The Last Dinosaur: Are Czech Farmers on Their Way to Extinction?

Article excerpt

"Honestly? The real situation of Czech agriculture is critical." He paused for a moment and then grimly added, "And it is a tragedy." Ing. LuboS Babieka, CSc. is the head of the Department of Quality of Agricultural Products at the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague and has worked in the agricultural and food analysis field for more than 30 years. Babieka is not alone in this sentiment. NGOs, farmers, and even the Ministry of Agriculture are mourning the steady decline of the Czech agricultural sector.

It is no secret that 2009 has been a tough year for farmers. In the past few months dairy farmers have taken to the streets, bringing cows to Wenceslas Square and using tractors to stop highway traffic, to call attention to their situation: cheap imports and more highly subsidized crops in other European countries have made it difficult for them to survive. But are these ailments only symptomatic of a greater disease afflicting the agricultural sector? With 2009 baring less farmland, fewer farmers, and less profit, will farmers fade into the memories of a past time and become artifacts to be uncovered by tomorrow's economic archeologists?

EVOLUTION

Across the EU about two percent of farmers leave the industry each year. According to reports, in the Czech Republic the number of farmers decreased by three percent in 2008, leaving only 126,400 people working in the agricultural sector. That is 2.6 percent of the employees in the national economy. This reflects a long-term trend of people leaving the land. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of agrarian works in the EU-15 halved. Since the early nineties, Central and Eastern Europe has experienced the same phenomena. More and more farmers are facing bankruptcy, or at least great financial woes, due to the falling price of food products as well as the high costs of labor, fertilizers, and machinery. Of the farmers that do remain, their average age is rising. Now, more than half of the farmers in the Czech Republic are aged 45-59.

Even with national and EU aid, many Czech farmers are struggling to financially sustain themselves. In fact the majority of farms would not make a profit without the aid that subsidies provide. A case study report released in 2009 by Scientia Agriculturae Bohemica found that subsidies in the Czech Republic "do not increase production potential and do not generate higher efficiency of farms. [Instead] they are used mainly to cover operation costs."

A number of Czech farmers are thus dependent on this support. Then again, on account of their farm size or other restrictions, many farmers do not receive any government or EU aid. These farmers must therefore seek out new means for support and survival, whether it be through direct producer-buyer relationships, such as community supported agriculture programs and local market places, or through a transition from conventional to organic practices.

CRYING OVER SPILLED MILK

On 29 June 2009, 200 tractors stopped traffic for hours on the major highways across the Czech Republic. Only months before this disruption, over 8,000 farmers and an unknown number of cattle gathered on Wenceslas Square to spill and splatter milk and cereals in protest of the products' falling prices. Recently, the purchasing price of milk in the Czech Republic dropped to 6 CZK per liter, which is below the cost of production and harmful to the financial sustainability of dairy farmers.

Similar protests have erupted in Sofia and Budapest as well, with farmers from new Member States demanding a change in how the EU distributes farming subsidies. In the Czech Republic alone, the drop in prices is threatening the life of 20,000 dairy cows and the employment of 2,000 farmers. Others are responding to this crisis by considering work in other more sustainable sectors.

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This situation is indicative of the changing agricultural climate--one that is becoming more onerous for the traditional sector to bear. …