IN PICTURES: The Amalfi Coast lemon growers facing an uphill struggle to survive

Historic lemon groves in Amalfi had been forced to turn to tourism for survival. But now that's no longer viable either, and the area's last lemon farmers are barely holding on.

IN PICTURES: The Amalfi Coast lemon growers facing an uphill struggle to survive
Salvatore Aceto at his lemon tree farm in Amalfi. All photos: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
Squeezed by foreign competition and a lack of local labour, Italy's Amalfi lemon growers persevere in their gruelling work on the steep terraces rising from the Mediterranean.
“My father always tells me that we might not have blood in our veins but lemon juice,” laughs sixth-generation lemon farmer Salvatore Aceto, 56.
“It could be true,” he smiles, from beneath the rim of his straw hat.
Salvatore and Gigino Aceto. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
Salvatore and his brother Marco farm the land that their great-great-grandfather started to acquire in 1825 following in the footsteps of his own father.
The farm has faced three “unprecedented” blows in the last eight months, Salvatore said, the last of which has been the devastating coronavirus pandemic.
Their father, Luigi, 85, also still works on the farm, which produces 50-70 tonnes of lemons a year, arriving at around 4:00 or 5:00 am.
He drives up the coast in a tiny 1960s Fiat 500, which his wife, an obstetrician, would use to help deliver the coast's babies.
The farm covers 13 hectares, of which 2.6 hectares are lemon trees.
“Lemons are my life, they're in my heart,” said Luigi, confessing with a cheeky smile that he himself was “conceived under a lemon tree”.
Today, he feels like “the guardian of a piece of human heritage”, which is farmed in much the same way as it has been done for centuries.
“We have mules and donkeys to carry the harvest, as well as other types of donkey… us, we humans,” jokes Salvatore.
“Here, everything is vertical. We work with our legs, shoulders, we're bruised, scratched… Some talk about 'heroic farming', but we're not heroes, just normal people,” he said.
Agriculture on steep terraces like these can also be found on the islands of Lampedusa and Procida, as well as in the northern Cinque Terre region.
The job of climbing up and down hundreds of steps a day, carrying lemon-filled baskets weighing up to 60 kilos, is punishing, and not popular with young, local workers.
“Until the '60s and '70s, the terraces of the Amalfi coast provided a livelihood for entire families,” Salvatore said.
“But the social and economic dynamic has changed. Today, 95 percent of the coast's economy is based on tourism.”
“Who can you get to cultivate the land?” he said, adding that a job as a waiter offers an easier life — and doesn't involve having to climb 1,500-2,000 steps with 57 kilos on your back.
“Nobody wants to make the sacrifice. Young people have practically all given up,” he added.
Like other farmers around here, he hires workers from Ukraine or Romania when necessary, praising the “priceless” job they do.
Salvatore says it's a “tragedy” to see so many local farmers give up in the face of the difficulties.
“Seeing so many terraces abandoned is like a dagger in my heart,” he added.
He said they couldn't compete with the Argentine, Uruguayan, Moroccan, Spanish or Turkish markets, which are automated and have low growing costs.
“To cover our costs, we would have to ask over two euros a kilo (compared to 1.40-1.50 euros at the moment), that's not possible,” he said.
As a result, the decision was taken to open up the precious terraces to “agriturismo” in 2013, allowing visitors to come, sample and buy homemade limoncello liqueur.
No more than 100 people are allowed to visit a day to preserve the citrus trees and also the farm's way of life — although the family recognised that opening up to visitors was key to surviving.
Recent times have been hard.
In December, the terraces collapsed because of heavy rain, which was “an economic disaster”, Salvatore lamented.
“Then the lemon harvest was bad because of the cold and wet weather, which affected the blossom,” he added.
Finally, he continued, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, halting tourism and
slowing sales.
“If we can survive this, we'll be invincible.”
All photos: Filippo Monteforte/AFP


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MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Here are the remote Italian villages worth seeking out in 2022, according to a list compiled by one of the country's leading tourism associations.

MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

A total of 270 villages across Italy have been recognised as being especially tourist-friendly this year by the Italian Touring Club (Touring Club Italiano), one of the country’s largest non-profit associations dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism throughout the territory.

‘Orange Flag’ status is awarded if a village is judged to have significant historic, cultural and environmental value, as well as for being welcoming to visitors and outsiders, according to the initiative’s website.

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Villages can apply for the status if they are located inland with no coastal stretches; have fewer than 15,000 inhabitants; have a well-preserved historic centre and a strong sense of cultural identity; demonstrate sensitivity to issues of sustainability; have a well-organised tourist reception system; and show an intention to continue to make improvements to the town.

The list is updated annually, and in 2022 three new villages gained orange flag status for the first time: Dozza in Emilia Romagna, Manciano in Tuscany, and Sasso di Castalda in Basilicata.

See below for the map and a list of the Orange Flag villages according to region:

Montepulciano in Tuscany has 'orange flag' status.

Montepulciano in Tuscany has ‘orange flag’ status. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.

Abruzzo – 7 villages

Civitella Alfadena, Fara San Martino, Lama dei Peligni, Opi, Palena, Roccascalegna, Scanno.

Basilicata – 6 villages

Aliano, Castelmezzano, Perticara Guard, San Severino Lucano, Sasso di Castalda, Valsinni.

Calabria – 6 villages

Bova, Civita, Gerace, Morano Calabro, Oriolo, Tavern.

Campania – 5 villages

Cerreto Sannita, Letino, Morigerati, Sant’Agata de’ Goti, Zungoli.

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Emilia Romagna – 23 villages

Bagno di Romagna, Bobbio, Brisighella, Busseto, Castell’Arquato, Castelvetro di Modena, Castrocaro Terme and Terra del Sole, Dozza, Fanano, Fiumalbo, Fontanellato, Longiano, Montefiore Conca, Monteleone, Pennabilli, Pieve di Cento, Portico and San Benedetto, Premilcuore, San Leo, Sarsina, Sestola, Verucchio, Vigoleno.

Friuli Venezia Giulia – 7 villages

Andreis, Barcis, Cividale del Friuli, Frisanco, Maniago, San Vito al Tagliamento, Sappada.

Lazio – 20 villages

Arpino, Bassiano, Bolsena, Bomarzo, Calcata, Campodimele, Caprarola, Casperia, Collepardo, Fossanova, Labro, Leonessa, Nemi, San Donato Val di Comino, Sermoneta, Subiaco, Sutri, Trevignano Romano, Tuscania, Vitorchiano.

Liguria – 17 villages

Airole, Apricale, Balducco, Brugnato, Castelnuovo Magra, Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena, Dolceacqua, Perinaldo, Pigna, Pinion, Santo Stefano d’Aveto, Sassello, Seborga, Toirano, Triora, Vallebona, Varese Ligure.

Lombardy – 16 villages

Almenno San Bartolomeo, Bellano, Bienno, Castellaro Lagusello, Chiavenna, Clusone, Gardone Riviera, Gromo, Menaggio, Pizzighettone, Ponti sul Mincio, Sabbioneta, Sarnico, Solferino, Tignale, Torno.

Marche – 24 villages

Acquaviva Picena, Amandola, Camerino, Cantiano, Cingoli, Corinaldo, Frontino, Genga, Gradara, Mercatello sul Metauro, Mondavio, Montecassiano, Montelupone, Monterubbiano, Offagna, Ostra , Ripatransone, San Ginesio, Sarnano, Serra San Quirico, Staffolo, Urbisaglia, Valfornace, Visso.

Molise – 5 villages

Agnone, Ferrazzano, Frosolone, Roccamandolfi, Scapoli.

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San Gimignano has long been an orange flag destination.

San Gimignano has long been an orange flag destination. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Piedmont – 40 villages 

Agliè, Alagna Valsesia, Arona, Avigliana, Barolo, Bene Vagienna, Bergolo, Candelo, Canelli, Cannero Riviera, Cannobio, Castagnole delle Lanze, Cherasco, Chiusa di Pesio, Cocconato, Entracque, Fenestrelle, Fobello, Gavi, Grinzane Cavour, Guarene, La Morra, Limone Piemonte, Macugnaga, Malesco, Mergozzo, Moncalvo, Monforte d’Alba, Neive, Orta San Giulio, Ozzano Monferrato, Revello, Rosignano Monferrato, Santa Maria Maggiore, Susa, Trisobbio, Usseaux, Usseglio, Varallo, Vogogna.

Puglia – 13 villages

Alberona, Biccari, Bovino, Cisternino, Corigliano d’Otranto, Locorotondo, Oria, Orsara di Puglia, Pietramontecorvino, Rocchetta Sant’Antonio, Sant’Agata di Puglia, Specchia, Troia.

Sardinia – 7 villages

Aggius, Galtellì, Gavoi, Laconi, Oliena, Sardara, Tempio Pausania.

Sicily – 1 village

Petralia Sottana

Tuscany – 40 villages

Abetone Cutigliano, Anghiari, Barberino Tavarnelle, Barga, Casale Marittimo, Casciana Terme Lari, Casale d’Elsa, Castelnuovo Berardenga, Castelnuovo di Val di Cecina, Castiglion Fiorentino, Certaldo, Cetona, Chiusi, Collodi, Fosdinovo, Lucignano, Manciano, Massa Marittima, Montalcino, Montecarlo, Montefollonico, Montepulciano, Monteriggioni, Murlo, Peccioli, Pienza, Pitigliano, Pomarance, Radda in Chianti, Radicofani, San Casciano dei Bagni, San Gimignano, Santa Fiora, Sarteano, Sorano, Suvereto, Trequanda, Vicopisano, Vinci, Volterra. 

Trentino Alto Adige – 8 villages

Ala, Caderzone Terme, Campo Tures/Sand in Taufers, Ledro, Levico Terme, Molveno, Tenno, Vipiteno/Sterzing.

Umbria – 10 villages

Bevagna, Città della Pieve, Montefalco, Montone, Nocera Umbra, Norcia, Panicale, Spello, Trevi, Vallo di Nera.

Val d’Aosta – 3 villages

Etroubles, Gressoney-Saint-Jean, Introd.

Veneto – 12 villages

Arquà Petrarca, Asolo, Borgo Valbelluna, Cison di Valmarino, Follina, Malcesine, Marostica, Montagnana, Portobuffolè, Rocca Pietore, Soave, Valeggio sul Mincio.