Oranges Tell a Bittersweet Story about Cooperative Farming in Europe

close-up of bitter oranges on a tree

Small-scale organic fruit and vegetable farmers are used to facing crises in their field. Prevention and mitigation plans are essential in organic farming to keep these micro-crises—such as disease, pests, or even overproduction—below acceptable levels. But what about the macro-crises? Life is not simple for organic producers who have faced a pandemic, unfavorable weather conditions, and stiff competition from the industrial food system in 2020. At both the field and macro levels, the best way to respond to crisis is through collaboration—from a chain of threats comes a chain of prosperity.

In my fieldwork, I study how farmers use agronomic science, experience, knowledge of the seasons, and everyday observations of organisms in their fields to understand and respond to the multiple crises they face. Within the paradigms of organic agriculture and agroecology, mitigation plans are generally made based upon the management of a new ecosystem balance in collaboration with non-human beings. For instance, flower strips may be used to attract pollinators or predators of crop pests. But my fieldwork has also led me to work with a trans-European network of producers. Specifically, I follow the supply chain of arancia amare, “bitter oranges,” and other citrus fruits as they make their way from Sicily to Belgium. During this journey, they cross three cooperatives representing alternative agricultures (all names of specific places, people, and organizations have been anonymized here).

Matteo is a citrus farmer. Every week, from October to March, he ships his organic oranges to Belgium. The Italian cooperative Nostro Paese (“our Country”) sends the citrus to northern Europe. Next, a Belgian cooperative, Les Bionautes (“The Bionauts”) distributes the Sicilian fruits through a network of local producers, mainly small-scale organic farmers that supplement the sale of their own crops with imported products like citrus to improve their incomes. Lore is one of these producers. Every Saturday her cooperative, Heron’s Farm, sells fruits and vegetables at the outdoor market in a mid-sized Belgian city.

Each of these cooperatives is touched by crisis. But just as bitter oranges are both sour and sweet, these citrus fruits also cary the strength to face these difficulties, namely in the solidarity and fair trade practices among producers. To the chain of crises responds a chain of prosperity through collaboration.

Overlapping Crises

Sicily, October 2020. The bulldozers and trucks came early this morning to start to cull the diseased orange trees from Matteo’s orchard. Of the 15 hectares of trees, about 12 had to be cut because of the Citrus tristeza virus. The orange trees—or more precisely, their rootstocks—are arancia amare, “bitter oranges,” introduced during the Arabian occupation of Sicily from the ninth century. Some of these trees were planted by Mateo’s grandfather in the 1930s. At this time, the Tristeza virus was not a problem in Sicily but was ravaging Argentina, Brazil, and the U.S. state of California, causing the death of millions of trees. This disease arrived in Spain in the 1960s, and the first outbreak in Sicily was reported in 2003. It’s an incurable disease, causing irreversible dieback of the trees. Matteo had to cut off all his trees and sell the wood to a biomass energy producer. He’s one of the main producers in the Sicilian cooperative Nostro Paese, which exports mainly organic citrus (but also olive oil and cheeses) to northern Europe. This cooperative was created to guarantee a fair price to producers in the sale of their citrus. This year, very little citrus will leave Matteo’s farm to reach the cooperative.

black and white photograph of a bitter orange field with bare soil and woody debris
Cutting down the diseased orange trees on Matteo’s farm. Photo by Nicolas Loodts.

The warehouse of the cooperative is in a small town located 15 kilometers from Matteo’s farm. It’s here, in front of a three-stage building with an imposing warehouse, that the pickers gather at six o’clock in the morning before the harvests. For now, on this Friday afternoon in the main warehouse, workers are sorting organic oranges. In this organization, fair prices allow better working conditions. The cooperative tries to limit the number of seasonal contracts in order to hire its staff with as many permanent contracts as possible. To do so, Nostro Paese tries to find new market opportunities to keep its workers employed year-round. For instance, the same team of workers completes the harvest across different farms, which provides them with regular work. Today in the warehouse, workers wearing ubiquitous masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 are preparing boxes for shipments to France and Belgium. Tonight, a truck will leave Sicily to travel across Italy and France to the great Rungis International Market in Paris, one of the most important markets for fruits and vegetables in western Europe. There, another shipper will carry the load and distribute it in Belgium, including to the farmers’ cooperative Les Bionautes

Four days after being shipped from Sicily, the citrus fruits are welcomed by the team of “bionautes.” François and Stéphane sign the delivery note and carry the boxes to the cold storage room on a pallet jack. The oranges will be dispatched between two sales channels. The first channel is dedicated directly to consumers. A shop gathers products from all the producers that are members of the cooperative. Open six days a week, it’s aimed at a public used to the convenient schedule of the supermarkets. Additionally, veggie boxes are assembled with fruits and vegetables produced by the members of the cooperative and its partners. These are delivered every week in local deliveries.

Black and white photograph of workers unloading crates of oranges from a truck
Reception of bitter oranges in Belgium by the cooperative Les Bionautes. Photo by Nicolas Loodts.

The second channel concerns exchanges between cooperators in a business-to-business (B2B) system. Producers often have their own sale points at city markets or farm stores, and they generally complement their own offerings with products from their partners. Indeed, the producers created the cooperative to facilitate the commercialization of their products to consumers but also between themselves. All of the producers have their own organic certification, and most of them try to go “beyond organic” in the social aspect of their operation and the care for biodiversity on their farms.

While members had agreed to pool their financial resources to get the B2B system certified (and maintain their products’ organic labels), Les Bionautes decided not to certify the direct-to-consumer shop and veggie boxes, instead relying on their customers’ trust in the integrity of their products. Yet after about ten years, the certification organization stopped allowing Les Bionautes to retain their organic certification for the B2B system unless they made the expensive decision to get the other sales channels certified, too.

Bitter oranges are as sweet and sour as the story of alternative agricultures in times of crisis.

At a recent quarterly meeting among Les Bionautes members, there was a strong feeling of injustice. They will pay, but as one farmer remarked about the certification organization: “they ask [from] us an amount similar to a month of our salary, and they know it.” In general, producers are contesting the logic of this system more and more frequently. They ask, why do we have to pay to prove that we are doing a good job, while conventional farmers don’t have to prove anything? 

There is also dissatisfaction with the structure of support payments from Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). From the perspective of small-scale producers, the policy is geared toward large-scale industrial agriculture. Some of them stop participating in the system out of frustration—they refuse to complete official paperwork and forgo funding they might receive. Nothing is less sure than whether the new CAP expected for 2023 will be more suitable for alternative producers.

But let’s follow our oranges to their final step. On Thursday morning, Lore, a market-gardener from the neighboring town, comes by Les Bionautes to pick up an order for her own cooperative, Heron’s Farm. In addition to carrots and potatoes, she also loads some boxes of citrus from Sicily.

At Heron’s Farm, members grow together in a horizontal work organization and farm according to the principles of agroecology. They care about soil life and try to till as little as possible. In their field, green manure and tarpaulins are very common and allow for minimal soil work. Flower strips are also cultivated to attract pollinators, and about 50 different varieties of vegetables are grown. It is here that Lore cultivates a 1.5-hectare plot, and she sells her products at local city markets.

Rows of tomato plants in a greenhouse covered with green tarp
Shaded greenhouse at Heron’s farm. Photo by Nicolas Loodts.

At the outdoor market, Heron’s Farm’s beautiful stall of fruits and vegetables is a real eye-catcher for passers-by. An elderly woman, a usual customer never short of speech, buys one kilo of the Sicilian oranges. She asks questions about Nostro Paese  because she wants to know where her food comes from. The stall is well integrated into the social life of the city. But despite the patronage of many customers each week, earning a living properly is a perennial challenge. Last year, one of the founders of the cooperative left the project after 10 passionate years to get a job as a bioengineer. Alternative farming takes place in a difficult economic environment for agriculture, where about 250 farmers close their door each year in Belgium. This kind of small-scale agriculture competes with more highly-capitalized and mechanized farms which set the price standards for fruits and vegetables. 

Moreover, in 2020 the producers in the chain I’ve described were touched by two global crises: drought and the COVID-19 pandemic. The drought in Belgium, a country usually known for its drache (“heavy rain”), is such that the period 2017-2020 presents a water shortage equivalent to six months of missed rains that won’t be easily compensated. With worsening climate change, droughts are expected to become more common and the situation is unlikely to improve. Irrigation problems are appearing, with producers having to shade their greenhouses to prevent water loss. On top of this, the COVID-19 crisis deprived some producers of their sales channels during lockdown. While supermarkets were still open, many outdoor markets closed their doors. For some producers, the lockdown was a stressful period necessitating the research of new sales opportunities. 

A Chain of Prosperity

In light of these observations, we could conclude that alternative organic agricultures are in bad shape. My storytelling highlights multiple threats to small producers. But it neglects that these traveling citrus fruits also carry the hopes and strengths of small-scale producers. They embody a chain of prosperity where each knot they cross is strengthened.

Let’s follow our oranges again. For Matteo, the sales of his citrus fruits to the cooperative Nostro Paese allow him and multiple other producers to have a better income because they can sell oranges at a price much higher than they would receive in conventional trade channels. In his orchard, the uprooting of some oranges trees will free up land for a new agroecological garden—half of the area will be planted with citrus, and the other half will be dedicated to the cultivation of subtropical fruits like mango and avocado. On the hills surrounding his orchard, Matteo planted oak trees with a special water collector to recreate a forest. Given that climate change is already impacting production, Matteo has been able to deal with it but not despair.

several plastic-covered high tunnels behind a bed of colorful flowers on a sunny day
Market-gardening landscape at Heron’s farm. Picture by Nicolas Loodts.

When they arrive in Belgium, the sales of the oranges to clients and producers contribute to the health and financial independence of Les Bionautes, who are finishing a good year. With COVID-19, many new clients came to the cooperative at the heart of the lockdown and some of them are still there. The producers received a proposition to open a new shop in the coming months. Moreover, new producers are being welcomed in the cooperative in 2021. Despite everything, their model is increasingly appreciated by customers and producers.

At last, when the oranges are picked up by Lore and arrive at Heron’s Farm, their sale improves the incomes of these small-scale agroecological producers and supports their experiments for more sustainable food systems. Even if the cooperative is still in an unstable situation given the departures of some of its members, each year brings new energy and initiatives in its production and marketing.

To the chain of crises responds a chain of prosperity.

In 2020, they decided to stop the sale of vegetables not coming from their own farm or from Les Bionautes‘ network. In 2021, they have also chosen to stop the production of hybrid tomatoes in favor of heirloom varieties. They are also thinking about switching to a self-picking system to decrease their production costs and increase their incomes and comfort. Moreover, in assessing the success of their project, they also value the achievement of working together in a horizontal organization without conflict, as well as the biodiversity in their fields. And it is a success: this summer a snake came back to nest in one of the greenhouses, and two fox cubs lived their youth on the field. As members leave, others join and the project goes on. There are crises but there is also a great energy to face them.

Bitter oranges are sweet and sour as the story of these alternative agricultures in times of crisis. Through their journey, these citrus fruits encompass both the difficulties and successes of cooperative farmers, both the threats to their future and the solidarity that makes them resilient.

Featured image: Bitter oranges (“arancia amare”) growing on a tree. Image courtesy A. Barra.

Nicolas Loodts is a Ph.D. student (FNRS-FRESH Doctoral Grant) in anthropology at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). His fieldwork concerns a network of alternative producers located in Belgium (mainly Wallonia) and Italy (mainly Sicily). His research explores the specificities of the fruits and vegetables production according to scale, the way the producers interpret the signs of the nonhumans in their fields, and the evolution of farming practices in times of crisis. Contact.