Can’t we eat our own? Food activism’s twists and turns in the 21st century Eastern Europe

Having presented all our various projects to create or save local food
distribution networks, at one point of the debate the bunch of Eastern
European activists sitting scattered in the overheated menza of a 2008
summer university suddenly burst out in a half-painful, half-ironic
laugh. This outburst has been building up while an Austrian
peasant-activist, invited to inspire motivation through her successful
project, related how she and her friends do wander each year with their
ecologically kept sheep from the hills to the center of Vienna, and
spend the winter there, teaching schoolchildren where cheese comes
from, and also selling their products. Amazed by the picture of such a
fairy-tale-like idea, we began to ask the questions we have become
trained to crack our similar big ideas with: how on earth do they
manage to get the authorization for crossing all those lands? Which
animal health authority do they get their papers from? On what pretext
can they breed animals in a public space? What about taxes? Etc, etc.
Our model did not seem to worry too much about any of those questions.
Slowly, we got deeper and deeper into the differences in the legal and
economic opportunities of direct food marketing between Austria and
Hungary or Romania. The laughs burst out when, a bit tired of answering
so many meticulous questions about this or that part of tax or animal
health legislation, the Austrian shepherd pointed out, in a
self-evident way, that „no! we don’t have to care about all these
things you are talking about. Come on, they don’t want to kill us!”

A structural necessity?

After the II. World War, the frames of a common European agrarian policy were shaped in order to make up to the urging food deficiency by an intensive, industrial production, incited by allocations, funds and protecting duties. The resulting waves of overproduction in the following decades were treated by ever newer subventions, intervention stockpiles and export subsidies to free European markets from surplus. The resulting picture of agrarian policy could be described as a spiral of paying public money to farmers so that they produce overflows of food in an ecologically and socially harmful way, and then spend more public money to support trades to fill developing countries with this surplus on a dumping price. The ecological and social damages resulting from this process seemed to feed back on European agrarian policies in 1992, when, at least in principle, the bases of a common agrarian policy were set on a multifunctional model. In this latter view, agriculture is understood not only in terms of production, but also in terms of regional functions, like keeping rural population in place, equalizing labor market, sustaining regional ecological and technical infrastructure, serving as a base for tourism etc, as well as in terms of cultural functions linked to the land: sustaining a given type of cultural landscape, land and water protection, ecological and air cleaning functions. The following programs and priorities of the EU were worked out according to this multifunctional view. Still, in Hungary or Romania, the national autonomy in deciding which function should get a stronger emphasys, tended to keep, even strengthen the overemphasis on industrial production in agriculture. This, in the following years of introducing the new, ’europeanizing’ normative systems in agriculture, on their turn also more fitted to big producers than family farms, caused serious turmoil, fears and insecurity for a not so small rural strata living partially or totally on small-scale agriculture.

Recognizing wealth

From an ecological point of view, the ’backwardness’ of whole rural regions being cultivated in small-scale, traditional ways, with rurally specific crops and techniques, could mean, in fact, invaluable resources. Diversity of crops, locally autonomous agricultural economy and sustainable regional ecosystems can be considered vital resources not only from the ecologist’s perspective, oversensitive to nature’s beauties, but also from the mean stategic interests of the state. Both oil crisis and climate change point toward the decline of an industrial, long-distance food distribution system, and emphasize the importance of local and regional ecological and food autonomy. The depopulation of these regions and the privatization of land do not simply mean another shift in economic positions, but also skipping out of hand the chance to rely on local subsistence, on the base of not-yet appropriated lands, knowledge and crops’ genetic information.

With the overflowing waves of consumerism hitting the population of these coutries, the idea of local and ’backward’ food was not among the first ones to get popularity. I remember looking at idea of organic food, in chime with my friends and family, as just another crazy, overcivilized Western campaign. Leave me alone, ’organic’, all that grows out of the soil is organic. Associating the idea of backwardness to local and traditional commodities, in the post-89 frenzy of ’catching up with the West’ and not having yet tried out all those food-ideals in RTL channel advertisements, the idea of local organic food was hardly on the everyday consumer’s scadual, while the former agricultural cooperatives’ elite, together with state privatization policies, let the agricultural sector rely more and more on foreign investments. This process subjected local farmers, on both the input and output ends, to market mechanisms hardly serving their aims, and having less and less chance to keep the economically multiplying effect of their investments in the land at home.

As to the consumers’ sensitivity, though, one can sense a difference building up in the last few years. Food multinationals’ scandals, personal experiences and a deeper and more diverse appropriation of consumer’s attitudes seems to be leading towards a wider awareness of organic food being better and more ethical than the industrial. Public awareness, though, tends to follow, in an understandable way, the paths of cultural (and marketing) constructions, instead of being a ’true mirror’ of ecological or strategic local interests. The most powerful among these constructions seem to be, so far, the ethical (fair trade) and organic products, targeted to an elite audience able to appreciate both their healthy and stylish qualities. In order to live solely on these products, though, one has to be rather well-off, and be part of a subculture with an unusually strong accent on organic food, as a considerable amount of extra motivation is needed to hunt these products down and pay their spicy prices. The distribution and shopping patterns of these kinds of agricultural products do not necessarily follow the idea of locality, nor the idea of recycling resources to small-scale local agriculture.

Departing from the market-based enterprises in the organic business, several new initiatives try to rely on elite consumption in order to create new infrastructures for small local agricultural businesses. The Open Garden Foundation in Gödöllő, Hungary, tried to create a network of community supported agriculture out of several organic family farms and a pool of consumers willing to pay in advance, undertaking some of the economic risks of farming. The problems, among others, arose from not having enough clients whose economic security would allow them to undertake others’ risks in advance.

The UK-based Adept Foundation seems to be more successful in the Saxon villages around Sighişoara, Transylvania. In a broader frame of rural and ecological development, Adept started, as part of its development project, a slow food gastro-tourism program. These gastronomy tours, targeted at knowing (and well-paying) Western tourists, is lead by Rosemary Barron, culinary educator and food historian, currently the president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She teaches gastronomy and promotes food tourism in the Saxon Villages in collaboration with the Adept because she sees in the region a potential similar to Greece 30 years ago.

Make it a brand: the Bucharest Farmers’ Market

The Adept Foundation was among the initiators of another project, a chain of Farmers’ Market events in Bucharest, where small farmers, mostly Adept’s clients, can sell their products directly, and in a good price. The catch here, distinguishing this one example of direct marketing from the possibilities of an average farmer, does not only lie in Adept’s extra resources and competency. The specific image of the market events is developed, backened and promoted by the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, headed by the abundantly creative Mircea Vintilă, king of contemporary Romanian cultural anthropology. Helped and organized by such high-scale actors, a number of small-scale farmers could get into the market called Amzei in the very center of Bucharest every weekend, from April till October 2008. The audience, as one Adept officer told me, consists mainly of tourists and Westerners living in Bucharest, and the events are so successful because they are more interested, „better informed, more active, and don’t look at the prices”. Still, he thinks that these market events would slowly attain ordinary Buchaerst-dwellers’ attention too, and could serve as a consumer education campaign. Vintilă, on his turn, also mentions the problems of small-scale farmers with the EU regulations in his press interviews. Still, with all the serious efforts put into helping peasants to bring specific local products to the market in a legal and profitable way, the Bucharest Farmers’ Market can be considered more as a communication and branding event, rather than a viable model for direct contact between a wider scale of small farmers and not so well-off consumers.

And what about the masses?

In Hungary, the summer of 2008 consisted of a chain of disappointments and scandals from the perspective of fruit-producing farmers. The price of fruit went well below the prime costs, groups of farmers demonstrated here and there by throwing their products out on the roads, and the press was busy depicting the fruit crisis as this or that party’s fault. In response to this situation, an experienced food activist, lately involved in organizing a farmers’ cooperative in the Tisza region, thought of bringing some of those farmers’ fruits to a Budapest market, and advertise the event – including the possibility to order – in forwarded email chains. A surprizing mass interest followed, ever newer tons of fruit were sold in occasional stands. Later even one of the biggest Hungarian chain markets joined the campaign, with farmers selling their products from their trucks’ plateau in front of the shops. As these actions could rely on a former, ’free’ media campaign on the farmers’ problems, they were able to mobilize an interest of so far unknown proportions from ordinary people’s part towards locally grown food. Of course, in this case, the organizers concentrated on saving a bunch of people’s living by creating as many producer-consumer meeting points as possible. They did not have the time to care about personal, ’slow’ relationships building up between them, as they didn’t care about checking how organic those fruits were either. From the part of Hungarian food activists’ networks, these were considered as mistakes that distanced these actions from the movement’s idea. From a future, strategic point of view, though, these actions proved the existence of a vast pool of consumers willing to mobilize and put additional effort into getting local food on a reasonable price.

The problem here, as with many other similar initiatives, lies in the difficulties of becoming formal. Presently, the legal working group of the summer actions is working on an alternative food distribution bill for small farmers, which they wish to introduce with the occasion of their first trial – expecting they would be, sooner or later, unavoidably charged for conducting illegal operation by facilitating small farmer’s direct reach to the consumers.

At the moment, there is no legal term for such non-profit facilitation. An other type of initiative that I used to be active in, that of organizing into small consumer groups for ordering bigger amounts of local products from farmers, is in a curious position, balancing between acting – and showing itself – as a role model for grassroots consumer involvement, and between shutting itself up in an intimate circle of relyable friends, commonly involved in an illegal but advantageous trick for everyday welfare.

The virtues of an individual kickoff

Having said all that, let’s see a more positive story at the end. In a beautiful midsummer day in 2008, a young man in Sfântu Gheorghe, Transylvania put out a milk machine on the street, so that the passers-by of the small town could pour fresh, cold milk into their bottles for less than the supermarket price – which would still mean double money for him, compared to what he could get from any forestaller. After filling the machine with his 9 cow’s milk in the morning, he left town on horseback to spend the weekend at the Saint Anna Lake with his friends. He did not see the crowd forming around his milk machine, neither was he there to give interviews to the local and national media gathering around his creative answer to small farmers’ milk crisis.

When I called him, 5 days after the machine was started, he was already at home, and answered the phone grinningly: „Ok, we can talk if you want, but you know, if I knew there was so much talking, I had never started it”. Which didn’t mean, of course, that there were no advantages for him in all the media hype around his idea: by then, he already got phone calls from all corners of the country, with fellow farmers asking him how they could get such a machine too. As he was about to agree with the Switzerland milk machine company to give him a licence for all Romania, fame was to bring him money in the future.

But do not imagine here a small enterpreneur on the beginning of his way to become a millionaire. He has no plans of funding a „cow factory”, and I was surprised to hear that he wishes to do all the administrative and technical support work for the milk machine licence on his own. He plans to buy 2 more cows now, as with the success of the machine his milk is barely enough for 2 hours’ functioning in the morning, and 2 more in the evening. Later he plans to build a barn in the surrounding fields, as there are chances that in a few years’ time he would not be allowed to breed animals in the outskirts of Sfântu Gheorghe.

Of course, there is something at the base of this success, that prevents it becoming a general solution for small-scale milk production in Romania. Namely, the fact that he is basically a city-dweller, much more used to mobility and venture thinking than his fellows in rural communities, embedded in a more traditional peasant culture. He was not smart enough only to invest in the milk machine, but before that, he bought all the machinery necessary for producing EU-conform milk. This spirit of enterprise is lacking in the resource-poor rural communities subjected to small-scale agriculture’s present depressed situation.

Another personal advantage of this Sfântu Gheorghe farmer, though, could prove to have opened an advantage to all his fellows. Apart from introducing the idea of the direct distribution via milk machines, he contributed to the solution of the riddle of not being to sell local products through cutting the Gordian knot of legal and administrative autorizations. When he first went to the bureaus concerned in authorizing his enterprise, he was told that such a thing is not possible under current legislation. His luck was that his father, a baker by profession, had this hobby of seeking up legal information on the internet. After a week’s work, he dig up all the necessary paragraphs to prove that his son had the right to sell his milk through the machine. Once having that fixed, they set up the machine on the street, without further consultation with the bureaus. The next contact was through the national TV’s reporter, who asked the head of the county animal health bureau if such a thing was possible under current legislation. The director said yes, and explained the same paragraphs the farmer’s father had picked out. We should have no illusions, though, about whether he would have been still banned and penalized, with no media hype around the issue. However, once things have come this way, it became common knowledge all around Romania, that once you are able to pay the price of a milk machine, it is legal to sell your milk directly to the costumers – and, as it also has turned out, you will have a so far unknown scale of costumer demand to support your trade.

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