Last week we harvested all of our wheat. Wheat harvest tends to occur in the full heat of early July, when the days are long and the sun is relentless. It took two combines (machines that harvest crops) working for four days to clear the wheat fields. We shipped out to two different mills over 175,000 pounds of organic heirloom wheat.
The world has changed since we planted that wheat six months ago. It was late January and we were behind on planting, dealing with soaked fields from an overly rainy winter. A month later, the first Coronavirus “red zones” would be established in Italy and shortly thereafter, the entire country would be put under mandatory lockdown.
While we are far from having things go “back to normal” (in whatever form that will take), Italy is continuing to reopen its economy and its borders in phases without alarming increases in virus cases or deaths, for now. While Italy’s handling of the virus was imperfect and could absolutely be improved, there were important decisions made early on that have helped the country reopen and not have to take steps back.
From a small business perspective, there were three important steps that the Italian government took early on to help. While the farm part of the business continued to operate (with all of the safety measures in place), the tourism part of our business had to close in March. Income from the tourism has suffered – stays were canceled or pushed to next year, as were program groups, retreats, and other events. And while we do have guests staying (with new safety measures in place) on the farm in July and August, it is a very different season than we had planned for.
One of the first economic relief measures that the government enacted was to suspend mortgage and loan payments for everyone. Payments were suspended until September 30, and the suspended payments were simply added on to the end of the repayment schedule without any fees or added interest. We took advantage of this measure, especially since we didn’t know in April what kind of tourism season we would have. I cannot stress how much this measure has helped cashflow management during a very uncertain time.
The second economic measure was to make available small, very-low-interest loans with generous repayment schedules. We applied for one of those loans and were approved, and it has provided an additional cushion of cash.
The third economic relief measure that we have taken advantage of has to do with employee benefits. Almost immediately, Italy froze all firings and allowed businesses of all sizes to use an unemployment mechanism normally allowed for larger companies. A company could put employees on full or partial unemployment and the employees could receive 80% of a normal salary. There have been many, many glitches in this process, but we did use the partial unemployment option for two of our employees who work primarily in the tourism part of the business.
The farm will make it through this challenging time. That is due in part to the fact that we are a farm and have continued to work and produce while other businesses have had to stay closed. That is in part due to an ability to reinvent ourselves and offer things like a home delivery service for our products. And that is in part due to policy decisions aimed to help small businesses through the pandemic.
In the future, libraries will be filled with books analyzing the events of 2020. Much can be written about how and why different countries responded to Covid. I’m not going to delve into my interpretation of why Italy and the US have had such incredibly different experiences with the virus. The reasons are deep and complex, and underscore the differences in culture, values, and history. But there are some basic steps that can be taken to help individuals, families, and small businesses navigate a time of extreme uncertainty.
Tomorrow we start harvesting chickpeas, and then we move on to lentils, flax, and in late September, to the rice. In a few weeks, we will start prepping the fields for this winter’s wheat planting. It is impossible to say how things will be when we plant the wheat that will be harvested in a year. But the actions of people and politicians will continue to determine the extent of the suffering the pandemic causes and the ability of communities to make it through.