As Andrew and Sarah prepare for their Romania trip, Kate Lucas, our point-person on the ground there supplies us with some further intel on what they’re getting into. In agro-political terms, the current situation looks absolutely fascinating:
I’ll try to give you a general picture of what’s going on in Romanian agriculture, but don’t take my words as gospel, it’s notoriously hard to get clear information here even when you’re asking the “experts”. Hopefully by the end of Sarah and Andrew’s trip we’ll all have a clearer picture of the emerging patterns.
Currently the agriculture situation is one of tremendous potential; to become organic, local, and cutting edge or to succumb to the pressures of factory farming and genetic engineering. It seems as though Romania is currently on the edge of a precipice but once things get a little shove, it’ll be fast and furious movement in one direction or the other. Romania is a country in transition and the focus of a lot of investment speculation. We already have a pig CFO set up by Smithfield in Timisoara (which has been closed once already due to a swine flu out break) and other large corporations like Star potatoes are starting to get a foothold.
Ironically, one of the things that is giving the Slow Food and local/organic movements a little time to organize is that selling off land to large corporations has thus far been impractical. For centuries people have been farming in tiny narrow strips of land that they live near, but who owns that property is not always clear. So many deeds have been issued over time with overlapping borders by so many varying conquerors, empires, kings, and states that who farms what is often done by local agreement and necessity rather than deeds and ownership. Combine that with Romania’s infamous bureaucracy and corruption issues and even the free market has had a hard time really getting a grasp on the land.
So in many ways farming today continues as it has for centuries. Often times you large stretches of agricultural land carved into garden size patches each cultivated in different ways because they are tended by different families. Although techniques are not 100% pre industrial revolution, apparently lots of farmers use and often misuse pesticides and fertilizers in the hopes of more bountiful crops.
These producers bring their harvest into town and sell them at the daily Piata where you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, local honey, cheese, spices, and bread. Today in the winter produce is imported primarily from Turkey (though at the large grocery stores you’ll find imports from all over Europe- often even when those items are also grown locally), but before the fall of communism in 1989 the winters were pretty bare. People relied mostly on the local grown apples, potatoes, pickles, cabbage, celery root, and red onions to get them through the winter.
While there is tremendous potential for cultivating niche markets and to make use of high density bio diverse organic farming techniques for sustainable and profitable small farms most farmers haven’t a clue how to go about doing this. Most farmers are still in farming because they are too old switch career paths. Younger Romanians are leaving Romania in droves to find higher paying work. Very few Romanians are interested in staying in Romania and continuing the farming tradition. It just isn’t seen as profitable enough.
Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, after so many years of deprivation the highest priority on everyone’s minds is making money. Therefore stressing a profitable yet sustainable small scale privately owned farm will be the best way to get people’s attention. To teach them they don’t need to sell out or grow big to turn a profit is important.
Also, after years of isolation the skills just aren’t there. The how tos of practical successful (low chemical) farming are just as important to teach as the next step of niche marketing. After all, the farmland is very fertile and someone will be making a profit eventually, hopefully it will be small traditional farmers and not the corporations who buy them out.
People are very proud of what they remember of Romanian culture before communism and those traditions that have survived in spite of it. People who visit from other places in Europe say Romania’s agricultural traditions should be preserved because it’s a living example of how the rest of Europe lived before the industrial revolution. Selling the experience of rural European life is part of our other programs with sustainable food tourism seminars.