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The problem is universal: the big agrobusiness is everywhere. The most incandescent issue is how to raise awareness about the problem and mobilise small farmers into changing their ways. They produce traditionally, but how do we make them stop using herbicides and pesticides?
We do have small farmers and fortunately, we don’t have abandoned land like in other countries because our farmers didn’t lose their feeling of being the owners of the land and basically continued to do what they did before the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, let’s take the example of Vojvodina, the Serbian part of the Pannonian Basin. The farmers there have been for years engaged in big-scale farming: they replaced the manure with artificial fertilisers, and the results are catastrophic: the layer of humus is being depleted at unprecedented speed, just like everywhere else where traditional farming is replaced by monoculture and industrial crops. This is what we fight against as an association. Last year we commissioned a social scientist to write a booklet on food sovereignty in Serbia and our message to the policy makers is: food safety is one thing, and food sovereignty completely another. Food sovereignty is not a novel concept, but it boils down to this: you don’t depend on food imports, you are self-sufficient and a sovereign producer of the food you eat. This contravenes the order of things in the early 21st century: in the name of free trade, you have to honour dubious agreements you made with international organisations, import heavily subsidised food from the Big Ones and sell your land to foreign companies. The greatest danger of all is the onslaught of the big agrobusiness coming to Serbia.
On a personal level, my focal point is Southeast Serbia. I think the key issue is decentralisation, even in food sovereignty. What applies in the rural communities of the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina in Serbian) doesn’t apply in Vojvodina. However, we’ve been taught for years to abandon the old ways, and it’s become a part of our mindset.
What to do with the mindset of people who had been forcefully fed the narrative spun by traditional agricultural experts and big companies for forty or fifty years? And now we tell them to go back to what their grandfathers did?
Last year we made research in Croatia and Serbia and published a study titled Growing Growers, financed by the Erasmus+ programme. A few dozen young farmers in both countries participated and were asked what they did and how they made a success of their farming. However, the elephant in the room is that they mostly follow traditional farming principles, apart from a precious few: they are family businesses indeed, but they do big-scale farming and produce high-yield industrial crops. But what we want is to preserve our biodiversity, in the first place. Everything else comes second - if it means lower yield, so be it. We should be happy to produce enough food for ourselves. However, large market chains can afford to sell the produce for cheap or even at dumping prices, meaning that the price is lower in Serbia than in the country of origin. And our farmers can’t compete.
The authorities do nothing about it. We are living in neoliberal times. Nobody is asking the farmer, nobody cares for him. It’s success or boost. Whenever we advise the consumers to buy food at farmers’ markets, make personal contact with the farmers, they say: why should I do it if I can buy the same at a discount in a big supermarket? It is hard to convince them that those prices are often below the cost of production. This is a fact: big agribusinesses lobby hard all over the world, including Serbia.
I have friends in Southeast Serbia who are passionate about preservation of indigenous animal breeds: the Balkan Donkey, water buffalo and very rare Busha cattle, famous for their milk with fat content higher than 6%. In this area, they do receive some support by the Ministry of Agriculture which has some sense for this.
Meet Cvetka (Tsvetka), a silky-haired happy little Balkan Donkey, a goddaughter and a proud member of the “Let’s Defend the Stara Planina Rivers” Movement
These are smallholdings managed in a traditional way and the subsidies from the state can cover some 50% of the cost of hay fed to the animals. Labour costs, maintenance and everything else is on the farmer. One of the owners is thankful even for that because otherwise he couldn’t survive, but it needs much manual labour from his family. Personal contact seems to be the only way to convince the farmers: if one has an eight-hundred-gramme potato fed on fertilisers (which are, in my opinion, nothing more than junk food for plants as it makes them fat, lazy and tasteless), who is this stranger coming to tell one to go back to manure and much more work? But if one goes back to the old ways, old plant varieties, one will have a three-hundred-gramme potato with incomparable taste and sell it at a much higher price.
Locally produced courgette. Just spade, shovel, rain and compost. No machines allowed.
Let’s compare our farmers with their peers in the EU: the only way the EU farmers can compete in the market is through heavy subsidies. It is not a fair game if you make a handsome income by money coming both from your government and the EU coffers, and somebody else, outside the EU, is forced to succumb to the forces of the market.
Let’s stop pretending: don’t try to sell us the pitch to go into markets and be competitive, and bailout and/or subsidise big players who then come to us to compete with our farmers who barely make ends meet.
In my opinion, the governmental subsidies are the main way to do it. No money? Okay, take some from what you gave to your chums, the big players you socialise with and pat on the shoulder.
There’s the IPARD II Programme for support in the field of rural development, available to the Serbian farmers, but only a handful made it: most funds are left untouched at the moment. The procedure is too cumbersome, the people don’t have the skills to write projects and the farmer has to provide as much as 50% on his own, which is hardly possible.
We do have to educate farmers, but how to visit those who live three hundred kilometres or more from the capital, in a mountain without cable television and Internet? Does the government really think they are able to write “projects”? I don’t think so. It’s more likely they will recommend an “independent” agency which will do it instead.
Most subsidies go to large-scale farmers, because they know how to ask for it. It is a tremendous task for us to do much footwork, visit many, many villages, talk to the locals and convince the government to change the policies, volens-nolens.
It is hard but true that small villages can feed the seven-million population of Serbia. If the people feel the taste of the local food, when they go home they are more likely to stop buying in the big markets and nearly everyone would benefit. Just the big players would be unhappy. That’s the key. Here in Belgrade I have a few farmers I trust, I have their numbers and I call them to order their produce. Word of mouth is a very important way for messages to come across, and I want to believe it’s possible.
This is how I see the global order - we can’t see the rot. Food can’t be cheap, end of story. This means you have to give up going to big shopping centres, buying expensive mobile phones, as you will be forced to use this money to buy food. In twenty years, many of us will face heavy water shortages, not only you and me, but big companies as well. In the collapse of a civilisation which doesn’t seem so implausible any more, what will you do if you can’t go to your local supermarket for your food? This is why local farming matters.