Italy’s Iris Bio brand serves as a case study on successful cooperative production
◊ By Karin Heinze
The mission is: Working for our planet. And to produce the best organic pasta from grains supplied by organic farmers from all over Italy, belonging to the cooperative Astra Bio. For 40 years now, organic pioneer Maurizio Gritta is the driving force behind this company. Convinced by the idea that there is an alternative to the common economic model, he has established the Italian company. Now, he plans to bring the brand Iris Bio to the German specialist trade’s shelves.
The cooperative has grown to around 300 members and approximately 5,500 ha of farmland across Italy
The beginnings of Iris Bio date back to the year 1978. Back then, nine young people from completely different backgrounds came together for one common goal: To engage in organic agriculture, as well as, to spread and develop the tradition of an environmentally friendly farming culture. Maurizio Gritta studied agriculture and was inspired by the philosophy of his father, to whom “the earth was holy.” Others brought in different ideas—the common conviction, however, was to pursue the production of healthy food.
COUNTRY COMMUNE TO COOPERATIVE
From the origin of an alternative community in Southern Lombardy, the agricultural cooperative, Iris, founded in 1984, developed. At this point in time, the group of founders already wrote down their philosophy in four points. They are still valid: Iris pursues to spread organic farming methods in Italy, to create jobs for women and the disabled, to gain and keep direct contact with consumers and to lead the company as a cooperative with equal members—it belongs to all.
“The beginning was not easy,” Gritta remembers. “On one hectare of farmland, the members of the cooperative cultivated vegetables for the local market. It was hard work and we did not earn much money.” Over time, however, due to enormous efforts of persuasion, a successful company has developed, for which it was important to achieve fair prices for high quality products—and it worked. Gradually, cultivation was expanded, products were refined and sold through two self-owned shops in the neighbourhood.
Besides that, the specific qualities of organic and biodynamic cultivation, of wholefood nutrition, as well as, the necessity to act ecologically, were emphasised to consumers at many events.
CREATION OF A 100% ITALIAN SUPPLY CHAIN
A key year was 1990: Due to the growth and the positive feedback from customers, Iris Bio decided to also include them in the project financially. With the support of partakers, around 40 ha of farmland could be bought. “From 1994 onwards, our business in Calvatone has become the measure for organic cultivation,” says Gritta, not without pride. Processing (pasta was produced in 1993 for the first time) and direct marketing, in particular, have been the main growth contributors. In line with expanding organic cultivation, more and more farmers found interest in becoming members of the Iris cooperative (Astra Bio). Thus, until today, the agricultural cooperative has grown to around 300 members and approximately 5,500 ha of farmland all over Italy. “We are always focused on our supply chain; we know our farmers and are glad to be able to obtain 100% of our organic resources from Italy,” explains Gritta, hinting at the various fraud cases in the past concerning grains from foreign countries.
SUSTAINABLE NEW BUILDING
The decision for the construction of a new pasta factory was made by the cooperative’s general assembly in 2010. Approximately EUR 22 mn flowed into the new building, as well as, the latest facilities. Again, the most important guideline was to use as little of the resources as possible and to fulfil the highest quality requirements in processing. Examples of this are a solar system, which provides the company with up to 100% electricity during the summer, the building biology of the new construction and the constructed wetland. At the site, besides durum, ancient grains such as Kamut are being processed.
ITALIAN MARKET & EXPORT
Shopping cooperatives, called GAS (Gruppi Acquisto Solidale), are playing a central role in Italy. For the company, direct marketing has been a solid mainstay from the very beginning. Today, Iris Bio realises about 35% of its sales through around 1,000 such groups, which also order the company’s products from countries like France, Belgium, Austria and Germany. Since 1996, Iris has been producing pasta for the German organic food company Byodo under their brand name. Under the name Iris Bio, the company has mainly been marketing in Italy via GAS, but also via various organic wholesalers, which makes up for 40% of its sales. The trade brand business in Italy, as well as, in foreign countries accounts for 25% of the turnover.
The decision to enter the German market with the Iris Bio brand is linked to the occupancy rate of the new big pasta factory. Secondly, the cooperative is growing and, thus, produces more organic grains. Further, Gritta states: “The interest in our sustainably produced quality pasta from 100% Italian grains is very high and we don’t want to hide behind a trade brand name any longer.”
THE CONVENTIONALISATION TRAP & SOLIDARITY
Gritta doesn’t always approve of the market trend. Even though he is glad about the increasing demand for organic products, he sometimes sees the branch biting the bait of conventionalisation.
However, he is convinced that the sector would be more successful by working together in solidarity and cooperating as the unified organic movement. “We need a market that appreciates the value of our earth bringing forth all resources,” he says. For his own company, Gritta still sets the course according to the aims that were being established over 40 years ago. He has presented his thoughts on the Iris Bio philosophy in many speeches and has even written a book on the subject.
Freedom and responsibility are two terms that he acquires by dint of his work. “With our partners, we work together as we would work with friends, because we are convinced of our work’s necessity with regards to our responsibility towards the earth and future generations,” says Gritta.
Precisely the same attitude is reflected in the pricing, with 42% of the products’ price going to the farmers. Iris has been created to initiate a different, fairer economy. This is also reflected in the cooperative’s structure: operational decisions are only made by the general assembly, horizontal salary structures, investment of profits in social projects, involvement of customers in the funding of projects and many such features.
Relentlessly, Maurizio Gritta follows the mission and spreads ecological ideas. For his work, he has already been awarded lots of prizes.
The author is editor of www.bio-markt.info (German) and www.organic-market.info (English), online magazines for organic trade