These days, Tuscany is everything but flexible in its effort to pull the local economy out of the doldrums. Traditional manufacturing sectors are on their knees, and the mainstays of the Tuscan economy, especially tourism, are suffering. Tourism has been hit with both the recent crisis of the American dollar and the gradual opening up of alternative destinations with eager-to-please personnel, fascinating itineraries, gorgeous landscapes and bargain prices. Further, the Tuscan tertiary sector still tends toward local and domestic market opportunities rather than the international or global marketplace and has yet to establish true excellence in any specific service area.
However, what Tuscany is known for worldwide, perhaps above all else, is its superb food: gastronomic delights, centuries-old culinary wizardry, and magical Mediterranean munchies. It’s all delicious and, best of all, it’s all made using homegrown ingredients. So what of Tuscany’s agricultural sector? While the 1980s and 1990s saw the general plundering of Tuscan farmhouses and to some extent land for conversion into luxury homes, hotels and pseudo-agritouristic enterprises, the new millennium has brought real innovation and development to the local agricultural industry. The Tuscan regional council envisions a very different future for agriculture: a countryside choc-a-bloc with ?kibbutz’ style setups bursting with local niche-market flavors such as saffron and white truffle, eco-services and multifunctional activities strictly tied to tourism activities such as farmhouse holiday homes and wine trails.
Therefore, an important prospect for the stimulation of the local economy is returning to the Tuscan roots of ?living off the land.’ The authenticity of Tuscan cuisine is entirely dependent on the availability of high-quality local ingredients. This is a marvelous resource, culturally and perhaps also financially if Tuscany plays its cards right. Moreover, state financial aid for the development of this sector is available. A regional call for state funding proposals foresees a grand total of 3 million euro to be spent on the sector in marketing and ICT consultancy for the period 2010-2011 (up to 80 percent of total costs may be covered for a total maximum state contribution of 1500 euro per applicant). It is a small sum for individual applicants, but the fact that farmers are being encouraged to invest in consultancy, not just seeds, is a promising sign.
Many Tuscan products also have a promising profit margin. For example, both truffles and saffron are big investment favorites, as they require a modest amount of terrain and a relatively low investment (10,000- 15,000 euro to start up a truffle business), yet yield great returns. Further, individual sectors are increasingly promoting programs specifically created to assist certain niche farming industries with organizations like Tuscan Young Farmers and Women in the Field.
By the end of the this millennium’s first decade, Tuscan agriculture can boast a turnover of nearly 3 billion euro by approximately 80,000 companies (30 percent of which are managed by women) working off 800,000 hectares of land. Better yet, over those 10 years, production has increased by over 10 percent and has increased its added value by roughly 20 percent.
The sector is looking good-targeted and compact; there are about 25 percent fewer companies operating now than at the beginning of the millennium. Exports appear promising as well, with increases in major products-wine, olive oil and other alimentary products. These commodities tend to be targeted towards the traditional markets of North America, Europe and Japan. This means that there is still room for growth within burgeoning markets across the globe, such as Eastern Europe, including Russia, as well as China, India, Korea and Brazil.
Renewed agricultural activity-not just increasing turnover for old style production, but actually creating new ?green’ activities-may be able to absorb a good portion of the current surplus in graduates from Italian universities, meaning increased graduate employment. Today in Italy, there is one lawyer per 283 inhabitants, the highest ratio in Europe. Producing more lawyers for a saturated market makes no sense. The same is true in Tuscany for many other professional sectors such as architecture, medicine and accounting.
These days, better an overqualified farmer than an unemployed professional. Who knows-given the change in emphasis on agricultural activity, farmers might just become the professional leaders of the future!