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Agriculture 2017, 7(1), 6; doi:10.3390/agriculture7010006
1. The Bottom-Up Innovation around Food Practices
The Alterity of Grassroots Innovation around Food
2. Focusing on the Innovation Potential and Its Management
Methodological Approach and Empirical Material
3. Managing the Transformative Role
3.1. The Consolidation of the Niche (Reproducing and Maintaining Boundaries)
The intense exchange of information and experience that in the recent years Floriddia has established with the other local farmers, has been crucial to the diffusion of alternative approaches in a very “mainstreamed” sector such as the cereal one. Shared learning processes have helped cereal farmers to change attitude towards their work, the value of their resources and the way of managing them through production processes, the quality of their products and the related economic value, marketing and relation with consumers and other actors.
Arvaia organisation devotes great attention to ensuring its large membership has a solid understanding of the cooperative’s goals and of its challenging operational choices. Specific cultural and animation activities are aimed at this.
When telling the story of the farm, the Floriddia family emphasizes the sharp difference between recent changes and the previous management model, referring to issues of identity, mission, product quality, market relations, quality of life. The same strong sense of alterity underpins the commitment in creating and promoting new knowledge and practices about farming and food, shared within the wider network which the farm belongs to.
IRIS is strongly engaged in promoting alternative approaches to farming, food practices and lifestyles. It provides education, training, research and social assistance services in the areas of organic-biodynamic farming, environmental protection, rural culture, collective ownership, social inclusion, mutuality and cooperation.
The T & C cooperative attaches great importance to the definition and spreading of its production-marketing mode. It is engaged in intense interactions with its members. This commonality of principles and goals is considered an element of strength in the mainstreaming of the organic sector. Equally intense is its external communication and cultural animation at local and national levels.
3.2. Facing Niche Development
3.2.1. The Forms of Growth
3.2.2. The Issues of Growth
The Expansion of the Production Base
For its organisation, extended on a large territorial scale, IRIS needs to establish and maintain close and continuative relationships with its providers of raw materials. Technical advisory services and, even more important, support in developing motivation and commitment in adhering to the production model represent crucial factors.
The Floriddia family recognises the difficulties of their conversion to organic farming and, afterwards, of the farm reorganisation, introducing processing and direct selling, and the importance to that end of the support received by the organic farmers’ organisations and other practitioners. Now that the farm is consolidated in its identity and business they devote many energies to help other farmers change attitude and reorganize their work.
The Management of Value
Within the AP! project, the T & C cooperative and Biorekk GAS association closely cooperated in designing the agreement between the parties. This process was supported by two outside organisations—GAES and Co-Energia, which facilitated the encounter and the reciprocal comprehension between the parties, as well as all the analyses and negotiations needed. In a phase aimed at consolidating and enlarging the adhesion, Co-Energia still plays a key role in managing and guaranteeing the “pact”.
In the case of AP! the definition of the agreement has demanded analysing, in a transparent way, all the costs related to the production-distribution stages, to define the degree of sharing of economic risk, to choose the marketing solutions more suitable to the GAS organisation and the degree of GAS involvement in managing the activities (or, alternatively, their economic value, to be recognised to T & C). This has in turn demanded an understanding of the respective exigencies, such as, for example, the cooperative’s need to invest internally or the consumers’ need to comprehend the uncertainty of farming.
Aequos devotes great attention to the containment of costs: the structure is light, logistics costs are kept low and there is a good use of digital technology. Overall, the costs are 9 times lower than those of conventional chains. The cooperative is based on self-organization: GAS manage all activities, supported by paid staff for logistic work. About 600 people are involved. Through this management the cooperative achieves its goals of giving wide access to high-quality organic products (prices are about half those of big retailers) and paying producers equitably (they get more than 82% of the final price, with immediate payments).
The complex organisational structure of Arvaia and some choices made in that regard (such as rewarding all the services provided by members) have conditioned other important issues in the economic management of the project, such as the level of farmers’ engagement (part-time employed) and the cost for the consumers (the annual share has been considerably increasing). This last aspect is deemed acceptable in the wealthy societal context in which the project takes place.
In its communication activities, Floriddia lays great emphasis on the “values” of its produce, stressing the environmental, health and cultural benefits stemming from his approach to farming and processing. They always underscore the need to change criteria of evaluation of the prices, re-positioning the value of good food with respect to other consumption choices.
IRIS aims at offering a high-quality organic product that may be affordable for everyone. This goal drove and is driving its growth strategy. At the same time, it is strongly engaged in fostering a different knowledge towards farming and food and in promoting not so much the product, as “the whole co-production system” and the related values.
The Modes of Interaction
Interaction and sharing have been and are key factors of the success of the Floriddia farm as well as of the broader projects it co-manages within the network of other farmers, processors, retailers, practitioners, scientists, organisations, groups of consumers of which it is part. The work on the genetic resources and farming techniques, the research around quality of bread and pasta, the spreading of the new knowledge and taste, the promotion of new initiatives with others take place through the close, smooth and continuative interactions among all the actors involved.
IRIS remains faithful to its principles while managing its growth. The internal organisation is shaped on its vision of enterprise. The decision-making mechanisms, the management of the economic aspects, the conception of property are in the name of sharing and partnership.
3.3. Still Looking for Innovation
3.3.1. Towards a New Social Pact
To strengthen the value base underlying its activity and its social role, IRIS is committed to testing the implementation of the ‘common good economy’ model, collaborating in the definition and validation of the necessary indicators. This experimentation is followed with interest by other enterprises, including T & C.
In order to put in practice the idea of a pact with its community of reference T & C has “opened the firm” making available all the information needed to define a transparent final price, on which to agree with potential consumers. This transparency is considered the first, needed step towards a really new relationship, based on co-responsibility in the enactment of an alternative production-consumption system.
The criticism newly addressed to IRIS is the risk, over the pursued process of growth, of losing a real contact with its social environment and its production base, so moving towards a conventional approach to the business and market.
The growth of scale has been posing new challenges in financial and organisational terms to Arvaia, leading towards a more complex structure. This is stimulating an internal debate, with members who prefer to put a limit to the expansion of business and membership, and others who see the growth as instrumental to building an alternative market.
The interactions between Floriddia and local organisations, firms and concerned consumers have a positive impact on the local community. The sharing of new knowledge and beliefs and the sense of participating in a common project—consolidating a local production-distribution-consumption system based on agro-ecological practices, ethical management and culture of healthy and nutritional food—have become significant, promising components of this new “environment”.
Arvaia considers and presents itself as a collective management of a common good—land—for subsistence and other social purposes. Through intense relational activities it has attracted many organisations and institutions interested in understanding this new economic-social model better, as well as other networks with which the cooperative has initiated new projects.
3.3.2. Looking for Further Spaces of Innovation
The work of genetic improvement carried out by Floriddia and the other actors involved (other farmers, millers, bakers) has seen the key role played by the close relationship established with some researchers. In its turn, this relationship has benefited from the researchers’ experience in participatory methods and integration of different sources of knowledge, and from the intermediary role played by the network of activists and practitioners which the farm belong to. The encounter between these different worlds has been so successful in building a common pool of knowledge and expertise, and in defining shared goals.
The decision of the Municipality of Bologna, in 2015, to lease a large area adjacent to the land cultivated by Arvaia represented a great opportunity for the cooperative, however, it was not fully conducive to it. The procedure followed by the Administration in fact did not take into account the widely acknowledged social value of Arvaia project, forcing the cooperative to compete for the land on the free market. The high investment needed changed its financial situation heavily.
4. Final Remarks: Capturing the Value of Alterity
Conflicts of Interest
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|Floriddia organic farm and its network (Tuscany, Central Italy)||Floriddia is an organic multifunctional farm, strongly embedded in the territory. It mainly cultivates cereals, legumes and fodder (on 300 ha). It turned to organic in 1987, gradually reinforcing an alternative approach to farming, management and market relations. During the 2000s, it initiated in-house processing and direct marketing and diversified through opening an agro-tourist activity. In 2010, it expanded the processing on farm by means of a new technologically-advanced plant for bread and other oven products, as well as pasta, which also allows the firm to process other local organic farmers’ harvests (for a total of about 400 tons of cereals per year).|
|Between 2006 and 2009, the farm turned to the cultivation of old wheat varieties, more suitable for organic farming and healthier final products. It has soon become a key actor of this activity in the territory, kick-starting similar processes among other local small farms. With some of them, an innovative commercial agreement has recently been established, which formalizes horizontal cooperation among farms. Pricing is inspired by principles of fairness, outside of the conventional market. At the end of 2015, the farm sold its produce (about 26 tons per year of bread and 70 tons of pasta) almost entirely locally, directly or through small retailers. The choice of marketing through local short chains has been important to this business, as in the case of the relationship with Solidarity Purchase Groups (from now on GAS, from the Italian name “Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale”; they are groups of consumers self-organized to purchase goods directly from producers, according to the principles of sustainability and solidarity [30,35]).|
|The farm plans for the future do not include further up-scaling, but rather improving the internal organization and strengthening and extending the network of relationships.|
|IRIS cooperative (Lombardia, Northern Italy)||IRIS is a cooperative founded in 1978 by a group of young people eager to engage in sustainable farming, guided by principles, such as mutual aid, collective property, circulation of financial capital and care of the common good. It runs a surface of 38 ha, bought in 1990 through the financial support of consumers, who became members of the cooperative (“co-supporter, financially and morally, of the project”). The farm mainly grows cereals that are processed into pasta.|
|Over the years, many organic farms joined the cooperative, as members or suppliers (about 300 in 2016). All of them benefit from free technical advice and a stable buying contract, at a “fair price” agreed outside of the conventional market. Through this network of farmers, IRIS operates in 12 Italian regions, from north to south, covering approximately 2000 ha with a production of about 5000 tons of cereals.|
|The sale is mainly through short circuits: directly to GAS (35%) and through the shops of fair trade cooperatives in Italy; through selected importers abroad.|
|In early 2005, it bought the pasta factory that processed its wheat. More recently, the cooperative decided to build a larger factory, inspired by its main value: protection and promotion of common goods. The structure will include services for the local community, as well. For this project, in addition to shareholders and suppliers, a new figure was created, that of the “financial member” who can buy “mutualistic shares”. This has enabled a crowdfunding campaign throughout the country, warmly welcomed by the public (5 million € were collected). With the new factory, pasta production will increase from the current 7000 tons per year to about 21,000 tons. This will imply increasing the production base and strengthening the network of collaborations.|
|Despite its growth, the cooperative has never neglected its original values. It continues to reinvest the profits in the activity, and salaries are established in a participatory way, according to fairness criteria. The management ensures the involvement of all of the supporters, consumers and small financial members included.|
|IRIS is very committed to its social mission. Through a foundation established in 2010, it provides education, training, research and social assistance on many topics.|
|Aequos cooperative (Lombardia, Northern Italy)||Aequos is a cooperative formed in 2010 by a group of GAS from an area with low availability of organic fresh produce. In addition to filling this gap, the aim was contributing, through purchasing, to the building of a “healthier, equitable and sustainable economy” (it is also a member of the District of Solidarity Economy).|
|Aequos is a logistics operator and includes only organizations or businesses. It is by now well established and supplies 40 GAS and social cooperatives, in 25 municipalities of 4 provinces (about 2000 families involved). It has relationships with about 40 producers. In 2016, it bought more than 500 tons of food.|
|The success of Aequos is definitely mostly due to their great attention to efficiency and a strong value base. There is a great effort to contain costs (for structures, equipment, organization and logistics), also through the direct involvement of GAS members. This last condition is clearly essential and is considered as an integral part of the special joint venture. “Adhering to a broader project and its values, pooling time, commitment and energies, mutual solidarity, staying together for reasons that go beyond self-interest ensure that Aequos continues to grow and operates successfully compared to conventional businesses.”|
|Arvaia CSA (Emilia-Romagna, North Italy)||Arvaia, in the Bologna area, is currently the most important experience of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Italy. It is a cooperative of farmers and consumers, cultivating organically a public piece of land rented from the municipality. It involves more than 100 members, mainly from the local GAS. At the beginning, in 2013, it employed 3 persons; the number has then increased, and the goal is to reach 10 employees by 2018. The production activities now include vegetables and fruit production, but there is a plan to include breeding and processing, as well. Starting with 3 hectares, recently, the cooperative expanded the area rented from the municipality (47 ha).|
|Its main purpose is cultivating the land through collective management, mainly for the members’ consumption, and to support the cooperative activities (three markets and a small shop). The members plan together the annual production activities and, based on the budget, finance them in advance. They can visit the fields and are asked to contribute a few half-days of work per year. This is seen as an opportunity to strengthen the relation with the land and farming.|
|La Terra e il Cielo cooperative (Marche, Central Italy) and Adesso Pasta! project||Adesso Pasta! (AP!) is an agreement for the supply of high quality organic pasta, based on the mutual commitment between producers and consumers, including the sharing of costs and risks. It involves the cooperative La Terra e il Cielo (T & C), a pioneer of organic farming in Italy, located in the Marche region (Central Italy), including about 100 farms, and GAS throughout the country. The project was designed and carried out through a long participatory process, started in 2009. It aimed at defining all of the operational and financial aspects related to cultivation, processing and distribution and, afterwards, at formalizing them in a formal agreement, a “pact”, between the parties involved. At the end of 2015, 60 GAS (distributed in 7 regions of Northern and Central Italy) had adhered to the pact, contributing for 8 percent to the total business of T & C.|
|The project is explicitly founded on the principles of solidarity, sustainability, transparency, equality and fairness. The model of reference is that of a “solidarity economy”, conceived of as based on relations embedded in a community. At the same time, it applies this model at a supra-local scale, thus facing the challenge to manage the trust relationship at a distance. The mutual commitment formalized in the pact strengthens the adherence to the project, to its values and goals.|
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