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Pension-age Romanian farming set for shake-up in next decade

Travelling around the Romanian countryside what strikes visitors are strip farming resembling the backdrop to a medieval fresco, the horses and carts transporting hay-bails and the fieldworkers sharpening their scythes with whetstones

March 2011 - From the Print Edition

But this picturesque landscape of a nation unwilling to wake up to the 21st century hides a darker statistic which looks set to shake up the country’s agricultural heritage and send its estate into a period of instability.
Most of those tending to their chickens, working the land or bringing their goods to local markets are the last generation of farmers willing to work the land.
Half of Romania’s official farmers are over 60 years old and only 13 per cent are under 40. But the number of those of pension age with agricultural plots is even higher.
The Romanian countryside acts as a vast open-air retirement home, where the people employ antique methods of cultivation, their incomes propped up by a barter economy or cash from their children, who have left to work and live in Spain or Italy.
A combination of age and fatigue combined with a state healthcare system which humiliates the old by denying them medicine and asking them for bribes means that many of this last generation of farmers will not be long for this world.
Therefore between the next ten and 20 years the Romanian countryside will experience a massive depopulation.
But what will happen to the land?
The children of these farmers might want to sell up quick to have enough cash to pay off their mortgages on flats in the suburbs of Valencia or Milan.
Cynically speaking, this could also be an opportunity for foreign and domestic investors to pick up the land cheap. Many fund managers are now prowling around the country looking for valuable and fertile plots to purchase.
But for every opportunity that Romania presents in its agricultural estate, there is weakness which seems to undermine the country’s chances of becoming a agri-powerhouse.
Because the nation’s lands are split into millions of small plots, it is tough to buy up and combine all of these land areas into a single zone which can support profitable agriculture.
While thousands of farmers are now receiving subsidies from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, many farmers cannot access loans from banks to modernise their farm plots – this is often due to gaps in their balance sheets, as many Romanian farmers still operate on the black market.
The country has huge needs in irrigation, but farmers are unwilling or unable to pay for the electricity needed to bring the water to their fields.
Romania also has abundant cereal crop production – even in organic cultures – but most of the food in the shelves of the supermarkets is imported. This is because the country exports the cheap raw material for foodstuffs and then imports the more expensive processed foods.
Because the country is made of disparate and tiny plots, there is a pressing need for Romanian farmers to associate in cooperatives to give them better bargaining power in front of suppliers and more favourable terms for buyers of their products. Everyone The Diplomat spoke to for this issue is in favour of such cooperatives.
But among the agricultural community this magazine consulted, Romanian farmers do not trust one another. Many are also not transparent in their dealings and incomes. They find it hard to pool their resources with strangers in anticipation of long-term gains.
The future will probably rely on mid-sized farms which gain European Union financing to develop a vertical supply chain of crop production, storage and food processing in a single location. But example of successes in these domains are not very evident.
Romania’s agriculture has a future, but there will be a few more tough winters before it can reap a grand harvest.

Michael Bird

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