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Top of the crops

Romania is a safe bet for the future development of agriculture for multinational agricultural companies, argues CEO of Syngenta Romania Paul Claxton. Profile by Nicoleta Banila

March 2011 - From the Print Edition

Romania is becoming more important as a hub for seed production and merchandising, as the demand for commercialised seeds increases on markets in both southeast Europe and the Russian Federation.
Swiss company Syngenta has been active in Romania for a decade, selling plant protection products, seeds for field crops and those for vegetables and garden plants.
One of the key issues in Romania now the fear that an agriculturally rich country is importing too much food. This is because Romanian agricultural producers find it hard to deliver consistent qualities and quantities of goods to major hypermarket chains. However Syngenta gives an example of how local cultivation and distribution to demanding retail clients is possible.
The company has seized the opportunity in Romania with potatoes and is supplying seeds to producers in Targu Secuiesc, who then grow potatoes for French hypermarket Carrefour’s chain in Romania.
“This continues today, it is successful, there are no big price fluctuations and they manage to keep a certain profit level as the contract has secured their business,” says Claxton.

Banking on GMOs

Syngenta’s CEO believes Romania is a possible country for the development of genetically modified crops (GMOs), as the authorities and much of the farming community are quite open to the reintroduction of GM crops. “We will try to grow this area in our business, because that’s where we believe the future will lie,” says Claxton.
He believes that within five years, GMOs will be approved for cultivation in the European Union and farmers will be able to sell their GMO products throughout common market.
“I would like to see the EU take the proper steps to examine the scientific evidence and approve GMOs for cultivation and consumption in the EU because, in my mind, there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be the case,” says Claxton.
He is also confident that Romania could become a greater developer of plants to fuel in vehicles – through biodiesel – and could create heat and electricity from agricultural waste – through biomass. Both these industries which feed of agriculture are only in their early stages in Romania.
“It is not a case of if - it is a question of when,” he says. “We recently had a meeting with a company that has heavily invested in Romania to produce biofuel and they will work with suppliers like us to help farmers grow crops that can be used for producing biodiesel.”
Biodiesel development in Romania will also come under the spotlight in the next couple of years due to unrest in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which are pushing up oil prices.

Farming co-financier

Syngenta also offers de facto financial aid for farmers by giving out products, which farmers then pay them for at harvest time. This payment gaps can run up to one year. “Indirectly, we are financing farmers,” he says. “Long term payments are now normal in this industry. This happens only in Romania, if you go to France, a company receives a payment back in five days maximum.”
Having worked in South Africa in the 1990s, Paul Claxton was always frustrated by the reluctance of financial institutions to support agriculture – a phenomenon which is evident to a certain extent in Romania.
“I cannot help but think about the time I spent in Africa where a billion of people are short of food,” he says. “It is frustrating to have farmers willing to develop and not able to achieve the potential because of lack of financial support which would enable them to produce more and help reduce starvation.”

Farming: a small world

One of the proudest moments in Claxton’s career showed the importance of how personal contacts are necessary to enforce quick and timely solutions to agricultural problems.
During his time as crop protection country representative in Nordics, he initiated a project to evaluate the potential of Crop Protection needs in vegetables in Scandinavia, which involved visiting vegetable growers and speaking to them about their problems.
On a trip to Finland, one farmer with a large cucumber and a celery root farm complained about the diseases he could not control with conventional fertilisers and herbicides, so much so that they were poised to ruin his harvest.
Syngenta recommended a new product, but this was not registered.
“The authorities said that we needed to get the approval of the processor of the vegetables – the factory that cleans, sorts and wraps the fresh vegetables for the store,” he says. “By chance, the farmer’s brother-in-law was the processor, so we could call him at that very moment.”
Through a common effort, in a couple of hours everything was settled and “we could deliver the needed product to the farmer the day after,” says Claxton.
“A couple of months later, I saw an article in a farming magazine where the farmer declared ‘Syngenta saved my crop – I avoided a two million Euro loss’,” says Claxton. “He was among the few farmers with a good, healthy production that season.”

What is Syngenta?

Active in Romania since 2000, Swiss company Syngenta set up a fully-fledged office in 2003 selling plant protection products, seeds for field crops and those for vegetables and garden plants.
Syngenta achieved Best Employer title in 2010 and 2009 in a study by Hewitt Associates in Romania. Currently, the company has a local staff of 80.
In the past years at an international level Syngenta tried to expand massively and bought vegetable producers from Israel, Denmark and Japan, as well as a German flower company. Now the company is the leading global supplier of pansies.
In Romania, the company has learnt that it is better to keep its business in house than to work through external agents.
“One of the reasons for which we are to achieve full potential here is that we are in the process of changing the way in which we do business in Romania,” says Claxton, “traditionally we did business through agents, but now we want to have our own people for sales.”

Who is Paul Claxton?

Paul Claxton came to Romania as CEO in 2007, after being named country head for Syngenta in Scandinavian region. Previously he built up a Syngenta crop protection department in Scandinavia, and set up a crop protection affiliate company in South Africa while working for Sandoz Agro, between 1991 and 1997.
Born in Upminster, Essex, on the outskirts of London, he grew up in central England, where he gained an early taste for the country life.
“I was always interested in agriculture and helped on the local farm at the end of the road,” Claxton says. “This was a mixed farm with dairy, cereals, sugar beet and potatoes and I learnt a lot about farming.”
Claxton graduated with a Higher National Diploma in Microbiology, Plant Pathology and Animal Physiology from Manchester Polytechnic.
After he finished college, he had the chance to turn to scientific research or to the agriculture industry. “I received two job offers: the first was to work for the government in forensic science and the second to work for Sandoz in the Crop Protection industry,” he says. “I decided on the second.”

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