Go Rural for Business - Blog
Do Italians Do It Better? by Jillian McEwan, Fresh Food Express
21st October 2015
"A Million Yeses!", was my answer when Caroline Miller, founder of Go Rural asked me to take part in a learning journey to Tuscany. Farmer and entrepreneur, Caroline has literally taken the bull by the horns, to create and shape Scotland's agritourism sector, following a life changing trip to Italy. It was during this trip, as part of her Nuffield scholarship, that Caroline discovered first hand how Italian farmers had successfully diversified in agritourism, boosting their income through offering farm tours, cook schools, holiday accommodation and onsite restaurants showcasing their homegrown produce.
Returning back to Scotland full of ideas, Caroline launched Go Rural, an initiative to help grow the agritourism sector in Scotland with the overall objective of improving the profitability, productivity and sustainability of the farm, estate or croft business. Over the passed two years, Caroline and her team have helped over 80 farmers with holiday accommodation, farm shops, activity centres and farm diversification projects improve their businesses.Caroline is passionate about rural businesses sharing knowledge and expertise working collaboratively to develop an agritourism sector in Scotland that, one day with rival Italy's success. For that reason, Go Rural facilitated a knowledge transfer trip to Tuscany and Umbria with 12 rural business owners from Scotland, and we were one of the lucky businesses (along with support from Business Angus.)
Coming from an online retail business based on our farm that specialises in supporting small food producers, many of which are fellow farmers, this trip was a dream come true. We visited several farms all with slightly different approaches to agritourism. Ranging from the very traditional to more innovative (or as one farmer called it trad-innovative).
The common theme that I observed during our visit was the love that all of the small farmers had for their businesses, and how they conveyed their passion in their excellent storytelling skills. The passion came from all of the farmers that we met, but the one who resonated the most with me was Sandra, probably the most hard working person I've met. Even after an 18 hour day of farming her organic land, taking tours, managing her farm restaurant, facilitating her cook schools, producing world class cheese, speaking three languages and coordinating her ad hoc volunteers, you can tell she completely loves what she does.
I was inspired by her self determination to create a multi-faceted successful business from very little. Sandra's a real self starter in every sense, who's managed to stay true to her ethics.
Refreshing Approach to Farmers' Markets
The most eye-opening experience of the whole trip came after an extremely early start to a local Farmers' Market....
A successful working example of Italian businesses working cohesively was apparent in the farmers’ market that I visited in Perugia, Italy. All Italian farmers’ markets are managed by the Italian equivalent of the National Farmers’ Union in the UK. In the UK, our farmers’ markets are run primarily by privately owned businesses that specifically manage one, or sometimes two, regional markets.
When I met with the producers at a small farmers market in Perugia, I was stunned to discover that the Italian stallholders only pay 250 euros per year to attend any market in the whole of Italy. This annual fee allows the farmer to sell their produce at any market in the country, with no limitation on the frequency of events that they choose to attend.
To put the Italian model in context with the Scottish approach to farmers’ markets, if you are regular stallholder at Scottish farmers’ market, you can pay anywhere in the range of £80-200 per one day event. Furthermore, there are strict rules involving the where the produce is made, with producers from that region given priority over those who are not.
In my experience, I have been charged £180 just to host a stall at long established farmers’ market in Scotland. Under the rules placed by the market organisers, I was restricted from selling any produce at the event, as the stall fee was based on promotional activity only. In addition to the cost of marketing material, free customer samples and staff costs, this single farmers market cost me in excess of £500, with a ROI remaining to be seen.
The agency that organises the Italian farmers’ market allows vendors from various farms to sell similar produce to their neighbours. I think this is an excellent approach as it gives the consumer choice and helps support all small food producers not just a select few. In the small market that I attended, there were two fruit and veg stalls, and two cheese producers; all offering similar products, and all stallholders were busy with customers frequenting all stalls.Unfortunately, the Scottish farmers’ market organisers do not take the same approach to their Italian counterparts. In my experience, if you are a selling produce similar to another existing vendor at the market, the organizer does not allow you to rent space. One of my suppliers was banned from attending a farmers’ market, which they’d dutifully attended for 10 years and built up a significant customer base. The reason for this treatment was down to a competitor stallholder complaining to the organisers that they had loss trade to the competition.
Interestingly, only farmers can attend the farmers’ markets in Italy. This contrasts with Scottish farmers’ market who allow non-food producers such as crafters, and other non-farming businesses to rent space. To a certain extent, I personally prefer the Italian approach as maintains the true essence of the farmers market. It helps reconnect the consumer with the origin of the food they buy; something I feel my generation has lost. Furthermore, restricting the market to only farmers selling their produce helps educate the consumer on seasonality of food.Farmers markets in Scotland are seen as an exclusive shopping event for foodies or a family day-out for browsers, rather than a readily accessible alternative to the supermarkets, for all consumers. One caveat I have is that fisherman should not be restricted from selling at farmers’ market, as these small producers should be equally supported.
The differences that I observed between farmers markets in Italy may just be the superficial ones, but on the surface certainly appear to support small farmers rather than impede them. With further investigation, I may discover that Italian farmers involved in the markets are also faced with the same challenges and biases as us. On the whole, working in this collaboration manner without financial trading barriers and giving the consumer choice certainly appears to be more fruitful to both the farmer, and local and national economy than our current situation in Scotland.
To answer my question, "Do Italian Do It Better?", yes, they certainly do when it comes to their business model for their farmers' market compared to Scotland.
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