One-Third Fewer Olive Farms in Italy Now Than in 2010, Report Finds

Rising production costs and changing dynamics in the sector explain the decreasing number of groves. The new Common Agricultural Policy may help reverse the situation.
Abandoned farmhouse, Caltanissetta, Italy
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jul. 13, 2022 15:08 UTC

Increasing inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and quickly chang­ing mar­ket dynam­ics have pro­foundly affected the Italian agri­cul­tural land­scape in recent years.

Small fam­ily farms con­tribute less than they ever have to over­all agri­cul­tural out­put. Many small pro­duc­ers face ris­ing costs of inno­va­tion, automa­tion and dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, while larger com­pa­nies have absorbed oth­ers.

The olive tree remains essen­tial to our agri­cul­ture, but com­pet­i­tive­ness from abroad is affect­ing the sec­tor.- Roberto Gismondi, , agri­cul­tural sta­tis­tics divi­sion direc­tor, Istat

Between 2010 and 2020, the num­ber of active farms fell from 1.6 mil­lion to 1.1 mil­lion. Previous data col­lected by the National Institute of Statistics (Istat) from 1982 show Italy had 3.1 mil­lion active farms at the time.

While a con­stant reduc­tion in farm num­bers was reported in the last 40 years, the pre­vi­ous decade’s 30-per­cent drop is a sig­nif­i­cant accel­er­a­tion of a process that is reshap­ing the sec­tor.

See Also:Italy Prepares to Sell 800 Farms to Young Farmers

While their quan­tity reduces, farms are get­ting big­ger, with the aver­age farm cov­er­ing 11 hectares com­pared to eight in 2010 and five in 1982.

According to the Seventh Survey of Agricultural Italy 2010/2020, the num­ber of Italian olive farms is also falling quickly.

In the past decade, the num­ber of olive grow­ers fell from 902,075 to 61,368, a 31 per­cent drop. The over­all amount of land ded­i­cated to olive grow­ing has also decreased, drop­ping from 1,123,330 hectares to 994,318. Olive grow­ing has lost 11.5 per­cent of its actively-used sur­face in the last decade.

Over the same period, total agri­cul­tural and poten­tially usable land areas have fallen by 21 and 36 per­cent, respec­tively. However, these drops have not come as a sur­prise.

We have been focus­ing on active farms at a time when many agri­cul­tural lands are aban­doned, not cur­rently in use or kept by their own­ers wait­ing for a bet­ter moment to invest in agri­cul­ture,” Roberto Gismondi, direc­tor of the agri­cul­tural sta­tis­tics divi­sion of Istat, told Olive Oil Times.

The reduc­tion of the sur­face area comes from the grow­ing chal­lenge of man­ag­ing a field oper­a­tion with­out a true agri­cul­tural busi­ness, sense of entre­pre­neur­ship or a ded­i­ca­tion to spend time on the field,” he added. Many aban­don their lands or do not use all of them at the same time.”

Family farms and sin­gle-indi­vid­ual com­pa­nies went from occu­py­ing 76 per­cent of avail­able land in 2010 to 73 per­cent in 2020. Meanwhile, larger com­pa­nies expanded from 14 per­cent of agri­cul­tural sur­face area to 18 per­cent, with cap­i­tal com­pa­nies also increas­ing from 2.7 to 3.6 per­cent.

The aver­age size of a small farm is cur­rently 8.6 hectares, com­pared with 42 hectares for larger com­pa­nies.

Generally, larger agri­cul­tural com­pa­nies have higher resilience to mar­ket tur­bu­lence and more oppor­tu­ni­ties to invest and inno­vate.

Being small is more dif­fi­cult than ever as the com­pe­ti­tion from for­eign pro­duc­ers is con­stantly grow­ing, and the ris­ing prices of raw mate­ri­als are also chal­leng­ing,” Gismondi said.

Our agri­cul­ture comes from fam­ily-man­aged farms, which is chang­ing over time,” he added. The Covid-19 pan­demic and the war are greatly accel­er­at­ing a process of farms merg­ing and entre­pre­neur­ship con­cen­tra­tion.”

Almost 800,000 com­pa­nies in Italy cul­ti­vate tree crops on a total sur­face of 2.1 mil­lion hectares, with an aver­age farm cov­er­ing 2.7 hectares. In Puglia and Calabria, olive trees account for 70 per­cent of the over­all wood­land sur­face.


Gismoldi attrib­uted the decreas­ing num­ber of olive farms and olive groves to the spread of Xylella fas­tidiosa in some parts of Puglia.

On top of that, we have many aban­don­ing their lands,” he said. Think of the fam­i­lies who used to grow dozens of olive trees for their own use. Sometimes they find the costs exceed the ben­e­fit, and the cur­rent cli­mate con­di­tions do not help those who would choose oth­er­wise.”

The olive tree remains essen­tial to our agri­cul­ture, but com­pet­i­tive­ness from abroad is affect­ing the sec­tor,” Gismondi added. When we look at olive oils sold in Italian super­mar­kets, we can see that 80 to 90 per­cent do not come from Italian olives but get sold because they are cheaper.”

In other agri­cul­tural sec­tors, merg­ing smaller pro­duc­ers into larger farms brings quick results. However, this is not the case in the olive oil sec­tor.

Such mar­ket oper­a­tions in the tree crop sec­tors are slower, espe­cially with olive trees, as many olive groves are not man­aged by a com­pany at all, unlike other crops and arable land,” Gismondi said.

The change in Italian agri­cul­ture is also demon­strated by its work­force dynam­ics as the sec­tor moves away from fam­ily farm dynam­ics. In 2010, 24 per­cent of agri­cul­tural work­ers were not part of a fam­ily farm. Now that fig­ure is 47 per­cent.

Such num­bers show a gen­er­a­tional change. Still, we are see­ing a sig­nif­i­cant over­all work­force short­age,” Gismondi said, refer­ring to the 29 per­cent drop in the over­all num­ber of agri­cul­tural work­ers from 2010 to 2020.

This short­age is an aspect of pri­mary rel­e­vance,” he added. We still see dif­fi­cul­ties due to Covid-19. On top of that, there are oppor­tu­ni­ties for agri­cul­tural sea­sonal work­ers in other European coun­tries and reduced incen­tives in Italy for work­ers to work on farms. To solve this, we need a new spirit of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship.”

However, the European Union’s lat­est Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) could pro­vide new oppor­tu­ni­ties for cre­ative agri­cul­tural entre­pre­neurs by pro­vid­ing funds more strictly related to how farms are oper­ated than they were in the past.

In this decade, the CAP is mov­ing from heli­copter money for farm­ers to more spe­cific sup­port in favor of those com­pa­nies that have embraced goals such as envi­ron­men­tally-friendly agri­cul­ture or organic agri­cul­ture,” Gismondi said. This turn rep­re­sents a chal­lenge for small farms, and it might fuel the merg­ing of farms.”

Today, farm­ers have the oppor­tu­nity to redesign their pro­duc­tion sys­tems using a new logic, less focused on quan­tity and more on qual­ity,” he added. All of this requires pro­fes­sional train­ing and a spirit of sac­ri­fice. It asks farm­ers to read the mar­ket, under­stand its dynam­ics and see where they can best fit.”


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