Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Shadow of 'Mad Cow' Casts Gloom on Czech Farms ; A Rural Family Fears That Its Way of Life Will Come to an End

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Shadow of 'Mad Cow' Casts Gloom on Czech Farms ; A Rural Family Fears That Its Way of Life Will Come to an End

Article excerpt

For six centuries, the Blazek family has farmed the same 125 acres in the Czech village of Stribrec.

But now, after weathering the black plague of the Middle Ages, family feuds, two world wars, and a communist regime, the Blazek agricultural dynasty has run up against a threat it may not survive.

Ending a hard day of building rail fences, Josef Blazek sits in front of the television, waiting for the latest news on the spread of mad-cow disease. In mid-June, a lab in Germany diagnosed the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the Czech Republic. Since then, the price of beef has dropped dramatically, and a sense of gloom has settled on small farms like the Blazeks'.

Almost half of all Czech consumers are afraid to eat beef, according to a recent poll, and the price of beef has sunk 40 percent below what it was this time last year. "Of course, this impacts farmers negatively," says Jan Slaby, a Czech market analyst. "We haven't even seen the total results yet."

Elsewhere in Europe, consumer fears of eating meat infected with mad cow have battered the British beef industry, which has also suffered from a prolonged outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The mad cow epidemic has also affected cattlemen in France, where authorities have banned certain cuts of beef.

Fears of similar problems have arisen in the Czech Republic.

In mid-June, 138 cattle were slaughtered at the Dusejov collective farm in the southeast of the country, where the first BSE case was discovered. While so far no other cattle have been slaughtered, meat prices are still rock-bottom.

Mr. Blazek says he sold calves for 45 crowns ($1.13) per kilo last November. "Now, I will be lucky to get 30 crowns (75 cents) per kilo, if I can sell at all," he grumbles.

If prices remain low when their cattle go to market in the fall, the Blazeks fear they will make no profit this year and will have to turn to their children for support.

Mr. Blazak and his wife, Marie Blazkova, have two sons who sometimes take time off from their city jobs to help with big projects like fishing out the carp ponds or cutting hay for the cows.

Son Martin is the general manager of an upscale spa, and his brother, Dusan, is employed at an Internet retail company in Prague. Before the outbreak of mad cow, Martin was considering returning to the farm. But not now.

Martin shakes his head slowly. "Sometimes I want to get away from all the stress in the city," he says. "but I couldn't be a farmer."

All the Blazeks speaks wistfully of the long family tradition they see fading.

According to village records, the Blazek homestead, a cottage with a tiled roof and four-foot thick walls, was among the first stone structures built in Stribrec, a settlement founded in the 13th century when South Bohemian Vitkovec lords settled their peasants in the highlands between Prague and Vienna. …

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