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Case study 9: Italy: Diversification of durum wheat cropping systems in semi-arid environment with sulla clover, hemp and chickpea

Cluster 2: Crop diversification under adverse conditions

The identification of suitable pathways for innovative agronomic solutions and value chain options represent a key objective in the case study, in an agro-climatic context offering a narrow spectrum of alternatives in terms of crop diversification. Case study 9 originates from the need to diversify durum wheat-based arable systems in dry and rainfed conditions in Sicily. As monocropping and large wheat extensions have frequently characterised the Sicilian landscape, the use of leguminous crops in rotation has often represented the most common choice to break monocultures. Testing options for sulla clover or chickpea cultivations in rotation with durum wheat in Sicily was thus part of the preliminary assumptions for the case study. More recent developments at the regulatory and market levels show a promising perspective for the introduction of a ‘retro-innovation’ in the Sicilian arable systems: hemp.

What are the main problems underlying the emergence of the case study?
Coping strategies for climate and economic vagaries represent the main entry point. This has been apparent to the case study actors primarily through loss of soil fertility and erosion as well as income instability.

In Sicily, crop diversification beyond usual cultivations is hampered by the semi-arid conditions characteristic of most regional areas, inconsistent rainfall, scarce irrigation facilities and water accessibility, unsuitable or non-profitable alternative markets, and lack of competences and technical assistance on agroecological solutions. The identification of suitable pathways for innovative agronomic solutions and value chain options in the Sicilian context is thus urgent. A more favourable sociotechnical environment is in sight, as is shown by the expansion of organic farming in Sicily; it is the region with the largest organic acreage, which has grown substantially in recent years (the latest figures show there was a 17% increase in 2017 and 31% of Sicilian Utilised Agricultural Area is certified as organic).

Value chain diversification will remain a major challenge and a key focus of the case study. Barriers act at multiple levels: environmental (the semi-arid condition constrains diversification options), economic (market rigidity and lack of policy support) and cognitive (resistance to exploring agronomic and marketing alternatives). Yet, the sociocultural lock-ins do not seem insurmountable; case study actors already see promising dynamics in niche and innovative areas such as rediscovery of local/ancient grains, innovative value chains for local-to-European markets, and options arising from the circular economy opportunities.

How is the problem addressed and which actors are involved?
Starting from informal gatherings of assorted actors, a ‘Sulla Club’ was established to determine to what extent sulla clover may represent a valid agronomic and economic option in Sicily, including its vocation for biogas production and digestate use for soil fertility and carbon storage. The ‘Sulla Club’ pooled together various actors in the value chain (farmers, breeders, millers and researchers) to discuss emerging issues in Sicilian arable crops.

Subsequent stakeholder engagement carried out by the case study in its initial phases identified further crop diversification possibilities, which introduce hemp in the rotation. This was triggered by a recent legislative evolution in Italy, which removed legal obstacles in the cultivation, transformation and sale of hemp and hemp derived products. Consequently, two additional farms joined the case study group bringing in pioneering expertise on hemp.

The case study core group thus evolved with the participation of two research institutions (FIRAB and CREA) andfour Sicilian farms (Frasson farm - conventional, Pottino farm – organic, and Crisafulli Mill and Kibbò farm – transitioning to organic) with heterogeneous farm organisations, crop rotations, pedoclimatic conditions and reference value chains.

Considering this diversity in pedoclimatic environments, management and marketing options, the case study mainly investigates:

  • organisational and agronomic solutions at the farm level;
  • technical and market options for durum wheat, which is a key crop in the regional arable sector;
  • pertinent value chain trajectories for other key crops in the rotations.

Solution investigated
The case study development has partially redirected its focus. While agronomic options to increase durum wheat sustainability remain one of its driving foci, the case study is increasingly exploring the socio-technical determinants for introducing hemp in rotation. In particular, a market investigation will be carried out in collaboration with work package 5 to analyse barriers and enablers for hemp-based value chains.

The role of other species in rotation and farm income, namely leguminous crops such as sulla clover and chickpea, will also be investigated for their agronomic potential and economic viability.

Expected outcome
Determining the effectiveness and scalability of crop diversification options in semi-arid contexts are among the desired effects of the case study plan. Working on different innovation niches and sociotechnical contexts, the case study aims to test and compare the validity of various diversification trajectories both at the farm and value chain levels.

The ultimate case study goal is to provide viable transition pathways that regional and national stakeholders and policy makers may consider in their endeavour to achieve more sustainability in farming under severe climatic conditions.

Relevance to the DiverIMPACTS goals
How to combine crop diversification with market diversification and consumers interest in novel foods is one of the most significant contributions case study 9 makes to DiverIMPACTS.

Further information


  • Luca Colombo, FIRAB, Case study leader
  • Giovanni Dara Guccione, Case study monitor

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