I think one of the biggest conflicts of our work in rural areas is its success. Over the years we have helped so many projects, consulting them, building ecological campsites and even developing little organic farming with heritage wheats.
Rural Italy is a secret gem, a closely kept secret. What keeps it a secret is that it is harder to make money from your property in Italy. Whilst some countries like Portugal, facing similar issues in rural areas, have opened their cities and rural areas to foreigners, resulting in too much people flooding to their cities and rural areas and making those unavailable to locals, this has happened in so many places.
Rural Italy is cheap to buy in, yet expensive to develop. There are currently many grants and initiatives that are there to help one, but for some reason they are very hard to access in Italy, simply because there is a divide between government or regional policy and actual Comune and individuals.
We tend to advise our clients a more independent approach, we help them to look for the right grants where applicable but maintain that they would feel better being independent. We think that a successful farm based project usually has a cost of roughly 200,000 euros minimum to establish, in the cheapest areas, and about 500,000 euros elsewhere. We focus on some integration with farming where possible, even though many of our clients are foreigners, as we think that it gives them a deeper experience of life in Italy, it means they have to get involved, it brings them into a deeper understanding of the country and its amazing tastes.
We champion Heritage wheats on a farming level, it is not suitable for all properties. Plus it is hard for most to make money from, yet the concept is simple, we encourage our clients to build some niche market farming, something that can be sold at a higher price. Heritage wheat is a low input way into the Italian farming world. The problem with using heritage wheat, if the project aims to become an Agriturismo, is that the requirement for becoming a registered farm is of at least 10 hectares, which is probably the minimum out of which one can make a living anyway, especially as organic rotation does not allow one to grow wheat constantly, for most buying 10 hectares to begin with makes the investment too large. From a farming point of view more extensive cultivation like gardens, herbs, or even bees requires much less land for registration and so we advise people to mix things up a little. A few rows of medicinal herbs and chickens was what one of my clients kept to be able to justify being an Agriturismo. Whilst I think the scope is not in cheating the system, it is there to make sure rural areas in Italy will keep their traditional feel, in fact I would say the system on that level has worked perfectly.
I design projects as a mixed farm, in truth I think that heritage wheat should be grown in patches between orchards, with fruit and nut trees, creating a landscape that imitates nature, laced with water retention planing. We use older indigenous natural planing to design a small farm or project, making them a little like mini paradises, or how I like to call them machines made of earth, where the landscape itself works together. Water flows to where it is needed, and soil is built to enhance growing, in the middle of the best spots on the land little hospitality is created to allow for small scale tourism, with at least one local or typical product. Usually at this point a project could become sustainable, both in income and in its integration with local area.
An ecological campsite currently is one of the best ways to make money with low investment, with return on investment within the first year usually. In Italy those are best done through the Agritusmo scheme, as most rural properties are limited to the type of development by some criteria, those can be changed but the process could be lengthier.
I think there has been too much focus lately on how to become rich from rural living, which is a mistake, because global economy has made rural living available only to few. The new focus should be on how to turn rural living into the new front in the battle with climate change and decline in rural diversity. We need to erase the last 200 years of industrialisation as a format, and return to small homesteads that are sustainable, that work to enhance nature around the home, that create culture and society, yet none of this is possible unless the property in economically sustainable too. Unless of course it used as a retirement or a second home by someone that makes their living elsewhere, and in truth this is what most people who end up living in Italy say, it is a good country to retire to, but not one to work in.
A good campsite on your land can bring in as much as 50,000 euros a year with ease, and could be scaled further, at which point it is also becoming more of a distraction usually, but for some turning it into a focus is as enjoyable. Rural accommodation in B&B style is also another option that can bring in enough earnings to allow you to live well and focus on your homestead, it is also a good way for some people to battle the isolation they feel in rural areas, if they are foreigners buying into a traditional community. I encourage clients to take interest on all levels of rural life, to get involved in local policy, to try and change things, but not to aim to teach the locals, but instead to create a balance between helping them maintain a traditional life which is usually the reason why one has moved to one of those areas, and at the same time open up to being more Economically viable, once people understand you are there to help them, and that both you and them can only really succeed together, they feel better.
A good rural property should be a mixed business, which is hard to accomplish but worth the while, it needs to have or work it local farming, small scale hospitality, and I think it should also include some sort of manufacturing within it. It sounds like a lot to juggle, but in truth this is what a successful farm looks like, it is diversified and looks like a small rural estate that allows 5-10 people to work and live together in the same place. This could be easily achieved by collaborating with ones neighbours or moving to a new area with friends, even if business with friends is always a little harder.
I try to build at least three income streams into a project making sure it is sustainable, yet I try to help my clients away from the idea that they are there to make money, instead I try to help them understand that in the current state fo the world, living rurally and fighting for their land, working to create a small paradise, fighting climate change and preserving or even better building traditional values is really the only worthwhile battle. Getting involved on that level also opens another door to a project, because it aligns it with other similar projects, and unlike other activities it usually means you gain a host of friends immediately, I can now travel the length of Italy, or in fact of Europe between different projects and friends, some of them help me understand how things should be. We sit and eat some amazing cheese, or exchange sacks of heritage landrace wheats, exchange recipes, they tell me of their issues and I tell them mine, we fight this war together. In fact currently this is the only war to be fighting. I have worked with more than 300 campsites, and countless projects now, and more and more so this is what I would like to be doing, I try to charge little for consulting because my clients tend to turn into friends.