Subsistence agriculture, a socio-economic reality without a future?

Despite the technical, industrial advances in Romania and certain economic sectors that are highly developed, there is a large proportion of the population that has been far behind than some of us can see.

A large share of the population, especially the rural population, depends on subsistence agriculture, and most cannot live without the vegetable garden or the maize field for the two cows in the household. Our country has not fundamentally altered its socio-demographic specificity, which radically separates it from the other Member States of the European Union, much more competitive in the agricultural sector.

As shown in the National Strategic Framework for Sustainable Development of Agro-Food Sector and Rural Area 2014-2020-2030, a document prepared by the Presidential Commission for Public Policies for Agriculture Development in Romania and published in July 2013, “Romania singles out by a strong rural hallmark, the rural population has the highest share in the EU, accounting for 44,9% of the total population and a low density, 45.1 inhabitants/km² compared to France 54 inhabitants/km², Italy 64 inhabitants/km², Germany 100 inhabitants/km²”.

The rural population has grown in recent years

The data on the evolution of the share of the rural population in the total population (%) shows that the Centre Region had 39,6% in 2000 and 40,7% in 2011. At the national level there was a share of 45,4% in 2000 and in 2011, 44,9% (Source: IEA calculations based on data from “Regional Economic and Social Indicators: Territorial Statistics”, 2011, INS, p: 28-33;

Over the period 2015-2050, it is estimated a sharp decline of the rural population, “generated by the birth deficit compared to the number of deaths (negative natural increase) to which it will be added the cumulated balance of internal and external migration.” The rural population is largely made up of farmers.

Although economically inefficient, it is an essential binder of stability

The Romanian agriculture was generally at the level of EU-6 countries in the years 1965-1970 and some extracts from the above mentioned document prove that: “the value of the primary production per hectare obtained by Romanian farmers (about 800-900 €/ha) is 2-2,5 times lower than the average of their EU colleagues (1,800-2,000 €/ha); the value of commercial agricultural production of 400-420 €/ha in Romania is four times lower than the EU-15; the equipment of a farmer on Romanian farms, compared to the equipment of an EU 15 farmer, is about 25-26 times less (9,000-9,200 € tangible assets in EU, 350 € in Romania); the bank credits granted on European agricultural holdings are 15-16 times higher than those granted to Romanian agricultural holdings (1,700-2,000 €/ha credits in EU, 110€/ha in Romania) and so on.

At the 2010 Agricultural General Census there were 3,86 million farms, with a highly divided structure and a subsistence character of most farms. 86% of the Romanian farms, i.e. about 3.3 million farms had an annual production value of less than 4,000 Euros in 2010 and can be considered as subsistence farms.

“Although marginalized by national and European agricultural policies, small farms have a role as a social shock absorber that has allowed Romania to go through the difficult times of the 1990s without social disorders, when deindustrialization generated premature unemployment that found a mitigation in the practice of subsistence agriculture.” (Source: Ghib, M-L, Cioloş-Villemin, V. (2009). Quelle politique agricole pour les exploitations de subsistance et semi-subsistance en Roumanie?, 3emes journées de recherche en science sociales, INRA, SFER, CIRAD, Montpellier).

Subsistence farms continue to play a very important role for Romania’s food security from the perspective of self-consumption in rural households and are more present in hill and mountain areas as the main actors of the local economy. We are still in a period of prolonged economic crisis, and small farms, although they have a lower productivity, ensure a stable production due to the diversification of production: they mainly cultivate corn for feeding the animals, but also for human food, and also beans, potatoes, pumpkins, vegetables, fruits. Also, most small farms have livestock: 1-2 dairy cows, birds, some sheep or goats.

Adopt a peasant: another approach

In the rural area, people’s nutrition is predominantly provided by the production of small peasant farms. These products can no longer be seen on the market, but they ended up as self-consumption and so-called short chains. There is also the possibility that these products reach the urban consumer and bring an additional income to the farmer.

“Adopt a peasant” was born in Brasov on the basic idea that started from Hetti Benedek, just a few months ago. The Association Creştem România Împreună (We Raise Romania Together), the Association Civic Intervention Group (Braşov) and Agora for Life (Belgium) started the platform Now on the platform there are almost 50 verified peasants from several areas of the country with more than 700 pending verification and enrolment requests. The check logistics (travel, human resources, etc.) will allow them to concentrate about 80% only on the Braşov area, Mihai Mihu, project coordinator, told us. “The project has an important social component and is part of a wider initiative of ours, Romania bio, and wants to recreate a link between the city dweller and the peasant, with a focus on social interaction and knowledge transfer,” explained Mihai Mihu.

In the future, the platform will become an online store whereby the desired products can be ordered directly, and, after purchasing a freight car with refrigeration, the easily perishable products (meat, cheese, eggs). Although it is a young project, of only a few months, it has a more than encouraging feedback: 35k fans on the Facebook page, of which 73,8% women, with a 20k weekly reach plus a generous coverage on national television. For these few months, they have promising figures: 1,500 people signed up for the platform, there were over 1,000 adoptions, 2 tons of blueberries were sold, etc.

Small farms: future strategies

For a medium-term strategy, the issue of medium and large farms – which are professional farms and make a business out of agriculture – and small farms that play a less important role on the markets, but are important in the rural world, must be approached in a differentiated way because it provides food and social security, contributes to the preservation of the environment through the use of traditional production methods, etc. There is funding to support the setting up of young farmers: 70,000 Euros/farm, to support small farms, 15,000 Euro/farm, support for association and the setup of producer groups, for the bio products and many other support methods. There are also people saying that it is not very easy to access these funds, especially by farmers with the lowest standard of living or education.

The needs for efficient agriculture are many and complex, the solutions are not always perfect, and the budgets allocated always seem too small. One thing is clear: the efforts centred on European and governmental policies can also be helped by a civic movement to support traditional products through the power of every leu you put on a real peasant’s stall or for a farmer’s product from Romania.

Article published in Romanian, in fwdbv, in September 2016

Alina Alexa, Highclere Consulting