The growth of ASCA is due to the great energy of two people: Manuela e Nunzio. Together they represent the drive behind our cooperative society and a whole network of organizations that have started around it over the last few years.
Manuela was born in Tuscany and graduated in Agricultural Science at the University of Florence, with a dissertation on zootechnical matters (sheep nutrition). Later on, she collaborates in a research project funded by the Ministry of Agriculture concerning aromatic and medicinal herbs. For this project, she was sent to Abruzzi in 1982, a territory particularly rich with this sort of cultivation (saffron massive production in the area of Navelli is a perfect example about it). In Anversa degli Abruzzi (a town in the province of L’Aquila, famous during XVII-XVIII for its pottery production), Manuela met ASCA, a farm founed by Nunzio Marcelli in 1977.
The property stretched over 5 hectars of land. The cultivations on which Manuela had to research were to be grown on this land.
Nunzio had graduated in Agrucultural Economics and was carrying out a project for the redevelopment of Abruzzi marginal areas. Redevelopment was to be achieved through sheep breeding, that was an ancient tradition in towns like Scanno, Castel del Monte and Pescocostanzo, all located in the surrounding area.
In 1980 Nunzio’s project received funds from Cassa del Mezzogiorno. As a result, he built a sheepfold, a garage for vehicles, a hayloft and a supplementary building. The initial project was about breeding both sheep and cattle (1000 sheep and 100 bovine head). However, in a second time, the land turned out to be too harsh for larger animals, so they focussed on sheep breeding only.
The aim of the cooperative society was to develop the traditional concept of breeding, i.e. extensive and organic, focussed on local breeds. This attitude was also chosen as the key to exploit the poor natural resources of the area. The project to develop sheep breeding at the very beginnings of the 80’s – in such an area, where sheep farming was not a widespread activity as well as agriculture and zootechnics – seemed to be an almost absurd idea.
As Manuela says: “people here did not understand how could two young people waste their degrees to attend a flock of sheep!” This sort of prejudice is typically italian, as in many European countries farmers have a university education, both on technical and management matters.
So, Manuela and Nunzio decided to develop a traditional model of sheep breeding, but at the same time they thought it was important to point on innovation as for the farm management and organization. They realized that sheep breeding was no longer sustainable with traditional management models, as the market had become far more competitive in comparison with the past. A very clear example about this, is the growth of the prices in the sector of sheep farming.
Since 1982 – the year when the cooperative society was founded – the price of wool has decreased from 3 euros to 50 cents today; the price of lamb has decreased from 4,5 to 3,75 euros; cheese has kept stable at bout 7 euros. Such data clearly show that none of traditional products could become the driving force for the newly-born society. Following the need to conjugate innovation and tradition, Manuela and Nunzio tried to bring “added value” to sheep breeding through the inrternalization of the most performative productive phases.
Consequently, they decided to focus on slaughtering and cheese making. In order to do that, they needed to supply their farm with proper equipments and facilities (slaugtherhouse, dairy) complying with the severe regulations. To support such investiments, they needed a larger cash flow.
For this reason, in 1987 the cooperative society decided to diversify its offer. They decided to open a new sector: farm holidays. Thety were among the first operators in Abruzzi to experiment this type of tourism, as they believed it could turn out to be a key factor for the local farms, especially in such a harsh territory for agriculture and zootechnics as Abruzzi mountains.
With farm holidays they would have guaranteed a stable cash flow during the whole year, instead of zootechnical products, which are “seasonal”, i.e. they are more requested at Christmastime, Easter or during summer holidays. Morever, farm holidays would be a good way for ASCA agricultural products to attract a larger number of buyers. During their stay at the farm, guests might decide to buy wool, meat or cheese at the farm store or might order the products by mail.
In addition, farm holiday centres could benefit from state funds, according to a County Development Plan. Over the years, farm holidays have achieved good success and very often the demand is larger than the offer, as the County Regulation allows only limited numbers (30 beds and 50 diners maximum).
Such limits induced ASCA to start a partnership with other operators in the area: in case of overbooking, guests will find accommodation at diverse farms or flats (located in the old town in Anversa degli Abruzzi or other towns nearby). Through this formula, now they can accommodate 200 guests.
Our farm holiday centre – named La Porta dei Parchi for its central position to the Natural Reserves of Abruzzi – has been selected by Slow Food and Laboratori del Gusto. As for food, we adopt the principle “know what you eat”, i.e. we explain what ingredients we use, their organoleptic characteristics and the process we applied to produce them. Later on, we have enriched our holiday offer: besides accommodation, we organize visits and “farm lessons” for schools, training courses on wool dying by use of natural colors or weaving applied to relaxation techniques.
These strategies would have been difficult to be implemented by our cooperative society only. Secondly, our slaughterhouse and dairy were much larger in size than the needs of ASCA itself. Manuela and Nunzio understood that “your business grows as the context of your business grows”. On other words, it was necessary to join forces with other farmers into a network.
This way, the purchasing power towards local public authorities would increase. With this prospect, in 1987 ARPO was founded (i.e. the county association of sheep/goat breeders), which counts 176 zootechnical farms today, and 40 000 head of cattle in all.
ARPO was entrusted with the task to represent its members on public occasions, for instance when the County Health Authority ordered pasteurization of milk as a compulsory process and banned raw material processing. This decision complied with HACCP systems but many considered it a change in favour of agricultral multinational corporations.
Tipicality of sheep/goat cheese was at risk, as thet derive much of their organoleptic properties from raw milk. Wild cattle pasturing gives milk unique traits which get lost for about 70% when milk undergoes pasterurization.
About this issue a harsh confrontation with the Local Healthy Authorities followed, and a public register of Abruzzi typical dairy products was created, with a specific regulation about the use of raw milk in the cheese making process. In 1996 ARPO was entrusted with one more task: supervising over a cooperative organizion of the dairy process. ARPO members would produce their own milk and/or cheese according to the new regulation (use of raw milk). Then, all products would be marketed with the brand “Parco Produce”, in order to guarantee quality control and efficient logistics, cutting down costs.
Also, ARPO has created a Biological Section to let its members to certify their organic dairy products. ASCA is among the 15 farms adhering to this certification today.
In oder to support the cheese making in summer (when the cattle are grazing on alpine pastures). ARPO bought a mobile dairy to allow cheese production on spot, still fully complying with the sector regulations.
In 1996 Manuela and Nunzio promoted an Association for the Protection of Dairy Products from Abruzzi Natural Reserves. The Association supports its members in the dialogue with the public authorities, aiming at a public recognition of a specific brand for their products. The Association was granted with public funds to purchase a mobile milking shed furnished with tiled walls according to EU regulations. This important facility can be easily transported by a normal tractor or off-road vehicle and is today used during summer to reach the mountain pastures where the cattle are grazing. This allows cheese making on spot.
The above-mentioned consortium “Parco Produce” is the third of a group of association which compose ASCA network. Parco Produce was founded in 1998 by farms located in the regions of Valle Peligna and Alto Sangro. The consortium was the result of a Leading Project (by the use of web tools too) for the defence of local typical products. For this reason, ASCA has created in Anversa degli Abruzzi a small outlet where the products made by Parco Produce members are sold by retail or by webmail orders (received on its website). The range of Parco Produce products is very wide: organic pruducts obtained from local sheep, cattle, pigs, but also vegetables, liquors, jams, olive oil, win, saffron, honey, flour and pasta.
Strategic innovation (longer production chain and launch of new organic products, like goat salami and juniper smoked ricotta cheese) and organizational innovation (network, association) have boosted entrepreneurial innovation, with a view to profit from ASCA certification. Particulary, two factors were considered:
- industrial agriculture had had no significant success over the territory of Abruzzi mountains;
- an increasing number of consumers – both on a national and European scale – demands organic products and high quality food, also in fear of GMO collateral effects.
These two factors combined suggested to focus on organic local products made with traditional process.
Such strategy was to be implemented with ASCA limited financial resources, especially in terms of promotion. On the one hand, it was the right moment to meet an international trend, on the other we needed to make the distribution chain shorter, approaching the final consumer. We needed to create a promotional initiative to attract the attention of a wide audience.
As a result, we lauched the project “Adotta una Pecora, difendi la natura” i.e. the possibility to adopt a sheep on the web (distance adoption). For the price of 190 euros a year, you will adopt a sheep: round the year you will receive the products made by that same sheep (lamb, milk, cheese, ricotta cheese, wool, manure). ASCA guarantees all the products you will receive by its certified quality brand and also give the “adoptive parents” the opportunity to visit our farm and your “adoptive sheep”, verifiying in person the breeding process. The economic advantage is 12% saving for the client on the market value of the products he/she will receive (all of them 100% organic quality). On the other hand, the campaign has a social feedbck, as it involves the public opinion about environment matters, like the depopulation of mountain territories and the risk to loose such an important tradition as wild breeding.
The campaign is absolutely something new, as for the first time an adoption allows to receive the good produced by the adopted.
According to a recent survey, 98% of incoming tourism flow in the region concerns visits to natural protected areas, even though many tourist know Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo (Abruzzi Natural Reserve) and ignore the existance of many other valuable nature conservation areas.
The operative aspects of our campaign provides that -once the adoptive parent has signed the adoption contract and once the payment is checked- he/she receives communication of the days on which he/she will be sent the products. Furthermore, one week before delivery, he/she is contected per e-mail/telephone, in order to make sure there will be somebody to receive the package.