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Earthquake-hit farmers in Italy rest hopes on fields of lentils

CASTELLUCCIO, Italy (Reuters) - Over seven months after a devastating earthquake hit the central parts of Italy, farmers from the Umbria region are hoping that their fields of lentils can help revive local agriculture and tourism.

Escorted by the military through unstable tunnels along the road, around 20 tractors reached the plains at the foot of the Sibillini mountains for the first time since October, to ready the land for sowing the lentil seeds.

The lentils grown near the village of Castelluccio are one of the many typical regional products, including saffron and cured hams, whose production and sale have been hit by multiple earthquakes last year which killed nearly 300 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

Italy’s main farming association Coldiretti has estimated at 2.3 billion euros ($2.4 billion) the cost of the direct and indirect damage done to rural areas, barns, machinery, mills, storehouses and infrastructure and the destruction of animals and crops.

“Returning to Castelluccio ... is a rebirth for everyone, it is truly a symbolic moment. We need to go up to start the work anew, to start the new crops and to give our youth the possibility to start a new life,” said Gianni Coccia, president of the Cooperative of Castelluccio Lentils.

Much of Castelluccio was destroyed by especially powerful quakes in August and October, which lowered the land in the area by up to 70 cm (28 inches) and ripped up many access roads.

The territory around the quake epicentre is mainly used for agriculture and animal rearing, with over 25,000 small companies, the majority of which are family-run, and almost 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of crops.

Known across the country and abroad, the tiny lentils are a symbol of the area and are grown over 500 hectares on an upland area 1,400 metres (4,560 ft) above sea level.

Seeds this year will be planted a month later than usual but locals trust it will be done in time for the fields to burst into the bright colours of the so-called “Fiorita” - stunning blossoms created by rows of poppies, gentians and narcissus that sprout in June next to the lentil plants.

The natural show of reds, yellow and blues usually attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and is a key date in the local tourism calendar.

“It is important to support the area so that reconstruction of towns goes in parallel with the recovery of the economy, which in this area is linked to food and tourism,” Coldiretti president Roberto Moncalvo said.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has approved a draft law to help people affected by the quakes, including 35 million euros to compensate farmers for lost income.

($1 = 0.9425 euros)

Writing by Giulia Segreti; Editing by Tom Heneghan