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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Winds of change shake Romanian farms
By Mark Mardell
Europe editor, BBC News, Transylvania

In Transylvania in central Romania a cheerful woman with a pink headscarf stands outside her house behind a trestle table. On it she has old-fashioned scales, a couple of plastic baskets of pears and a small crate of apples.

Teacher selling apples
Small-scale agriculture is the lifeblood of the country
She and her husband are teachers, but their large orchard produces far more than they could possibly eat so she sells to passers-by and neighbours.

In the shadow of one of the castles that claims to be Dracula's own, people here avoided the fangs of Nicolae Ceausescu during the communist era.

While he sucked the life out of many villages and wrecked the country's economy, somehow people here survived unscathed and made a good living selling apples.

But all over Romania it is obvious, wherever you go, that small-scale agriculture is the lifeblood of this country, whether for pocket money, home consumption or survival.

Down the road there are more tables loaded with jars and bottles of varying shapes and sizes filled with honey.

Sheep graze on a pocket of grass between two houses, where the owners park their car. A common sight is a man leading a single cow along the roadside. Women sit patiently by their front porch selling piles of shiny aubergines and pyramids of melons.

Wolves and bears

But Romania joined the European Union at the beginning of this year, and some question whether this way of life will survive.

The EU reformed its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) a couple of years ago, so that it would no longer encourage over-production by big farms but instead make a key aim the "preservation of traditional rural landscapes, and bird and wildlife conservation".

Cowherd pouring milk
Milking by hand is not allowed under EU law
But will this really work in Romania, where traditional agriculture will inevitably clash with some other EU values like "standards of farm hygiene and safety"? And will Romania joining the rest of the EU also mean the easy import of foreign standardised produce and modernisation of agricultural techniques?

It is twilight by the time I reach my next destination, a hillside deep in the Transylvanian countryside. It is very tranquil, a scene unchanged for centuries. Smoke rises from a little wooden hut. Its scent and the tinkling of cow bells fill the air.

In the darkness, I am almost upon the sturdy cow pen before I see it, and realise it is milking time.

Three men with weathered, rugged faces crouch on stools, muttering encouragement to the animals as they milk them by hand. This is not allowed by EU law, although the country has been given time to adapt.

In the hut, the source of the woodsmoke, Ion Duculesu shows me his cheese-making equipment. He pours milk into a metal pail which stands in the middle of the muddy floor, next to the simple wood fire, a few sticks also burning on the floor. After it curdles, the moisture is pressed out on a wooden table, the shape of a blunt triangle.

They'll fine us, and we'll go out of business so I will be out of a job
Ion Duculesu
This too is unlikely to meet EU health and safety standards. He says that eventually they will have to buy machinery but he wants to carry on like this.

"They'll fine us, and we'll go out of business so I will be out of a job. But I've always worked with animals since I was a child so I will still raise them."

Ion gestures sleeping with his head on his hands for me to have a look at his bed. It is a low contraption like a table, laid with a mattress. A wooden covering and tarpaulin sit on top.

He tells me he stays up with the animals to frighten off predators. If the bears or wolves come he shouts and chases them with sticks, he says.

Woods and pasture

As the cowherds bring us mugs of frothy fermented yoghurt and the darkness deepens, I chat to Mark Redman, a British agricultural and environmental expert who lives just down the hill. He helps governments and farmers in Ukraine and Turkey prepare for EU membership.

Farmer and son on horse-drawn cart
The countryside is a balance of nature, humans and animals
"The EU is clearly creating a whole lot of obstacles for these guys, but there are immense opportunities. The problem is to exploit those opportunities," he tells me.

"The regulations handed down from Brussels have to be interpreted creatively at a national level. But you need a political commitment at a national level to protect this sort of farming system... I don't see people putting themselves out to defend the way of life of these guys."

The farms and orchards create this landscape. In one, chickens run among the sour cherry and apple trees. It means the hillside is divided higgledy-piggledy into corridors and rectangles of varying shapes.

Standing in one field and looking across a valley to the hillside opposite and the mist-topped mountain beyond, Raluca Barbu of the World Wildlife Fund tells me that traditional farming is essential, vital for biodiversity.

"The trees mixed with pastures mean that there are a variety of bird species, five of the most threatened varieties of butterflies, small mammals and closer to the forest, bears and wolves," she says.

"This is the result of a real balance between nature, humans and animals. But in this village people are abandoning the land, getting more involved with tourism - and to maintain biodiversity you need animals."

Foreign farmers

About 200 miles (320km) to the south-east, near the Danube, it is a rather different story, probably because of its flatter landscape and more temperate climate.

Here, there are some of the biggest farms in Europe, perhaps a legacy of Ceausescu's collectivisation. Cornfields stretch as far as the eye can see, the sort of landscape that environmentalists say is the enemy of biodiversity. Smaller plots of land are being bought up by big business, some of it foreign-owned.

On a big village farm Arnaud Perrain is showing off his shiny new turbo-charged tractor. The man who drives it performs a trick: using the fork to lift the tyres of an old-fashioned Romanian model off the ground.

Foreign farmers
The EU brings security to farmers who want to buy Romanian land
Arnaud is French, but this is his home. He has been here 10 years and is married to a Romanian.

His neighbour, an Italian, arrived four year ago and to him and his brothers it is more of a business proposition. He goes home to Italy every few weeks, and his wife and child live there. But both men bought land in Romania because they could afford much bigger farms here.

After a tough eight years Mr Perrain now has more than 3,000 hectares, growing sunflowers, soya and corn and employs around 50 people. His tractor is just one of the new pieces of machinery he has bought with the help of an EU grant worth around 104,000 euros (70,000).

He says the EU has cost him money as well. Old cheap weedkillers have been banned and seed prices have gone up. But the EU brings legal security to foreigners who want to buy here.

He thinks more change to the landscape is inevitable.

Do people want to look at a pretty landscape or feed people?
Nicusor Serban of Agroserv Mariuta
"It's not economically viable to have a couple of hectares. Romania has a lot of catching up to do right now. People aspire to a certain level of wealth, of comfort. They don't want to look after one cow and one pig and work on a Sunday, work all the days of the week, cultivating a handful of land."

More food

The Romanian director of a big farm of 400,000 hectares is even more blunt. Nicusor Serban of Agroserv Mariuta asks me: "Do people want to look at a pretty landscape or feed people? Things look different on a full stomach."

I am very much in favour of EU, but these kind of things, life-style, will slowly disappear
Adrian
Such farms cannot remotely meet the modern hygiene standards of the EU or anybody else for that matter
Mike Dixon

He adds: "Things will change, of course. Small plots will disappear and in the end there'll be medium and big farms. The EU's policy is to subsidise every worked piece of land, big or small. But there's a choice: have intensive agriculture and feed the world or have an ecological agriculture and let people starve."

Ceausescu destroyed villages and forced their occupants into half-built apartment blocks in an effort to make Romania look more modern, and collectivise agriculture.

Some say the EU will succeed where he failed. But that is rather unfair.

EU policy tends to tug in different directions, so one law designed to protect traditional environments may be undermined by another intended to help people stay in the countryside and still make a good living.

But more important than the details of EU policy is the fact that joining the European Union gives access to new markets and gives those markets access to Romania.

It will almost certainly make Romania richer.

Cheaper, mass-produced food will appear in the supermarkets and people will make their choice.

One orchard owner who has recently sold some land and who has stopped breeding sheep and cows told me that people won't buy her rough-pitted but tasty apples any longer.

People have seen the deep red ones in the shop and like the look of them. There is no future for her in the land.

The very process of joining the EU has a certain logic, and all that implies for tinkling cow bells and wolves on the hillside.




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