Bitter taste for Amalfi lemon farmers as coronavirus jolts Italian economy

The problems of the Amalfi Coast are emblematic of the challenges faced by tourism and agriculture across Italy

Luigi Aceto, 86, works in a lemon grove which has belonged to his family for six generations
Luigi Aceto, 86, works in a lemon grove which has belonged to his family for six generations Credit:  Chris Warde-Jones

As Salvatore Aceto surveys the terraces crowded with lemon trees that his family has tended on the Amalfi Coast for the last six generations, the strain of the last few weeks proves too much.

He breaks down and weeps – for himself, for his family and above all for his workers, who slog up and down hundreds of stone steps each day to pick lemons on remote terraces overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean.

“They sweat to earn their living, going up and down 1,000, 1,500 steps. They are like family. When there are problems, families come together. But I’m not sure I can keep them on,” he said, choking up behind the anti-virus mask strapped across his face.

The 56-year-old is one of a tough breed of farmers on southern Italy’s celebrated Amalfi Coast who make a living from producing a unique type of lemon that is exported around the world.

Salvatore Aceto, lemon farmer, above the town of Amalfi Credit: Chris Warde-Jones

2020欧洲杯网站It is a precarious business, buffeted by competition from cheaper lemons grown in countries like Spain and the damage done to the terraces by storms and soil erosion.

But the coronavirus crisis that has claimed nearly 30,000 lives in Italy is the toughest test yet.

2020欧洲杯网站With tourism dead along the Amalfi Coast and hotels and restaurants closed for the last two months, local demand for lemons has fallen dramatically.

The lemons - known in Italian as “sfusati” and prized for their strong perfume and sweet flesh - are only harvested if they can be sold immediately.

2020欧洲杯网站With no demand, there is nothing for Mr Aceto’s workers to do. He is trying to keep paying them, but it is getting harder by the day.

Lemons are cut from the trees and loaded into crates Credit: Chris Warde-Jones

“Dealing with lemons is an art form. You have to know how to perform a graft, how and when to harvest. My workers are experts in the field,” he said. “I am trying so hard to keep them on despite the difficulties,” he told The Telegraph.

The Amalfi Coast’s problems are emblematic of the acute challenges faced by tourism and agriculture in Italy.

2020欧洲杯网站From the beaches of Sardinia to the canals of Venice, this summer’s tourist season is likely to be a washout.

Farmers are struggling to harvest their crops because travel restrictions have blocked the arrival of about 250,000 seasonal workers from countries in Eastern Europe.

Amalfi and other towns along the coast are empty of tourists Credit: Chris Warde-Jones

The closing of restaurants, bars and cafes across the country means that demand for produce has plummeted.

In the fruit and vegetable sector, 40% of businesses are in trouble, according to Coldiretti, a national farmers’ association.

The driest spring for 60 years is also hammering the farming sector, which is the third largest in Europe in terms of value after France and Germany.

Overall, the Italian economy – the third largest in the Eurozone – is predicted to contract by more than 10% this year.

The virus hit the country’s economic heartland the hardest – the northern regions of Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. Together they account for 45% of Italy’s GDP.

A terrace of lemon trees overlooking the village of Minori on the Amalfi Coast Credit: AFP

Cutting and collecting the lemons of the Amalfi is heroic, backbreaking work – each employee carries crates weighing more than 50kg on their shoulders down hundreds of stone steps, tipping the fruit into waiting vans.

2020欧洲杯网站The terraces are so steep and the paths so narrow that not even donkeys or mules can be used. The workers are nicknamed “contadini volanti” – “flying farmers” because of the vertiginous slopes they negotiate.

The dearth of tourists has affected the other part of Mr Aceto’s business – daily tours of the lemon terraces.

Visitors are shown how the lemon trees grow in the shade of trellises and can taste the limoncello and jams that the farm makes.

But the visitors are gone – the streets of Amalfi, the town that gives the entire coast its name, are all but deserted.

The town of Amalfi would normally be packed with tourists at this time of year Credit: Chris Warde-Jones

Italy is easing its two-month lockdown but there are further challenges to face – under health regulations, lemon farmers will have to disinfect their premises, a costly undertaking for companies that are already struggling financially.

It is not just the Covid-19 crisis that is hurting the lemon farmers. Their terraces were lashed by intense storms over the winter, causing landslides and the collapse of stonewalls.

The walls have to be rebuilt by hand, which is time-consuming and expensive. So many walls need attention that Mr Aceto half-jokes: “We really need a Marshall Plan for the whole coast.”

Daniele Milano, the mayor of Amalfi, said: “Economically we have been hit very hard, but we cannot quantify the damage yet since we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Daniele Milano, the mayor of Amalfi Credit: Chris Warde-Jones

2020欧洲杯网站The town’s annual budget is €12 million, €7 million of which comes from tourism. “This year those €7 million will be lost,” said the mayor.

The whole tourism model will have to be reconsidered, he says. The cruise ships are gone and international travelers cannot yet return to Italy.

Even Italians are not allowed to travel between the country’s 20 regions. So for the moment, the only tourists who can access the Amalfi Coast are those from the region of Campania, which encompasses the World Heritage area.

2020欧洲杯网站The towns along the coast are characterised by compact piazzas, narrow houses and tiny alleyways - all of which makes social distancing very hard. “Here on the coast we are very cramped,” said the mayor.

2020欧洲杯网站The crash of the local economy has caused hardship for many people.

2020欧洲杯网站“Two hundred families have applied for financial help to buy food. That is 10% of the population. We have set up a social help system whereby food supplies are delivered to the door of those in difficulty,” said Mr Milano.

The Amalfi Coast – once an independent maritime republic – retains a strong sense of community, despite its daily invasion by tourists.

“That sense of community has been strengthened by the pandemic. We know we have to get through this together,” said Andrea Ferraioli, president of the Amalfi Coast Tourist Board.

2020欧洲杯网站There are a few plus sides to the dearth of tourists and unaccustomed tranquility.

“People are paying more attention to their houses and gardens. Nature is thriving. The sea has never looked so clean – we see dolphins swimming and the occasional whale.” But the local economy has taken a huge hit as a result of the virus.

“Our economy is based almost exclusively on tourism, mainly from North America and northern Europe. All bookings have been cancelled. We know the government cannot bail us out,” said Mr Ferraioli, who runs a hotel. “Now we are looking ahead to 2021. This year is lost.”