerning food safety and resilience and to provide a larger profit margin for small and big farmers alike. However, to understand fully this change, it is necessary to interrogate the motivations that move rural communities to embrace these alternative forms of agriculture in a broader context of persistent socioeconomic marginalization.

At a global level, agriculture is currently undergoing deep transformations in order to cope with the challenges posed by an unstable international order, a highly volatile food commodity market, and the impact of climate change (FAO 2018a), not to mention issues related to depopulation, aging, and the socioeconomic marginalization of rural communities (FAO 2018b). In this context, competition among different production models, ascribable to alternative economic paradigms, has shaped the industry in the past decade (Gibson and Alexander 2019). As in the case of Mexican farmers and corn growing, this change is reshaping the very way in which peasant communities perceive their agricultural production and landscape, in terms of food security, food sovereignty, market dependency, and biodiversity conservation (Baker 2013). This shift in economic paradigms has generally changed the way rural communities envision their future and mobilize to build it. This paper argues that these current agricultural transformations shed light on a specific affective economy (Ahmed 2004), in which hope (Miyazaki 2004) plays a pivotal role. Drawing from my current work on rural communities in Italy, I argue that it is hope that motivates farmers to adopt new methods of production and cultivation. In doing so, farmers are attracted by the larger profit margins offered by organic and artisanal products, which they see as their last possibility for coping with the effects of persistent socioeconomic marginalization. However, in this hopeful attempt to change farming techniques, farmers often overlook the possible negative outcomes of the change. My research, thus, examines the limits and the double-edged nature of hope as a community driver.

Since 2012, my research has focused on exploring rural development in the so-called “internal areas” in Italy. These are rural areas which, despite their natural resources and heritage, are characterized by the scarcity of public and private services and infrastructure; remoteness from the main urban centers; and economic marginality (Monaco and Tortorella 2015; Vincenti 2018). Notwithstanding the constant rise in productivity in Italian agriculture (Farolfi and Fornasari 2011), this sector plays a secondary role in the present job market. While in 1871 over 70 percent of the active population was working in agriculture, this number decreased to around 40 percent in 1951 (Bravo 2001) and only 5 percent in 2019 (ISTAT 2019). This decline is, first of all, the result of the precarization of work in agriculture over the past century, which resulted in a rural exodus that depopulated the countryside, in particular the “internal areas” (Bravo 2001, 115–26). As a result of depopulation, age, and impoverishment (Cagliero and Novelli 2012; Fontefrancesco 2015), farmers are unable to make but few and limited new investments. In this context, rural development, as well as the very subsistence of rural communities, is in danger.

In the recent past, the internal areas were subject to specific national initiatives designed to give them extraordinary support. In particular, in 2013, the national government formulated the so-called Strategia Nazionale per le Aree Interne (National Strategy for the Internal Areas), which focused on specific objectives and target areas financing the construction of new transportation and communication infrastructures, as well as sustaining education and health services (Vincenti 2018). Scholars, for their part, have pointed out possible alternative or complementary grassroots strategies to revitalize these marginal areas (e.g., De Rossi 2018). Particular attention has been given to the valorization of local food productions (Grasseni 2016). In the wake of a new demand for “genuine,” “artisanal,” and “traditional” food in urban centers (Corvo 2015), alternative farm systems and gastronomy appear as a “light at the end of the tunnel” for rural communities (Fontefrancesco 2019a).

Alternative farm systems turned out to be at the center of a new affective economy inflected by hope, which interweaves farmers, their land, and their products. Feelings such as hope work “through their circulation between subjects and objects, to assign affective value” (Peeren 2019, 835). Rural communities are thus placing their hope in these new farming techniques, recognizing new value in their land, which is otherwise on the verge of abandonment, considering a promise of success coming from new markets.

Hope is not just an individual feeling. It can be considered a collective, cultural strategy of coping. Based on his work with Sovavou people seeking compensation from the government in Fiji for the loss of their ancestral lands, Hirokazu Miyazaki (2004) suggests thinking hope as a specific cultural process. This process corresponds to an individual and collective method of radical cognitive reorientation. Hope, here, is a proactive and generative attitude toward tomorrow (Lempert 2018). On a collective level, through hope, a community prefigures its future and plans the actions needed to reach its goals. On an individual level, hope defines life trajectories, maintains self-esteem, and, as suggested by Miyazaki and Annelise Riles (2005), supports individuals’ capacities to orient their knowledge and autobiography toward the achievement of specific objectives that underpin the imagination of the future (Okely 1992).

In many rural communities, progressive marginalization, impoverishment, and aging are commonly described with emphatic terms. This mirrors the “apocalyptic turn” that afflicts broad segments of Western society (Lynch 2012). However, these ways of imagining the future are more than simply an expression of growing anxiety about what will come. They are, I argue, a formulation of a sense of place, that is, the sensorial and biographic understanding of a local landscape (Basso 1996). This sense of place is shared by most people who witnessed their rural villages being abandoned and taken over by wildlife. Villages have lost large part of their populations as hundreds of people have moved away, leaving behind material ruins and an entire way of life. New woods have slowly began growing over higher grazing lands and less productive fields (Fontefrancesco 2019c). Much like West Virginian former miners feel haunted by the rusty ruins of the mining industry that are an integral part of the landscape in the Appalachian Mountains (Stewart 1996), empty houses and new forests in the internal villages of Italy haunt as reminders of a lost past and as visible signs of the fragility of the present.

The rural landscape, in this account, is a haunting presence that always reminds people of the vitality that their communities have lost. In a context in which other forms of economic development—such as those generated by manufacturing or service industries—are precluded, alternative farming techniques turn out to be the main subject of rural communities’ hope. Considering the new demand for organic and artisanal foods, new forms of agriculture and cultivation promise a rural renaissance, that is, a different, reconnected future.

In this context, it is hope that motivates farmers to make new investments in order to accrue larger profits from the international food market (Fontefrancesco 2019b). However, as the effects of the Zambian copper industry crash have taught us (Ferguson 1999), expectations of modernity may be ill-founded in a context of volatile markets. Thus, the meaning of the farmers’ search for and experimentation with new production methods is ambivalent. It should be read not only as a sign of the remaining vitality of the rural world but also as an inkling of its extreme vulnerability. This shows the double-edged nature of hope. On the one hand, in the context of widespread marginalization lived by farmers, hope is a strong driver to mobilize communities and foster change. However, on the other hand, it can be a siren’s song that risks monopolizing the community’s attention. Farmers’ hope that alternative techniques will re-invigorate agricultural markets may belie poor yields because of the local environment’s inadequacy for the cultivation of new crops, or economic failure due to intensifying competition or change in market trends. Hope is thus fundamentally ambivalent: at once projecting farmers toward the future and underestimating the possible negative outcomes of investments in new cultivations and alternative farming techniques.


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