Asti shows how the European countryside can reverse depopulation through agriculture and cultural heritage.
By PIETER DEVUYST
Near the north-western Italian town of Asti, known for its vineyards and sparkling white wine, Alberto Mossino helped cultivate a different crop: maize.
On a farm surrounding a 19th-century villa he revived the production of Ottofile maize, which is used to make polenta. Ottofile, a red-orange, creamy-tasting grain type typical of the region, has been at risk of extinction since the Second World War as a result of competition from other varieties.
Mossino is the director of PIAM, a non-governmental organisation that helps integrate refugees into Italian society. The organisation was part of a project that received EU funding to regenerate rural areas through local heritage.
‘This was a great opportunity for both the region and the refugees,’ said Mossino. ‘It changed the mentality of the local population towards immigrants in a positive way.’
Nearly a third of all people in the EU live in rural areas, where the benefits include more quietness and a greater proximity to nature than cities can offer.
Nonetheless, rural regions face daunting challenges including depopulation, especially from young people moving elsewhere for better job prospects.
Rural areas in Europe have seen their populations decline for decades and are projected to lose 8 million more people by 2050.
As a result, these areas are often characterised by ageing residents and an absence of basic institutions and public services.
‘We have a very old population and the young people all leave because we don’t have things like a university,’ said Mossino, who was born and raised in Asti and comes from a family of farmers.
European research initiatives have been tapping into agriculture and cultural heritage to reverse the general trend and point the way toward a more promising economic and social outlook for rural regions.
On the farming front, the efforts have extended to helping young people get a start in the business, including by pairing them with older farmers.
When it comes to cultural heritage, the focus has been on taking advantage of local opportunities in areas like art, festivals, food, landmarks and pilgrimage where Europe’s rich history and diversity are on display.
Migration too has played a role, as shown by the EU project in which Mossino was involved. Called RURITAGE, the initiative ran for four years through August 2022.
Mossino and his colleagues trained close to 50 refugees from Africa to help renovate the abandoned Villa Quaglina, a former seminary of a Catholic order called the Oblates of Saint Joseph. They turned the structure into guest rooms and event spaces.
The team then worked on the surrounding farm, which has since become the area’s biggest producer of Ottofile maize. This type of maize has kernels with a hard outer layer and takes its name from the eight – “otto” in Italian – rows on each cob.
The agricultural work intrigued locals, who wanted to know more about the project and its results, according to Mossino.
As for the refugees themselves, by being involved in the local heritage they were able to assimilate better into the community and remain in the Asti region. The presence of the newcomers led to the reopening of a school and other public services.
Rural role models
The work of Mossino and PIAM in RURITAGE is a model, representing rural areas that have used their cultural heritage to prosper in ways that can be replicated by other regions in numerous countries.
In total, 19 role-model regions ranging from Coimbra in Portugal to Ørland in Norway were involved in the project. They shared their experience and knowledge with 24 other rural communities across Europe – from Galicia in Spain to Polevaya in Ukraine – to help them develop revitalisation strategies.
‘Heritage can function as a powerful engine to regenerate rural areas in a sustainable way,’ said Hanna Elisabet Åberg, a research fellow at the University of Bologna in Italy.
Åberg co-led RURITAGE, whose results include an online tool with which regions can analyse their territories and find inspiration for revitalisation initiatives.
‘We have focused on urban areas for way too long,’ she said. ‘Rural areas are really the future in many ways.’
Young people’s aspirations
Another team of researchers, who also received funding from the EU, focused on drawing young people to rural regions in Europe to live and work. The four-year project, called RURALIZATION, ended in April 2023.
‘It’s the lack of opportunity that makes rural areas decline,’ said Willem Korthals Altes. ‘Young people like to live there, but they don’t find ways to make a living.’
Korthals Altes was coordinator of the project and is a professor in land development at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
By promoting economic and social opportunities for the new generation, he believes that the current negative spiral of population decline in rural areas can be reversed.
Korthals Altes and his colleagues asked young people about their rural ambitions and sought to help make these goals achievable.
‘More young people dream of going to rural areas than of going to urban areas,’ he said.
In total, 23 partner organisations from 12 countries joined forces to create strategies for stimulating this generational renewal and bringing new life to the countryside. The partners ranged from Ireland’s Teagasc agricultural research agency and the University of Turku in Finland to the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the Kulturland farming cooperative in Germany.
For example, RURALIZATION identified several practices to help people who want to start a career in agriculture.
More than half of the EU’s farmers are older than 55 and close to retirement, highlighting the need for young people.
While the EU’s cornerstone Common Agricultural Policy supports young farmers in numerous ways including financial, research projects offer complementary insights.
Imre Kovách, professor of sociology at the University of Debrecen in Hungary, led a team within the project that interviewed young farmers in 10 European countries to get a better understanding of their motivations and difficulties.
The biggest obstacle turned out to be access to land.
‘In most European countries, there is no land available for farming and the prices are high,’ said Kovách.
In response, several associations involved in RURALIZATION helped young aspiring farmers find land by matching them with older farmers who want to end their agricultural activities.
The project also published a policy handbook that shows local authorities how they can help on this front with practical examples, tools and ideas.
RURALIZATION found that young farmers in Europe are more concerned about environmental protection and more open to the use of advanced technologies such as satellites than older colleagues.
‘The younger generation does not only want to make profit from agriculture but also has new challenges in mind such as sustainability and higher-quality food,’ Kovách said.
As a result, he said that policymakers should go beyond providing financial support to young farmers by also helping them to operate sustainably.
RURITAGE participants including Mossino in Asti echoed the point that backing for rural areas should encompass more than funding.
‘Policymakers need to understand that we don’t only need money but also a long-term perspective and time,’ he said.
For Simona Tondelli, the lead coordinator of RURITAGE and a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Bologna, the key is involving communities themselves in rural regeneration.
‘It is important not just to impose strategies or solutions from higher levels but to start from local challenges and opportunities to find a path towards sustainable development,’ she said.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.