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Italian farmers have turned to their counterparts in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to fight the loss of the farming tradition on the island of Sardinia.
In a fresh attempt to solve rural recruitment problems, Italy’s agriculture trade group Coldiretti has looked 6,000 miles away to Kyrgyzstan to recruit shepherds skilled in Sardinian specialities, such as cheesemaking from goat and sheep milk, along with horse breeding.
Coldiretti said on Monday that it had signed a deal with the labour ministry in Biškek to enable local shepherds and their families to work under special employment contracts in abandoned areas of Sardinia.
The agreement between Coldiretti and the Kyrgyz government marks the first pilot project of its kind and came as Italy’s agriculture minister Francesco Lollobrigida called on the EU to “defend [farming] as a strategic asset”.
Sardinia is known for its meat and dairy production, as well as its beach resorts, but its economy has been hit by the departure of workers from inland areas as younger generations have moved to the mainland in search of jobs.
In the 1960s, agriculture represented about 7-8 per cent of Italy’s gross domestic product, but as younger Italians began to shun farming jobs, companies and local administrations turned to foreign workers. Agriculture currently represents about 2 per cent of GDP.
Over the past four decades, about 10,000 Sikh immigrants from India’s Punjab region have settled in northern Italy and become the backbone of local dairy farming, which includes the production of Parmesan cheese.
Elsewhere, agriculture has been plagued by claims of illegal employment and mistreatment of workers. In the southern Puglia region, a group of local entrepreneurs were arrested in 2022 for exploiting illegally employed tomato pickers from African countries.
The new pilot project aims to recruit 100 Kyrgyz nationals aged 18 to 45, with farming expertise, to move to the rural districts of Sassari, Barbagie and Sarrabus. Their visas will initially be temporary but will become permanent after they complete training and apprenticeship programmes. The Kyrgyz workers will be supported in Italy by “cultural mediators”, said a Coldiretti statement.
“The project is aimed at fighting the abandonment of rural areas, which has also been impacted by an ageing population and a drop in birth rates,” Coldiretti said. It said that in the longer term “thousands of foreigners” could move to the area.
Italy grants relatively few working visas compared with other European countries, but experts and politicians have said the country needs migrant workers to sustain its agriculture sector.
Coldiretti said 358,000 foreign workers from across 164 countries, including seasonal workers, were legally employed in Italian agriculture, amounting to about a quarter of the sector’s workforce.
Italy’s rightwing government — which is not directly involved in the pilot programme with Kyrgyzstan — also this year moved to ban synthetic meat production in a bid to safeguard the country’s culinary tradition and farming industry.
In Kyrgyzstan, agriculture employs about 40 per cent of the labour force and accounts for a fifth of GDP, according to USAID data. Unlike in many neighbouring post-Soviet countries, most agriculture there is carried out on small family farms.
“Like other Central Asian countries dependent on migration flows to Russia, Kyrgyzstan is now seeking to diversify” its outward migration, said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre focused on Central Asian countries. He noted that Kyrgyzstan also signed an agreement in 2022 to send seasonal agricultural workers to the UK.
Additional reporting by Anastasia Stognei