Like other branches of the Italian economy, agriculture has been characterized historically by a series of inequalities, both regional and social. Until the Land Reform Acts of 1950, much of Italy’s cultivable land was owned and idly managed by a few leisured noblemen, while the majority of agricultural workers struggled under harsh conditions as wage labourers or owned derisory plots of land, too small for self-sufficiency. Agricultural workers had few rights, and unemployment ran high, especially in Calabria, where the impetus for land reform was generated. Reform entailed the redistribution of large tracts of land among the landless peasantry, thereby absorbing greater amounts of labour and encouraging more efficient land use.
Although partially successful, the reform created many farms that were still too small to be viable and plots that were scattered in parcels and often located in unfertile uplands. Another negative aspect of the reform was that it had the effect of damaging the social structure of rural communities. Initially, the EEC did little to help Italy’s small farmers, located primarily in the south, while wealthier, larger farms in the north benefited from EEC subsidies. However, in 1975 specific aid was directed at upland farmers, and in 1978 another package provided them advisory support and aid for irrigation. Today most farms are owned and operated by families.
Since World War II, Italy has maintained a negative trade balance in agricultural products, many of which are consumed domestically because of the country’s high population density. The majority of foreign agricultural and food-related trade is with other EU countries, in particular with France and Germany.
Italy’s plains constitute only one-fourth of the land under cultivation, indicating widespread cultivation of hilly environments where agriculture has been possible only as a result of modifying the natural landscape and resources through terracing, irrigation, and soil management. The most fertile area is the Po valley, where precipitation is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, but mean rainfall decreases southward. Coastal areas in Puglia, Sicily, and Sardinia may register only about 12–16 inches (300–400 mm) of annual precipitation, compared with about 118 inches (3,000 mm) in Alpine regions.
In general, agricultural land use is divided into four types—field crops, tree crops, pasture, and forestry.