When we speak about agriculture of the Southern Italy, it is common to hear that, by 1861, it was backward and attributes this to the presence of very large estates (latifondo); in fact, such estate was a feature of southern agriculture, known since ancient times and mentioned by Pliny the Elder.
An institution that has remained for two millennia has to have a raison d’être, which is actually a result of the hydrogeological characteristics of the area. For sake of the objectivity, we must admit that the latifundium was coherent with the Sicilian habit to invest the profits in new land without improving existing land; this characteristic, however, finds its origin in order to distribute the risk and is therefore also a consequence of the characteristics of the soil.
The need for land reform was already felt in the eighteenth century, but the first results were only in the Napoleonic era and then during the Restoration: from 1806 to 1860, 600.000 hectares of land were divided, out of which 205.000 in small properties- The distribution of land ownership, however, remained centralized in the hands of a limited number of families.
The estate was cultivated with techniques adapted to the scarcity of water and the clay soils, which allowed quite only the cultivation of wheat alternated with breeding transhumance; from the first half of the nineteenth century had begun a process of population of the countryside, which were increasingly permanently manned, supported by investments in rural housing, new work tools and purchase of sheep breeding, especially the merino. It was also a substantial increase in culturing trees (almond, grapes, citrus) with a very strong expansion of the cultivation of olive trees. The management of the estate was partly direct and partly indirect, through the rent for agricultural entrepreneurs (massari) who in turn had the power to direct management or sublet.
The South of Italy, in the nineteenth century, was exporting agricultural products in France and England, in particular olive oil for industrial use, wine and almonds; the export markets were managed indirectly, the Neapolitan merchants bought the food in the countryside and sold them to French, English and Dutch merchants, only a few merchants of Puglia had the ability to directly sell the product abroad. During the nineteenth century, Southern agriculture was adapting quickly to changing needs by converting the countryside planted with wheat, arid and depopulated, towards an original way of agricultural development based on the cultivation of trees.
Some interesting data related to agriculture:
- despite having only the 36.7% of the Italian population, the South produced the 50.4% of wheat, 80.2% of barley and oats, 53% of potatoes, 41.5% of vegetables and 60% of oil
- in 1860, compared to 1750, agricultural production had increased by 120% and 80% compared to 1830.
- Regarding livestock, the South had more than 56% of sheep and goats, 60% of the horses, 55% of pigs and 13% of cattle.