The grass isn’t always greener

An earlier post by Kelly talked about the changes in Slovak agriculture since the end of Communism almost 20 years ago. While many things have been positive, things don’t seem to be entirely rosy in the world of Slovak agriculture.

Several farmers and farm managers that we’ve met on our journey so far have talked to us about a general decrease in agriculture in Slovakia since 1989. Much of that has to do with strengthening efficiencies, boosting production and evolving to a free market system from the old style of collective farming run by the state.
But in recent years, that free market system has also been responsible for battering Slovakia’s farmers. Low prices seem to be biggest culprit and when joined with spiraling costs, are responsible for much of the downturn farmers are currently experiencing. These two problems are ones that Canadian farmers are familiar with as well, although I think our sector hasn’t seen the dramatic decreases evident here in Slovakia.

In dairy production, for example, low milk prices have shrunk the national cow herd from 450,000 cows seven years ago to only 215,000 milk animals today. Vineyards have dropped from 22,000 hectares ( 54,300 acres) to only 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres).

But probably the most dramatic drop has been in the country’s struggling pork sector. Pork is hugely popular in Slovakia, with Slovakians consuming approximately 31 kg of pork annually. Very low pork prices and a flood of cheap imports from other EU countries has led to a drastic reduction in the national sow herd – from 130,000 head to only 50,000 in about six years.

We had the chance to meet Stanislav Becik tonight, the newly minted Slovak agriculture minister (he’s in the middle). On the job only three weeks, he could maybe be somewhat forgiven for not having an answer to this problem at hand – but only for so long.

On the dairy side, the government is funding a school milk program to boost the national consumption of milk – Slovaks drink 75 litres of milk per person per year, compared to 85 litres of beer per capita. Clearly the government has some work to do here. And there don’t seem to be any easy answers for the pork industry.

It is always striking to me when meeting farmers in other countries how much they have in common with farmers back home in Canada. Here again, although they are very far apart geographically and culturally, some of the very problems explained to us by Slovak farmers could just as easily have been presented by a hog farmer in Ontario or a cattle rancher in Alberta.

Lilian’s participation in the 2008 IFAJ Congress is funded in part by the IFAJ 2011 Development Initiative, supported by Pioneer Hi-bred and Syngenta.

IFAJ 2008 Congress photo album

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