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Family farms in Italy's coronavirus-hit regions fear collapse

by Thin Lei Win | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 March 2020 18:15 GMT

Michael Toniolo poses for a photo in front of his vineyard in Vo, northern Italy. Handout by Bison Benedetta & Michael Toniolo/Parco del Venda

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Some of Italy's most famous wines and cheeses come from areas in northern Italy - the virus hotspots that are now under quarantine

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, March 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Normally at this time of year, Michael Toniolo's family and a dozen employees would be toiling away on their farm - pruning vines, ploughing fields and delivering their award-winning wines to customers near and far.

This year, however, he fears for the survival of his family winery and olive oil farm, founded nearly 50 years ago.

"For 10 days, 12 days ... we sell nothing," said Toniolo, 50, who runs Parco del Venda with his father, wife and sister.

"For a family-run farm, 15 days without business is a big problem," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In depth: Coronavirus and its impact on people, cities, and economy

Vo, the small town in northern Italy where they live, about 70 km west of Venice, has been on lockdown since Feb. 23 in a bid by authorities to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Italy is Europe's worst hit country, with 107 deaths from the virus as of Wednesday and more than 3,000 cases occurring in 19 out of its 20 regions. It plans to close all schools and universities from Thursday to try to contain the outbreak.

Some 50,000 people in 11 towns in northern Italy - the hotspots where coronavirus cases were first detected - have been quarantined. Trucks can get in and out with essentials but police roadblocks keep everyone else inside.

"My brain is not clear. Every day, I think about the problem and what we are going to do. But my brain is not in the wine but in the coronavirus," Toniolo said, adding that about 60 other vinters within Vo are in a similar position.

The vineyards at Parco Del Venda in Vo, northern Italy. Handout by: Bison Benedetta & Michael Toniolo/Parco del Venda

Some of Italy's most famous foods, including wines and cheeses, come from the areas under lockdown, largely produced by small-scale farmers and vinters, according to Coldiretti, an agricultural lobby group.

The area is a rich agricultural producer with about 500 farms and some 100,000 cattle and pigs. But the quarantine has led to labour shortages and disruptions. 

Stefano Ciserani, a farmer with 250 dairy cattle near Lodi, some 30 km southeast of Milan, said construction of an animal enclosure has stopped because he cannot find workers.

"We essentially produce milk that goes to the dairies in the area to produce the Grana cheese. Grana is a product that goes mainly to tourists. And without tourists and exports, even the Grana sector risks collapse," he said.

Toniolo said his biggest fear is fear itself. The virus does not affect food safety but producers are concerned buyers will shy away. Local media have reported instances of orders from affected regions being returned or cancelled.

"One or two Italians clients, they tell me they don't want (my) wine because they have fear," he said.

"We must explain that... Vo and the other places are ok. The wine is ok. We need work."

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(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink. Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.