Transylvania: could this 'lost in time' land be the future of European agriculture?

| 7th January 2011
Transylvania is steeped in farming traditions that preserve and protect the environment
Transylvania has maintained traditional farming methods for hundreds of years. As it faces the twin threats of intensive agriculture and byzantine EU policies, its model of under-development is attracting the interest of policy makers

Forget Count Dracula. Deep in the heart of Transylvania, an altogether more mesmerising scene is playing itself out - a vision of what life must have been like in a medieval village.

There's not a brightly coloured shop or advert in sight. Horse and carts clatter down the dirt track roads and cows wander freely. There are barely any cars. And behind the tall walls of each of the old Saxon houses is a self-contained ‘courtyard farm' complete with a wooden hay barn, livestock sheds and a small vegetable plot and fruit orchard.

In the distance are unfenced wildflower-rich grasslands and communal hay-meadows and beyond that, thick, old growth forests where bears, wolves and wild cats still roam.

This village, Crit, is one of the 150 or so well preserved Saxon villages and settlements of southern Transylvania that have remained almost unchanged for hundreds of years. The so-called Saxons were German colonists who immigrated to Transylvania in the 12th and 13th centuries and they were renowned for being hard working farmers. The smallholder lifestyle continues to flourish here today, with most villagers entirely self-sufficient.

The good life

A typical household keeps poultry, a couple of pigs, 10-20 sheep, along with 2 or 3 cows that graze on communal village pastures by day and are milked by hand in the morning and evening in the courtyards. Fruit and vegetables are eaten fresh from the garden or preserved in pickles or jams for the winter months. As well as growing and rearing their own, villagers also slaughter and butcher their own animals. Every chimney has a special chamber for hanging meat (predominantly pork) for smoking. Many households make their own wine from homegrown vines and brandy from plums.

This self-sufficient way of life is still deeply ingrained in rural Romania, passed down from generation to generation. Farming dictates the rhythm of life here, both daily and seasonally - during the summer months, for instance, most families are out in their hay-meadows with scythes and rakes making hay for their cattle and sheep.

‘Practically everyone is a farmer in rural Romania,' says Nat Page, director of the charitable conservation foundation ADEPT. ‘Ninety per cent of villagers have land outside the village and their courtyard farms.' There are some shops but they're very basic - you wouldn't even know they were shops and most people only buy things they can't make themselves, like cooking oil, cigarettes and beer.

The food produced is organic in practice, although it's not certified because the costs of certification are too high. This low impact, ‘High Nature Value' farming allows nature to thrive. Wildflowers are abundant, and many of the mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and insects present are rare or protected at national and international level, and have disappeared over much of Europe.



ADEPT focuses its work in the Târnava Mare area, 85,000 hectares in the heart of the Saxon Villages area and has had the area certified as a Natura 2000 site which gives it a basic level of protection.

There are, however, threats facing the landscape and local communities. ‘People are not being allowed to produce jams and pickles in their own kitchen because of excessive interpretation of EU law by the Romanian Food Standards Agency,' says Page. ‘They're being driven out of business and lovely old bakeries are still being closed down.' This, he stresses, is not what Brussels wants. ‘Brussels preaches diversity, flexibility and cultural traditions but it's up to the host country to implement it.'

Another problem is that 70 per cent of farmers are over 50 years old. Christi Gherghiceanu, ADEPT project manager who grew up in the area says, ‘people older than 50 are reluctant to leave their homes. They seem to be happy with their rural lifestyle. The rest of the population would rather abandon the villages because of the lack of financial opportunities in the area.'

The biggest threats to the landscape are intensive farming - artificial fertilisers would seriously damage or destroy the wildflower meadows and high stocking rates could lead to over-grazing - or abandonment of the land.

Farmers' markets

‘Inevitably many of the smallest farms will disappear,' says Nat Page. ‘The average size of a farm here is 1.5 hectares. In five years time it will be three hectares. We can't say that everything is going to remain the same. But we can say we hope small- scale farming has a future in the area.'

Founded in 2004, ADEPT's main objective is to protect the fragile biodiversity of Transylvania and use it to benefit local communities. ‘We didn't just parade in with a load of money telling them what to do,' explains Page. ‘We employed local people and we've helped small farmers in the real world. If you want to conserve an area but there are no economic benefits, people are less responsive.'

ADEPT, funded by Defra's Darwin Initiative, Orange Romania and Innovation Norway, has assisted small farmers in two main ways. The first is to help them find a market by organising regular farmer's markets in nearby towns and cities and enabling producers to get their kitchens authorised (by persuading inspectors not to excessively interpret the Brussels guidance). ADEPT, based in the large Saxon village of Saschiz, also provides a modern ‘food barn' authorised by the Romanian Food Safety Authority where people can produce food. The 20 producers it works with now sell 70,000 euros worth of produce a year through markets, although ADEPT is keen to work with more. In addition, ADEPT has helped 65 small-scale farmers gain an income again by finding a market for milk. By working with them to improve hygiene and equipment, the farmers had their milk collection reinstated.

The second aspect of what ADEPT does is to help small-scale farmers get grants from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. Many farmers own under 1 hectare, so don't receive basic Pillar 1 payments. ADEPT is dealing this at a policy level, promoting higher payments for small farmers.

To CAP it off

ADEPT has also helped farmers benefit from biodiversity conservation. As the area is a Natura 2000 and HNV landscape, farmers are eligible for CAP agri-environmental payments but these are not automatic - you have to opt for them. After running farm visits explaining the advantages of signing up, 75 per cent of eligible farmers within Târnava Mare have joined the scheme; this is four times the rate of uptake in neighboring areas which demonstrates the desperate need for farm advisory services in such areas.

This will too, of course, benefit plants and animals. ADEPT's botanist, Dr John Akeroyd, who often accompanies Prince Charles (a regular visitor to Transylvania) on his walks through this countryside says, ‘the grasslands in this area are uniquely rich in Europe and appear to be still in good heart thanks to continuing traditional management by local farmers'.

On a wider scale, Nat Page believes this project could even have an influence over the next phase of the CAP, 2013-2020, in favour of High Nature Value landscapes elsewhere. ADEPT has been asked to present its results at EU meetings in Brussels because it shows a way forward to protect the small-scale farmed landscapes and communities across all of Europe. The Commissioners for Agriculture and the Environment both sent encouraging video messages to the High Nature Value Grassland Conference organised by ADEPT in Sibiu in September 2010.

‘An amazing thing is happening within the EU,' says Page. ‘A few years ago everyone said these farms were irrelevant and policy favoured competitive farms. Now small-scale farms are seen as valuable for food and landscape, with massive benefits for flood and fire control, biodiversity and mitigation against climate change. They are increasingly appreciated as vital for Europe's future.'

Laura Sevier is a freelance journalist


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