FAO Investment Centre

Croatian horticulture farmers take part in Italian study tour


In Italy, the agricultural cooperative movement has been going strong for well over 150 years. It was the ideal setting, then, for a recent study tour by Croatian fruit and vegetable farmers.

Organized by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the study tour was part of a larger EBRD-FAO project to strengthen the capacity of the Croatian Association of Young Farmers to foster innovation, investment and growth in the horticulture sector.

The EBRD and FAO are also collaborating with Croatia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Wageningen University on the project.

For the exchange, FAO worked closely with LegaCoop – Italy’s oldest cooperative organization with more than 15,000 member cooperatives.

Over three days in early June, the Croatian delegation travelled to Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Emilia Romagna regions to learn more about the benefits of well-functioning farmer cooperatives.

“The Croatians were impressed by how the Italian farmers provide their produce to the cooperatives and then the cooperatives are responsible for everything – storage, packaging, merchandizing, selling,” said Cristiana Sparacino, an FAO economist.

“The cooperatives’ organization and efficiency are incredible,” she said, adding that study tours such as this one are important because they can “really open one’s eyes to what’s happening elsewhere, which in this case is just next door.”

Long horticultural tradition

Croatia has a long tradition of horticultural production, but the country’s mostly small-scale producers often lack the financing to modernize their operations, and struggle to supply processors and retailers with good quality produce.

As a result, Croatia still imports more than half of the fruit and vegetables it consumes.

Unlike Italy, which has thousands of agricultural cooperatives, Croatia has only a few.

But the cooperative system’s potential to provide Croatian farmers with access to inputs, technology, financing and markets, both at home and abroad, “could really enhance their development and improve the viability of their businesses,” said Vedrana Jelusic Kasic, EBRD Director in Croatia.

Greater market access

A visit to the Italian apple producing cooperative Iulia Augusta enabled the group to see how different production techniques can enhance the quality and taste of the fruit.

For example, covering Pink Lady apples with a black net produces the perfect colour, while covering them with a blue net yields dwarf apples.

The cooperative sells its fresh fruit, apple juices and vinegar to large supermarket chains as well as local niche markets.

The group also visited the CAB Bibione cooperative, which stores the vegetables of about 60 member farmers and sells to restaurants and supermarkets.

While visiting Apofruit, a cooperative with about 3,800 members throughout Italy, the Croatian farmers learned more about the use of food safety and quality controls, and how a strict division of responsibilities among different actors can save time, money and resources.

Innovative approaches

Exposing the Croatian farmers to cutting-edge technologies and environmentally friendly production methods was another goal of the study tour.

In Emilia-Romagna, the group saw how the fruit cooperative CAB Massari is using Integrated Pest Management technology to control insects without chemical sprays.

It is also reducing its carbon footprint thanks to two bio-digesters, which convert the cooperative’s agricultural residues into heat and electricity for both the cooperative and the national grid.

The Croatian farmers also witnessed a live demonstration by Drone Solution of drones as precision horticultural tools.

Data from the drones can help farmers predict how much they will produce, so they can make adjustments to improve production. The drones can also indicate fertilizer gaps, spread beneficial insects, and be used to calibrate fruit to enable farmers to meet retail standards. 

Finally, the Croatian farmers visited an agritourism centre that is pioneering social farming by employing mentally challenged people in production and sales.

Next steps 

FAO and the EBRD will organize a workshop later this year with Wageningen University to share the study tour’s lessons and results from the University’s analysis of market access for different crops in Croatia.

The Croatian delegation is keen to have Italian technical experts visit their farms to advise them on how to improve operations.

The Italian model could play a major role in “increasing the productivity and profitability of our farming activities, while also preserving social and environmental sustainability, which is a challenging goal,” said Ines Dundovic, a member of the Croatian Association of Young Farmers.

“We hope this is a first step to future collaborative projects,” added Stefania Marcone, Chief of International Relations and European Policies for LegaCoop.