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
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
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. …