Are the Old Continent’s farmers showing that they have a real entrepreneurial spirit and serving as role models of courage and innovation during the Great Recession? Surely not all of them, but there are some inspiring examples to be found in Central and Southern Europe.
This is somewhat surprising as Europe’s agricultural sector is usually among the most traditional, least open to market innovation and product flexibility, and heavily reliant on EU funding to keep the sector competitive. Alas, European leadership in international food trade has been slowly whittled down in the last 3-4 decades.
Some European farmers, however, are resilient and are pulling rabbits out of hats these days by risking and investing heavily to implement creative new forms of business on their farms – many of which had been on the brink of failure.
It is primarily the French and Italians who are showing their true entrepreneurial spirit and vocation to agriculture. They appear to be some of the most tenacious and creative. Just like the Michigan dairy farmer, Brad Morgan, the protagonist of Acton’s documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, these farmers have turned to undervalued and completely overlooked assets to build lucrative profit-making ventures that often double and triple their old incomes. They have begun reshaping the way their traditional industry operates, and at a time when Europe has lost its competitive edge to cheaper food suppliers from Africa and South America.
Making matters worse has been the total evaporation of their once abundant workforce. In France, for example, rural industry employees currently make up a mere 3% of the nation’s workers, when it once boasted over 40% at the turn of the last century (cf. August 2010 Time article “How to Save Rural France”). And figures for those farmers who have registered as operating “professional” establishments in France’s campagne have dropped from 2,000,000 to 350,000 in the last fifty years. As noted out in a 2006 Acton commentary (“French ‘Security’ and Economic Reality”), this is not at all surprising: the vast majority of France’s youth dream of careers as civil servants, or want to secure life-long union protected contracts, and furthermore claim to generally dislike or distrust free market economics.
A final blow to European farming may come in a few years when the industry’s most heavily relied upon system of public subsidy – the Common Agricultural Policy – is set to undergo reform in 2013. And no one is quite certain what the consequences may be, as EU finance officials nudge the sector to become more competitive and market orientated.
Just what are they doing?
While some major industries in France, like auto manufacturing, have received generous public subsidies to remain competitive, French farmers are beginning to rely on their entrepreneurial spirit and genuine vocation to agriculture to turn their sector around.
They are achieving this by doing exactly what entrepreneurs are called to do: take risks through investment and creatively diversify their business offerings to customers.
For example, entrepreneurial farmers in the southern Ile-de-France grain producing region have utilized the bucolic beauty of their wavy golden fields and soft rolling hillsides to create profit-making ventures. The same beauty that inspired France’s great impressionnistes, now lures thousands of international vacationers to their prime holiday centers built out of once dilapidated grain storage facilities with glorious hill-top views.
It is these same farmers who are using abandoned wheat and barley fields as horse riding tracks. They are converting their dusty old barns into equestrian club houses. Others, like Rabourdin farms in Brie, have added premium beer making facilities to their production portfolios and now attract thousands to their own micro brew facilities and connoisseurs can order their products on-line.
While interviewed for the same Time article, agricultural entrepreneur Bernadette Porchelu said that for her Basque-country farm to succeed “it required a lot of work and investment.”
“But now,” she says, “We are hustling to keep up with the demand and have more than doubled our income. When we first decided to make this move, everyone said we’d fail. Today I wonder how most farms will survive if they don’t undertake similar diversification –which may be why some of our visitors include fellow farmers asking us how we made it work.”
It’s not just the French
One of Italy’s leading agricultural entrepreneurs hailing from Rome, Annibale Gozzi, says that while France is making headlines with its creative agrotourism, Italy is not lagging too far behind.
He says that “neither can Italian farms keep up with fierce international competition in food production…Manual farm labor in other parts of the world is ten times cheaper than in Italy and we simply cannot compete even with our tremendous advances farming methods and technology.”
“We too have been forced to try different things and strive for the full integration of our products, services and assets.”
Those farms that are most successful, like Gozzi’s own agrotourism south of Rome, Villa Germaine, are the ones that have become full-scale “multi-function” operations in addition to producing traditional agriculture.
Referring to his own agriculture establishment as an example, Gozzi says he has risked huge amounts of capital to maximize his farm’s business to include “integrative products and services” such as farming courses, horse riding, premium viticulture and olive oil production, tuffa cave wine and cheese tasting facilities, as well as a full-service hotel and restaurant. His establishment now even regularly hosts business luncheons and wedding receptions with lavish menus featuring his own fresh meat and produce.
He says he does this with dedication and pride, a dream to “do a first-class job for what I love”. Gozzi’s thriving business at Villa Germaine not only has allowed him to maximize his farm’s assets and profits, but truly exemplifies what it means to combine entrepreneurial spirit and tradition all in the same business.
He adds that Italians are catching on to but this type of inventiveness, “but it is still much more appreciated by foreigners and France is clearly leading the way.”
Why they really do it
Vastly increasing revenue has been a driving factor for the survival of European farmers – especially knowing their major public financial support may dramatically change in a few years’ time and as their industry is being swept away by international competition.
Even if Europe’s few remaining die-hards simply had more public financing, it doesn’t mean they would come out on top. It has not worked for decades and surely it does not provide the answer to their future.
Rather, we must follow the lead of those real entrepreneurs who in the toughest economic times are true to their vocation and come up with ingenious solutions to their sector’s woes. If there is a future at all, they are providing viable alternatives. And to do so, they must not only be highly creative. They must also be willing to take risks –a courageous attitude undertaken by those who genuinely live out a vocation and exhibit a real passion for their trade.
(This article is the first of a regular monthly series dedicated to entrepreneurship in Europe.)