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The Global Economy Vs. Pasta's Heartland


Letter From Italy

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY VS. PASTA'S HEARTLAND

It's hard to turn your back on a rich family history. Mine is rooted here in Basilicata, a historically poor Southern Italian region, about four hours by car from Rome. I've come to see the harvest and to learn how a way of life may be passing. Farming has always been a risky business, but truly devastating forces are now at work. In the name of free trade, the price supports and subsidies that have helped keep farming here viable will soon disappear. And creeping industrialization is changing the character of the region.

Here in the northern part of Basilicata, farmers have been raising durum wheat, the kind ground into semolina flour for pasta, for 2,500 years. Now, in an effort to compromise with U.S. demands and unblock the Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade talks, the European Community plans to reduce cereal prices by 29% in three years and abolish uncompetitive price supports. The EC will make up some of the loss with direct-income subsidies, but farmers here say they will be squeezed severely. The subsidies will be based on an average output per acre, discouraging production over that threshold and limiting sales. What's more, to qualify for the subsidies, farms bigger than about 50 acres will have to let 15% of their land lie fallow.

My family's 650-acre Santa Maria farm is one of the largest in the area and won't be the hardest hit. "It's the farms that are 75 acres or less that will really suffer," says Antonio Lopomo, president of the farmers union in nearby Palazzo San Gervasio and owner of a 250-acre farm. "With high and increasing costs for labor, fuel, and chemical products, and prices going down, a family of four can't live off its land," he says. For example, it now costs close to $80 a day to hire a farm worker, partly because of high social security taxes.

WORRIED MIND. Some farmers are even more pessimistic. "I don't know if we can all get to 1994 with breakeven results," says Vito Rosa, a retired agronomist from the nearby town of Lavello. "If we do, we'll be able to breathe. If not, a lot of farms will go." Even though he rotates other crops with durum wheat to get three harvests every two years, he makes barely any profit on his own 150 acres.

While the average farm in Italy is 19 acres, some farms down here are as small as three acres. But with rising costs and falling prices, can anyone live off such small tracts? "You can't, you have to work," says our tractor driver, Nicola Loverre, a good-natured, smiling man in his mid-40s. His face goes sour when he tells me he barely covered the expenses of farming his few acres this year. His real living comes from being our part-time employee.

Some farmers in Loverre's position have given up their farms for factory work. But many extra-small farmers refuse to turn their backs on the land. "The sentimental aspect remains," says Lucia De Vita, who lives in Palazzo San Gervasio. Her husband, Rocco, sits at a desk all day running the town's agricultural consortium. Although their daughter has moved even further away from farming, going off to study law in Rome, where she plans to live, the family isn't quitting the farm. They still plant their 23 acres outside town for tradition's sake, without seeing a profit. I can understand this nostalgia. It's what compels my mother to make a twice-a-month trek here from Rome to check on our farm.

But I can see that a whole way of life is changing in this countryside, where the population has been shrinking since the 1960s as workers migrated to factories in the north. Now, industry is moving south. Fiat, for example, is getting government funding to build a huge factory in nearby Melfi. It will create 7,000 jobs and could dry up the agricultural labor force in the area.

HIGH GLUTEN. It's not just the loss of tradition and livelihood that local farmers complain about. They also say their special product ought to be preserved. Durum wheat from Canada and the U.S. is produced more cheaply, and Northern Italian farms produce greater quantities per acre. Still, the locals say, no other region can match the quality of the durum hereabouts. The key to quality is the high gluten content, which lends consistency to pasta. Italy's pasta industry imports cheaper semolina flour but always mixes some Italian durum in to get the right quality.

Still, in spite of their convictions and complaints, farmers are reluctant to help themselves. They have been slow to adopt new technologies and business practices. Many began mechanizing only in the last 10 years. "We have to go toward a greater entrepreneurship," says Vito Rosa. One suggestion has been to create a quality brand trademark for Basilicata's durum wheat. But pasta industries are reluctant to pay Italy's tax on trademarks for packaging.

Meanwhile, down the road on our farm, we're dealing with agriculture's usual problems. "It's a terribly difficult year," says my distant cousin Peppino Di Nardi, an agronomist who has run our farm for the past 11 years. He sighs while picking a stalk of wheat under an atypically cloudy July sky. The off-and-on rainy weather is seriously affecting the harvest this year. Coming after an unusual hot spell in May, when the wheat was still green, the cooling rain has stunted its growth and helped a fungus to spread. Commonly called foot disease, the fungus turns the "foot," or base of the stalk, black, forms soot-like specks on the ear, and further slows growth and ripening.

FARM OF THE FUTURE. Di Nardi pulls a pale orange, rice-like grain out of one of these sick ears and holds it out on his palm. "Nice!" I say enthusiastically. "No, this is junk!" he cries. "Good durum wheat should look like this," he tells me, pulling a few fatter grains out of a plastic bag. Having grown up in the U.S., this is my first experience with the wheat harvest, so I can't really tell the difference. Fortunately, I see with relief that not all the ears in the field have sooty specks.

Half an hour later, as I visit a small, crumbling farmhouse where no one has lived for decades, a downpour starts. It will be days before the wheat and land will be dry enough to resume harvesting. The delay could ruin the crop.

But in the midst of this grim picture, some don't give up. Says Rocco De Vita: "It's important that you come down and see the way things work in the country, because the future is yours. Sure, right now you work as a journalist, but one day that whole farm will be yours to run, and it's a farm with a future."

An ebullient optimist, De Vita thinks we can cash in on the latest trend for bucolic-hungry urbanites: "agricultural tourism." All we need do, says De Vita, is fix up the farm buildings for guests, build a swimming pool in our wheat field, and we'll be in business. Another bit of advice comes from a farmer who saunters into the office. "Be careful," he says when he hears the size of my farm, "watch out for dowry hunters."SABRINA KIEFER


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