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'Bureaucracy in Italy is a nightmare'

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Suzie Alexander and her family produce around 400 litres of olive oil a year. Photo: Suzie's Yard
08:41 CEST+02:00
Suzie Alexander was working in the corporate world of London when she decided to sell up and move with her family to Cetona, in the Tuscan countryside. She speaks to The Local about setting up an organic farm and selling olive oil internationally.

What brought you to Italy?

We moved from London 14 years ago because my son was becoming asthmatic.

I had gone back to work after maternity leave, as a CEO for Europe in an American software company, and found it very stressful and incompatible with being a full-time Mum.

In life you can make difficult and challenging decisions - we quit our jobs, sold our house and moved.

How did you go about making the move?

We’d been here on vacation and had found a barn that had permission to be turned into a home. We bought it and started with an olive grove, then we wanted to invest in a farm to grow as much food as possible for our family. We’ve added pieces of land, spread out over a five-kilometre area.

At first we bought two mature groves, with 200 trees between them. We planted other groves, with between 500 and 600 trees, which won’t go into production for another five or six years.

Why did you choose Tuscany?

My husband is from Naples and grew up in Puglia - for him as things stand the south of Italy is out of the question; it’s too unpredictable.

In Tuscany the authorities don’t want people to come into an area and build new buildings, breaking up the land. They’re very wise in keeping the landscape, their strongest asset. But it means you have to be very patient about getting things done.

How patient?

This week I was given permission to enlarge the farm to have a wine cellar and tasting area - that’s taken us four years. Bureaucracy in Italy is a nightmare.

Organic farms are extremely closely controlled. The authorities know how many plants I have, how many olives and litres of oil I can expect. It’s all very strict which is good, even if it is a bit of a pain. Whatever kind of form to fill in, you have to hire technical people.

How easily did you settle into Italian life?

Because we’re a mixed nationality, mixed language family, it’s worked really well.

I had studied here as a teenager and at university, then worked in Italy after graduating.

I do know people who don’t speak Italian well who have made this move and it’s been much more difficult, not becoming a part of the community.

You can live in a postcard environment for a few years, but eventually I don’t think it’s going to work.

Have you faced any great difficulties?

We didn’t have any particular difficulties, because we buildt up the farm from one field to the next. Local people were very helpful; we can in and took on board people’s experience and a quality-orientated approach.

We also used my marketing and sales experience, which farmers around here hadn’t thought of but has had a positive impact on the community.

How do you sell your olive oil?

We sell around 400 litres of high-quality olive oil a year, mostly through pre-sales directly to customers.

We had a UK business for my husband’s consultancy work and sell through this, it was just easier.

To make the business viable, as well as selling the olive oil we’ve decided to do tours. I take groups of people to visit small farms, eat with the farmers and see the production process, to help people reconnect with where their food comes from.

We’re keen to diversify our activities, as farming is very weather dependent.

Do you have any advice for people thinking of setting up a farm in Italy?

Come on a winter vacation. Here it gets cold, grey and wet. People come on a summer holiday and think it’s fantastic, without knowing what it’s like during the other six months of the year.

You have to be prepared to make a huge effort, investing time in the language and getting to know people by doing different activities. I met fantastic people through my children’s school.

I love it here - the harmony, tranquility and peace of this beautiful area. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. 

For more information about Suzie Alexander's work, visit the Suzie's Yard Facebook page.

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