Resisting the Spread

Nutella’s growing threat to traditional Italian farming is facing pushback.

IN THE CORNER OF A RUSTIC garden, in front of an ivy-roofed farmhouse in the hills of central Italy, Ivan Parisi, a disheveled young man with sun-thickened skin, carries a bale of hay, dodging a playful dog at his feet. He sets it down in front of a makeshift stage, and turns to retrieve another. Parisi and his partner, Eleonora Satta, have been at work all day, plowing fields and preparing for a cultural festival later this evening at their farm, the Azienda Agricola Janas. Later, they will be joined by their rural neighbors for an evening of musical interludes and theater skits, a break for people who live amid tall woods and fields in this rural municipality, Porano. But the festival serves as something else, too, a meeting place for farmers and other residents where they can talk about yet another major threat to their way of life: the monocropping of hazelnuts that has exploded in this fertile region.

As Parisi keeps carrying bales, on the other side of the lawn, Satta and a group of young people hang lights and weave decorations out of vines. “We know that hazelnuts will probably never be planted around our property,” says Satta, a cloud of curly black hair wrapping her broad-smiling face. “It is a matter of the topography of the land. Yet we worry and act as if they were to be put next door, because that is what a community who works the land does.”

An emerging rural community is spurring a cultural and economic renaissance in the Tuscia region.

Satta and Parisi arrived in the countryside near the city of Orvieto, 75 miles northwest of the urban chaos of Rome, more than 10 years ago. Satta had fallen in love with an ancient way of farming, a love cultivated through inherited family memories from the island of Sardinia, where her father grew up. But her father’s memory was clouded by years away, and the name of the grains the family grew there seemed lost forever. Still, Satta and her partner began cultivating, starting with one hectare of land, planting an ancient strain of wheat and learning the secrets of seed and soil through nighttime web searches. From that small hectare of wheat, their farm grew, one strip of land at a time. They started expanding, producing refined varieties of flour for pasta and cultivating chickpeas and corn. They also opened a small tavern, where they offer home-cooked cuisine, including seasonal vegetables and bread that Satta makes from the wheat of their fields.

Azienda Agricola Janas pushes against the trend in central Italy. Here, especially in the Tuscia region near Orvieto, the traditional profile of the region’s rolling slopes has disappeared, replaced by orderly rows of hazelnuts, a crop whose production has expanded in recent years thanks to lucrative supply contracts and increased market demand. The expansion — spurred in large part by the productive incentives of Italian multinational corporation Ferrero, best known internationally for their chocolate-hazelnut spread Nutella — has been supplanting traditional farming in central Italy as big investors establish large-scale hazelnut plantations that degrade the soil, pollute local water sources, and destroy the area’s flora and wildlife. With their tavern and small festivals, Parisi and Satta are part of a local community of small-scale farmers, rural neighbors, and environmental activists who are working to preserve the region’s farming traditions and ecological balance. This emerging rural community is spurring a cultural and economic renaissance in the region.

young man and tractor

Ivan Parisi is part of a growing community of farmers and activists working to maintain traditional practices in the face of growing corporate influence.

Such activism includes creating spaces for festivals and gatherings where local residents can come together and share ideas.

TUSCIA, A HISTORICAL REGION nestled between Rome, Tuscany, and the Mediterranean coast, has a long agricultural history. It is blessed with the volcanic soil of the Cimini Hills, clear streams, and deep gorges. Part of the Antiapennine Range, the region includes Mount Cimino and the crater lakes of Bracciano, Vico and Bolsena, as well as ruins of the mysterious Etruscans, a pre-Christian civilization thousands of years old. Throughout human history, people in this region followed the seasonal rhythms of the Mediterranean climate, benefiting from the lakes and ancient irrigation systems. Here, the Etruscan civilization developed amid large forests, in the mountain shadows where Roman armies feared to tread. Around their woodland sanctuaries, Etruscan settlements developed new forms of crop cultivation and animal pasturing through ingenious irrigation systems that brought water to arid areas and drained swamps. When the Romans finally conquered the region, they inherited these practices, leading to generations of family farms. For centuries after, an agricultural tradition grew through farmers and sharecroppers who cultivated the land with disciplined crop rotations, integrating vegetable gardens, vineyards, olive groves, and crops of flax and hemp.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a new agricultural model appeared, one based on large-scale monocropping, global markets, and the heavy use of pesticides, which undermined the traditional systems. “Over time, the area needed to be protected several times from monocropping practices,” Satta says. “But recently it has become asphyxiating.”

Wild hazelnut trees could be found in the undergrowth of Cimino even in pre-Roman times. Until the 2000s, their cultivation was profitable, though not pervasive. Over the past two decades, however, as the nut has become more essential to the global food-processing industry, demand for hazelnuts has exploded. According to calculations based on FAO statistics, global production of hazelnuts increased by nearly 60 percent from 2000 to 2020, while the land it is cultivated on has doubled globally. Italy is the world’s second largest producer of the nut, with more than 82,000 hectares grown in 2021, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, ISTAT. More than a quarter of this acreage is in Tuscia’s Viterbo province, about 10 kilometers from Azienda Agricola Janas.

“Paradoxically, this is an area now culturally accustomed to monoculture, whether it is olive trees, vineyards, or large stocks of grain destined to be food for livestock,” says Satta. “We small farmers often look for land because we don’t have any, but the only thing that we can offer is to take care of the land, keep it clean, pay you back with some products or a little bit of money maybe. These ‘others’ from the monoculture of hazelnuts or photovoltaics, they offer you great money to sell it, just as much for rent, and assure you an income for even 30 years. It’s an unequal struggle.”

GIACOMO ANDREOCCI WALKS through his vineyard, stopping every now and then to clean tendrils of vine or check the ripeness of grape bunches. Now in his late thirties, Andreocci, who sports a bushy dark beard and has sharp eyes, grew up in Viterbo province, north of the Vico Lake, under the watchful eye of his grandfather at a time when agriculture was less mechanized and the land seemed to produce almost without straining. As with many local families who made a living out of farming, his life is rooted here, amid fields of vines, olive trees, and hazelnut groves. Today Andreocci runs a small organic farm in Vignanello, a rural town in the province of Viterbo, where he produces wine and oil, but also harvests hazelnuts organically. He does this in line with the traditions handed down in his family.

Giacomo Andreocci runs a small organic operation in Vignanello, in Viterbo province, where generations of his family have practiced polyculture farming.

A young hazelnut plantation in Tuscia territory, near Viterbo. Investors with deep pockets are buying up large tracts of land in the region and setting up monocrop plantations like this.

“In the old days, hazelnuts were cultivated on the valley floor, on the banks of waterways, where they grew up almost spontaneously, without the need for irrigation or chemical fertilizers,” he says. “In Vignanello, hazelnuts have been an important source of income for families since the 1960s, even though the place has always been renowned for its vineyards. But in the 2000s, when the price of hazelnuts skyrocketed and grapes lost value, many jumped into hazelnut cultivation. Here in Vignanello, hazelnut farming has supplanted other cultures, but it’s not like in other areas of Tuscia, where they have it rough because everything has been turned upside down; at least here hazelnut trees have always been a part of our farming history.”

North of Vignanello and Bolsena Lake, on the volcanic Alfina plateau, hazelnut cultivation was not common until recently. Now, the fields are filled with geometrically aligned crops of young, short hazelnut trees. These have appeared en masse over the past few years. Large expanses of the region have been acquired and converted by investors and industrial agriculture. These massive monocrops have displaced many local family farms over the years, eating up the space that belonged to traditional crops and small producers. In the face of a more profitable and immediate income, some farmers decided to sell their land or covered it with hazel groves.

Behind much of this expansion is the Italian multinational corporation Ferrero. Since 2018, Ferrero has built up its Italian Nut project, with the goal of increasing Italian hazelnut groves by 30 percent by 2025. This would require 20,000 more hectares. To boost Italian hazelnut production, Ferrero offers guarantees to purchase at least 75 percent of a producer’s annual harvest at advantageous market prices – undercutting crops such as wheat and vegetables.

The company says it hopes to eventually integrate hazelnut with other crops, as Deutsche Welle recently reported, and it is collaborating with researchers to evaluate the environmental impact of hazelnut cultivations.

In the meantime, many of the growers involved in Ferrero’s program are capitalizing on the European Union agricultural policies, doing ecological harm in the process.

Many of the growers involved in Ferrero’s program are doing ecological damage in the process.

For the first few years, these contractors cultivate the hazelnut trees in line with EU organic farming standards, before the trees produce nuts. This allows investors to take advantage of EU agricultural incentives, such as the Common Agricultural Policy for organic production. After the first five years, however, growers tend to throw out organic practices in favor of chemicals and other inputs to boost yields and quality, to keep up with Ferrero’s standards.

The whole practice runs counter to traditional land-use habits. For centuries, farmers in this part of Tuscia rotated crops, keeping the soil and plants healthy and reducing the need for fertilizer and pesticides. Hazelnuts were part of this local polyculture too, being cultivated alongside chestnut and olive trees to preserve soil conservation and biodiversity. But monocrop hazelnut farms eschew these practices; instead, turf is torn out and tress are planted on soil that becomes hard, dry, packed slab. Increased economic incentives for more hazelnuts, in turn, create disincentive for diversified crops grown by smaller farmers.

Gabriele Antoniella, a young agronomist and researcher at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, has been tracing the rapid expansion of hazelnut fields for years. “There are no official stats about the land expansion of hazelnut cultivations,” Antoniella says, as he walks down a gravel road ringed by young hazel groves. “I’ve calculated that it has increased by about 1,000 square hectares since 2015 on the Alfina plateau.” Standing in the middle of the country road, Antoniella motions across a huge swath of land, noting that “all 200 hectares [were] bought all at once in 2015 by just one big buyer.”

While investors with deep pockets are buying up hundreds of hectares of land in the region, many young farmers in the area struggle to pool resources to purchase small tracts. “A bunch of us are going into debt in the attempt to buy a few more stretches of land around our properties to keep the hazelnut groves as far away as possible,” Antoniella says. This is in part to prevent contamination of organic crops by the chemicals used on commercial farms.

IN TUSCIA, LAND IS NOT THE ONLY concern; water is at risk as well. Investors are drawn here by the fertile land and access to water from the crater lakes. But activists say that because Lake Vico and Lake Bolsena are protected under EU environmental rules, any action that could do them harm should be assessed. That has not happened in the case of hazelnut farming, despite the clear danger of water pollution and water eutrophication due to the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

“We checked with the county administration, and in no case was this evaluation made for the monoculture of hazelnut groves around Lake Bolsena,” says Georg Wallner, a former professor of experimental physics at the University of Munich and active member of two grassroots associations preserving the environmental integrity of the lake: the Association of Lake Bolsena, active in the defense of the lake since 1987, and the Bolsena Lake of Europe, an international network that brings together European citizens. Wallner, who comes from the German countryside and a cooperative farming movement, has lived in central Italy for about 25 years. He now lives in Capodimonte, in the province of Viterbo, and hopes to bring the values of his hometown cooperative to Tuscia. “Three years ago, we even filed a complaint with the Viterbo public prosecutor’s office,” he says, “but to date, we don’t even know the outcome of that complaint, whether it was followed up or thrown in the trash bin.”

Hazelnuts, which are used in desserts and other cooking across the Mediterranean, were typically cultivated on the banks of waterways in Tuscia, and required minimal care.

Nutella, a popular spread worldwide, is produced by Fererro, an Italian multinational that hopes to increase hazelnut groves in the country by 30 percent by 2025. Photo by Wilfredorrh.

In Viterbo, where hazelnut monocropping is already dominating the landscape, the shores of Lake Vico have been tinged with red for many years now. This comes from the flowering of the red algae, a sign that the water has excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. “This threat now endangers Lake Bolsena as well,” Wallner says.

The Bolsena basin is an essential water source for neighboring towns and farms. “But monocultures — such as that of hazelnut groves — require huge quantities of water, which disproportionately burden the local water supply,” Wallner says, “not to mention the contamination of the groundwater by biocides which flow into the lake.” Unlike Lake Vico, whose water recharge period is estimated at 30 years, contamination of the Bolsena basin would take some 300 years to dissipate, according to the Association Lake of Bolsena.

“It isn’t normal to have to run away from your own house. This is what it’s like to live in the countryside today.”

As a consequence of hazelnut monoculture, the biodiversity and wildlife of Tuscia are also in peril. The sewage- and fertilizer-induced increase of phosphorus levels in the water basins has “doubled in the last ten years,” according to Bolsena Lake of Europe. This is leading to the destabilization of the aquatic ecosystem and is endangering various fish species of the lake. In addition, hazel grove monocultures deprive the local fauna of land: “Reserve areas, where there were important breeding areas and wildlife trails, were practically closed or ruined because of monoculture,” Satta says.

Modern hazelnut monocropping is bad for the air, too. During harvest season in areas where hazelnut groves are well established and fruiting, dust devils rise over the groves, as farm machines scour the ground for nuts. For Matteo Carbone, an attorney who moved to the countryside in the Viterbo province outside the city of Capranica 10 years ago, the worst period is from May to August, when the air over the hazelnut fields is full of pesticides. Physical discomfort among residents is not uncommon, he says, and many people, including him, have ended up in the hospital with symptoms linked to pesticide exposure.

Gabriele Antoniella, an agronomist at the University of Tuscia, collects water from a natural spring in Orvieto.

Eleonora Satta (in blue shirt and jeans) at a community harvesting event on her and Ivan Parisi’s farm in Porano, Italy. Photo by Paolo Soriani.

According to an inquiry run by the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE), cancer incidence has reached worrying levels in Viterbo, where conventional monoculture predominates. In 2021, the cross-border media investigation “Pesticides at Work” disclosed how cases of Parkinson’s disease and blood cancer run rampant among European farmers who are exposed to pesticides long-term. “Over the years I have learned to recognize the noises of barrel sprayers,” Carbone says. “When I hear them coming, I leave. But it isn’t normal to have to run away from your own house. This is what it’s like to live in the countryside today.”

IN 2019, ITALIAN FILMMAKER Alice Rohrwacher co-directed a nine-minute film, Omelia Contadina (“Peasant Homily”). Set in a barren stretch of the Alfina plateau, it shows two giant cut-out figures being carried through hills and mud by actual local residents and placed in large graves, symbolizing the burial of traditional farmers under the mechanisms of the agroindustry: a tribute to the end of the old agricultural world.

Rohrwacher, who grew up in the rural province of Terni, about a 20-minute drive from the rolling countryside of Orvieto, wanted to give a voice to the landscape and culture of her childhood. In her artist’s statement she calls the film “a cinematographic action” in support of “the struggle of small farmers and citizens” and a “hymn of hope.” While commemorating the small farmers’ death, Omelia Contadina ends with the idea of rebirth — the farmers who have been buried are “seeds” from which new life emerges. The film sends the message that rural culture is not yet dead, but rather transformed.

Over the past decade or so, a small legion of farmers, local producers, and activists, including Giacomo Andreocci, Gabriele Antoniella, Eleonora Satta, Ivan Parisi, and others like them who have been crusading against intensive hazelnut farming in the region, have been part of this transformation. In stark contrast to the money-making system of industrial monocropping — an empire made of cookie-cutter fields resembling cemeteries and soil-devouring industrial machinery — they are proving that another, more regenerative way of farming is possible.

These grassroots activists have created a complex network of associations and ad hoc groups that mobilize protests and file official complaints against the industrial operations. They have built a network of producers and consumers called Comunità Rurale Diffusa, organized a campaign that brought the European Commission to weigh in on a sewage problem at Bolsena Lake, and founded a defense group, Comitato Quattro Strade, to preserve the Alfina plateau. But their work isn’t limited to protests and campaigns. These groups have also set up weekly local markets for homegrown products, created fair-trade groups, and contributed to the creation of several biodistretti across Tuscia, where the cultivation system is secondary to the needs of the land and committed to the principle of biodiversity conservation.

They are the antithesis of monocrops, as diverse and varied as the landscape they seek to protect. Many of their members are young people who may or may not have roots in the region but are devoted to small-scale, sustainable agriculture and rural life. They are the cultural heirs of Italy’s old farming traditions, practices based on collaboration and the reciprocal relationship with land that are precursors of the concept of “social farming,” which has been gaining traction in Europe in recent years.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.