Degrowth collectives

Germinating degrowth? On-farm adaptation and survival in Hungarian alternative food networks

This chapter presents experiential knowledge ‘behind the vegetable box or market stand’ collected while working as a gardener on a small-scale organic farm and as a local food advocate in Budapest (2014-2019). In digging, hoeing, weeding and sowing to support local food experiments, 1 accumulated insights often overlooked in academic texts that chronicle rural livelihoods. Here, I provide an overview of the challenges and survival techniques of organic market gardens in Hungary. Sustainable agriculture and related movements have been widely examined in technical and socioanthropological literature but knowledge gaps that exist in the research include real-life perspectives of on-farm decision-making practices - addressing how farmers balance production methods in relation to environmental and social commitments, why human-scale farming provides both unique opportunities and specific challenges, and the challenges associated in maintaining small but dynamic ‘gardening families’. While degrowth research has identified the necessity to transform agricultural systems, most publications present a primitive understanding of ground-level farming realities and economic pressures on producers (Gomiero 2018). I advocate the benefits of pushing boundaries between research and practice within academic work that focuses on gaining a richer understanding of the fragile but inspirational quest of self-organised alternative farming initiatives.

This chapter defines the role that market gardens play in helping to build and rebuild ecologically sustainable, diverse and socially meaningful food networks, while clarifying ‘human-scale’ gardening activities. Although market gardens represent a singular framework for agricultural production, in practice they take different forms, and use varying exchange networks with consumers, food communities and retail markets. The challenges and benefits of various marketing opportunities are analysed through the lens of practical experiences within Central Europe, specifically direct marketing of local organic vegetables and fruits in Hungary. The spread of the market gardening model has particular relevance in this region given the crisis of the agricultural sector, favourable climatic and geographical conditions for all-season production, agricultural heritage and knowledge, and the growing divide in rural-urban population and social demographics. I conclude by describing the ideal supports that researchers, activists and advocates can offer to help stabilise and spread ‘degrowth’ compatible food networks.

Changing the system: agriculture and organic production in Hungary

The agricultural sector in Hungary is in a state of crisis and contradiction due to the gradual reduction in total agricultural output in the last three decades, an unfavourable trading position within the European Union (EU) and international food market, bureaucracy and limitations in domestic processing and distribution capacity for in-country producers, and changes in demographics of farms and farm managers. Production yields in Hungary peaked in 1990, before the regime change, largely bolstered by artificial targets implemented within the state-planned economy. Before EU accession (mid-2004), much hope was placed in gaining entry to the liberalised food market which, it seemed, would guarantee higher prices for food commodities. After accession, producers were largely left on the losing end of export-oriented sales strategies. Costs of production were undercut by cheaper labour prices in countries further east and access to financial support for increased mechanisation was never competitive with conditions for producers in Western Europe, resulting in products sold at a loss.

Moreover, EU accession encouraged a rapid change in the food retail sector as large international food corporations entered and influenced consumption habits from urban centres to rural villages. Within a decade, international retailers and hypermarkets came to dominate food retailing, reducing possibilities for domestic sales and eroding local direct markets. Vegetable and fruit producers deal with the highest value added tax at 27 percent for fresh products in any EU country, while recent selective value added tax reductions for meat, poultry and eggs (5 percent) and for bread and dairy products (18 percent) have not bolstered domestic production and distribution, especially in meat and dairy industries (Balazs 2019).

Since 2000, there have been 400,000 fewer people employed in agriculture, the sector is in the midst of a consolidation crisis, concentrating control of land resources. Holdings under 2 ha make up 80 percent of all landholdings but occupy only 3 percent of the utilised agricultural area. Meanwhile, just 2 percent of all holders control 75 percent of the utilised agricultural area - largely mechanised farms above 50 ha (EC 2019). Such consolidation has been encouraged through the favourable reprivatisation and sale of state agricultural lands to select oligarchs, a form of institutional land grabbing implemented by the governing Fidesz party since its rise to majority power in 2010 (Gonda 2019). In addition, the average age of farm holders has increased, with nearly 60 percent 55+ years of age (more than 27 percent 55-64 years old and more than 30 percent 64+ years) (EC 2019). Support programmes for young farmers have not been successful as young people largely consider that working the land belongs to their grandparents’ era of struggle and sacrifice.

Agroecology and certified organic agriculture has a nearly three-decade tradition in Hungary but remains a relatively small percentage of overall agricultural

Germinating degrowth 79 activity — while two-thirds of Hungarian land is agricultural, only 3-4 percent is certified organic (Meredith and Wilier 2016). The agroecology movement started in the 1980s with informal groups of growers sharing interests in chemical-free agriculture, low input production and family health. The first official associations and certification organisations began in the 1990s. Currently, ‘institutionalised’ organic producers are distinct from ‘informal’ ecologically conscious gardeners through certification, but both play an integral role in developing local food networks (Strenchock 2012).

The optimistic outlook for organic production in the early 2000s waned with stagnating adoption of such practices post-EU accession. Organic agriculture has grown slower in Hungary than in neighbouring countries. During the 2010s, incentives for larger landholders to convert have reduced due to reliance on exporting - around 85 percent of Hungary’s organic produce is exported, mostly feed crops for animal husbandry — and overall low prices for raw goods (Dezsény and Drexler 2012). The informal and formal ecological agriculture movements face many of the same challenges as the conventional sector. The most pressing issues include marginalisation of Hungarian organics within the EU and international markets; a raw-commodity export-oriented tendency; market saturation with imports; low recognition of Hungarian products within the domestic market; difficulty in acquiring retail space in conventional shopping outlets; weak representation within the political sphere; insufficient communication between growers, organic advocates, support organisations and research institutes; weak policy initiatives and structural support systems, and a disproportionate reliance on demand in urban locations to drive direct sales (Strenchock 2012).

In spite of these challenges, a small but committed movement of mostly younger, college educated, formerly urban professionals work together with other citizens to establish new - or reestablish former - direct marketing chains in rural and periurban locations. The market gardening model adopted by many new growers presents an opportunity for small farmers to experiment with establishing novel, functioning models of food provisioning, prioritising direct contact with local customer groups.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >