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Dear CFS colleagues,
Please find below an example of grass root collective action for the production of high quality bread from wheat landraces in Tuscany (Italy).
Gianluca Stefani (University of Florence)
Dr. Gianluca Stefani (email@example.com) and Dr. Ginevra Lombardi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The University of Florence
Main responsible entity
Associazione Grani Antichi di Montespertoli (Association Ancient Grains of Montespertoli)
Grass root collective action mostly self financied by local actors and consumers, small funds and a favorable public food procurement policy were provided by the Municipality of Montespertoli
Tuscany- Italy - Southern Europe
In Italy we see a renewed interest towards ancient wheat varieties as a genetic pool that can prove useful both to adapt to climate change and to develop functional foods. There are many examples of rediscovery of ancient wheat varieties. Most of them are linked to territorially integrated short food supply chains involving different actors from farmers to consumers who join their efforts to set up sustainable wheat chains which conjugate environmental preservation, social inclusion and consumer health.
The short supply chain arrangement seems to have a comparative advantage vis-à-vis other organizational arrangements in terms of overcoming the higher transaction cost involved in producing and marketing highly differentiated products.
Montespertoli is a rural settlement located some 30 kilometres from Florence (Italy) that in the 50s was considered the granary of Florence. Its bread-making tradition was very well known all over central Tuscany. However, during the 60s its importance started to decline with the migration from agriculture towards non-agricultural sectors and from rural areas towards urban areas. In 2008 a local miller and a baker decided to differentiate the bread produced in Montespertoli switching to the ancient wheat landraces that had made the local bread well known in Florence and surrounding areas until mid XX century. With the help of the University of Florence they managed to involve few farmers in cropping ancient varieties and another baker. Lost traditional production techniques at every level of the chain (cropping, milling and baking) were reintroduced, assuring the conservation of local agro-biodiversity and soil fertility as well as the production of healthy, high quality bread.
Ancient varieties of wheat require appropriate cultivation techniques. They were bred in the 20s of the XX century when few if any chemical and mechanical inputs were available. These varieties are taller than modern varieties, more prone to fungal infections, more variable in both genotype and phenotype and quite less productive, at least from a merely quantitative point of view. As such, they can be considered a rather different crop from conventional, modern wheat, akin to an innovative minor crop. As other innovative minor crops ancient wheat varieties suffer from lack of codified technical knowledge, absence of market data, and uncertain economic perspectives.
Lack of codified knowledge is shared by the subsequent food chain actors: miller, baker, pasta maker and even consumers. To preserve all its nutritional characteristics wheat must be stone ground, a practice since long abandoned. Next, bread has to be made with sourdough and requires specific technique and longer rising times due to the peculiar technological properties of the flour.
The aim of the food chain is to produce high quality products at a fair price both for the local community and for the close town of Florence where bread and pasta are sold in selected outlet which assure a fair price policy. Healthy bread and pasta are also delivered to the local school canteen.
Key characteristics of the experience/process
Producing high quality bread from ancient wheat requires a set of complicated and interconnected tasks to be performed in the best way by different actors, it requires a good deal of coordination and a deep collaboration. Eventually consumers need to reintroduce in their diet a long-forgotten food, quite different in sensory characteristics from their conventional counterparts.
In 2013 a no profit association was created: the Ancient Grains of Montespertoli Association. The Association has the objective “to protect and help producers comply with the association guidelines and promote ancient grain products”. It also has a political role acting as a stakeholder between the chain and local government levels (mainly the Montespertoli municipality). Issuing specific technical guidelines for cultivation, milling, bread making and pasta making, the association regulates the behaviours of chain actors to maintain a high level of quality along the chain. This is the set of rules, which governs the common values/resource.
In addition also the distribution of the added value generated by the chain is negotiated within the association, which “makes sure that higher prices paid by consumers are transferred to the farmers”. Indeed the Association board decided to fix the price of wheat at a level able to assuring that most of the costs incurred by farmers were covered. It seems that the arrangement has performed quite well in assuring fair prices to farmers so far. Finally the Association release to processors a sticker that identify the products as made from ancient grains of Montespertoli.
Key actors involved and their role
The Montespertoli bread chain is based on a relatively small number of actors. If we exclude local consumers there are no more than 30 actors, among which we find 20 farmers, one miller, two bakers, two pastry makers, one pasta maker, the local municipality, an agronomist and a small group of researchers from the University of Florence. All of them joined the Association.
The leadership of the bread chain has been jointly exerted by the miller and one of the bakers at least in the start-up phase. We must acknowledge also the role of a researcher from the University of Florence, which provided the initial inspiration and technological knowledge necessary to switch to the ancient wheat varieties. Similarly a key role is played by an agronomist which has provided technical assistance to the farmers since the start of the initiative.
Key changes observed with regards to food security and nutrition and sustainable agriculture and food systems
The Montespertoli ancient wheat supply chain is a success story. Over 450 hectares are involved in the chain, more than 800 quintals of ancient grain are milled by the local miller and 600 quintals of bread baked by the two bakers of the chains. Quantities have been slowing rising since the inception of the initiative and soared in recent years.
There are two types of concerns with respect to quality assurance: compliance with the technical guidelines and brand reputation. The former is perceived as less relevant because farmers know each other personally and reputation mechanisms operate within the social network. However a form of participatory guarantee has been put in place. These system is associated with social processes such as: sharing information, techniques, and traditional knowledge, collective seed management and conservation and socialized prices. Conversely brand reputation is rather a sensitive issue as concerns the behaviour of few retailers outside the boundaries of the local community and of the local food chain. Brand reputation challenges arise when producers of Montespertoli contract with an outsider retailer. They have to check that the bread is sold safeguarding the distinctiveness of the product and the values that underpin it and at a fair price.
This is a case of successful grass root collective action which managed to revive an ancient tradition providing healthy and quality food to local communities and the near city. The group of chain actors give themselves a set of simple and effective rules to set the price level whereby the miller and bakers share the farmers’ production risk assuring the continuity and viability of the whole chain. In return, farmers agreed to have their field controlled by other members of the group in a sort of participatory guarantee scheme and to adopt new farming techniques and practices. High level of trust and reciprocity over time; as well as autonomy to decide at least some of their rules provided the key ingredients for the successful management of a complex high quality food chain.
Another key of success was the strong tie with the local university which provided scientific advice and characterized the nutritional properties of the produced food.