I had the opportunity to join a group of 45 European agriculture journalists on a one-week press tour of the eastern part of Romania. It was one surprise after another.
What I knew of Romania consisted of stories of those who took clothing to children’s orphanages, or of the report of corruption and hardship from a Swiss farmer who immigrated there. But Romania is so very much more than poverty and corruption. It is also big skies and expansive grain fields like in Western Canada, It’s a land of opportunity for many willing to work hard and overcome obstacles, and of great hospitality and friendliness. Of course, the tour’s intent was to show us journalists the best of Romania! Here are just a couple of my impressions of that trip.
Some years ago at Edmonton’s FarmTech Conference, a French farmer spoke of his planned move to Romania to grain farm on a large scale. Land was cheap but the investment would pay if Romania joined the European Union. Otherwise, he told us, he would lose big time. That farmer probably made good. If there’s one thing I picked up at every place we visited, it’s that phrase, “with European money.” The dairy farmer received EU money to build a processing plant for yoghurt and soft cheeses. The vegetable farmer built a larger storage shed with a packaging facility. The fruit farmer extended his orchards and built storage facilities. Irrigation equipment was installed with EU money, equipment with the newest technology purchased, animal genetics improved.
I asked Perrein Arnaud — also a French farmer who immigrated to Romania 25 years ago, long before it joined the EU — what changed for him and fellow farmers when Romania became a member of the EU. “Everything,” he answered. There is credibility now when doing business, a trust in justice. “I don’t have to bribe the police anymore or someone to come to do controls on my farm.” (Projects receiving EU money are also controlled according to EU standards.) Arnaud started out with 17 hectares (42 acres) and now farms 9, 884 acres, of which 3,212 are under irrigation. He receives EU subsidies of 230 Euros per hectare *(about $171/acre in Canadian dollars). Arnaud is one of those who operated for a long time without that help.
While we were on a tour of Arnaud’s fields, a man and his son drove by with the typical horse and wagon of the Romanian peasant (see photo at top). The Romanian journalists told us they were carrying sheep milk for distribution to the owners. Villagers typically own one or more sheep, which they hire a shepherd to look after and milk. In the evening the shepherd takes the milk to a central place for pickup by the villagers. A journalist asked if the boy went to school. The father told him, “No, he quit school when he was eight. He knows how to read and write; that is enough.”
Romania, where most farmers are subsistent, is home to the largest farm in the European Union. That farm is on an island in the Danube, near the Black Sea. The island was once a swamp until Nicolae Ceausescu (the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989) ordered political prisoners to ditch and dike the island, turning it into one of the most fertile farms in the country. 57,000 hectares (140,850 acres) are on a 20-year lease from the state by Agricost, which is privately owned. General Manager Lucian Buzdugan took us on a farm tour. What impressed me is how well managed this mega farm is. One of the secrets is excellent staff, Buzdugan told me, and another that it is divided into 29 farms which are each a complete financial unit.
When I told all this to my neighbour here in Switzerland, she was surprised. They’ve often employed seasonal farm workers from Romania. These would tell her how they lived, on farms without a machine of any kind, all the work by hand and horse. She told me they live in extreme poverty.
Like I said, Romania is one surprise after another.
*an incorrect number appeared here in the print version of the Oct. 17, 2017 issue of Grainews.
Facts about Romanian agriculture
- Romania is the world’s eighth largest exporter of wheat.
- In 2014 there were 3, 629,660 farms in Romania, of which 92.2 per cent were under five hectares (12.35 acres) in size.
- 84.6 per cent of farmers earned less than 4,000 Euros a year ($5,823) in 2014.
- In 2014, 41 per cent of the farmers were over 64 years of age.
- That year, 44 per cent of the Romanian population of 20 million lived in predominantly rural areas, with 30 percent engaged in agriculture.
- Of the 1,218,264 Euros ($1.77 million) that the EU paid in subsidies, 65 percent went to farmers that received less than 500 Euros ($727) annually.
- Half a per cent of farmers received over 100,000 Euros each ($145,570). Half a percent of farmers received 20 per cent of the subsidies.