Watermelon politics in Hungary

Until now it was a simple price war between farmers and supermarkets, but as of today watermelon is no longer just an agricultural commodity. It has become a political football. (Just think of the opportunities for a good cartoonist!) On the one side is a mad socialist member of parliament; on the other a farmers’ association linked to Fidesz.

József Karsai, formerly a member of the defunct Smallholders’ Party and currently a representative of MSZP, has a penchant for creating havoc. His latest cause is the plight of Hungarian watermelon growers who cannot sell their crop at a price they consider fair. He became the spokesman for the “thousands of watermelon growers” in his county of Békés. Building on his success there he moved on to Heves County, also a center of watermelon farming. I was astonished to read that Hungarian farmers grow watermelon on 6,000 acres and that 90% of their crop goes to export. The amount of watermelon produced is staggering: 140,000-150,000 tons a year. Last year, apparently because of the late frost and the subsequent drought, the price of watermelon was very high. Such a price hike usually results in more watermelon being planted the following year. Naive farmers think that if the price of a commodity the year before was good it is worth growing lots more of the same crop. Then, of course, there is a surplus and the price goes down. That’s exactly what happened with watermelon this year.

Back to the political aspects of watermelon. In the last few years, especially since a socialist-liberal government has been in power, the Magosz (Magyar Gazdakörök és Gazdaszövetkezetek Szövetsége/Hungarian Association of Farmers and Farming Cooperatives), one of the numerous farmers’ associations, regularly organized demonstrations and partial roadblocks to protest this or that. The complaints usually centered around subsidies: they were insufficient or they were late. At times they demonstrated because the price of wheat was too low; they demanded that the state buy and store the wheat at an above-market price. It became clear soon enough that Magosz was an antigovernment organization with close ties to Fidesz, the party then in opposition. These ties were eventually so close that Fidesz and Magosz signed a document of cooperation prior to the national elections of 2006. Magosz would try to deliver the votes for Fidesz in exchange for five parliamentary seats. Fidesz didn’t win the elections, but five Magosz leaders, including István Jakab, the president of Magosz, became members of parliament. In the last two years Magosz has been less disruptive. First, agricultural subsidies increased substantially after Hungary became a member of the European Union; second, the minister of agriculture, József Gráf, has a way with the farmers.

Magosz apparently supported Karsai initially when Karsai’s farmers dumped a few tons of watermelon in the parking lot of one of the Auchen stores. However, when Karsai, emboldened by his initial success with Auchen, extended his activities to blockading the premises of exporters, Magosz made a public declaration in which the farmers’ association protested “Karsai’s radical methods that are opposed to the union’s market economy.” Magosz further claimed that “because of the blockade and the resulting uncertainty regarding shipping, important foreign buyers have turned away, perhaps for good, from buying Hungarian agricultural products.” Magosz added that the association considers Karsai’s actions no more than political profiteering. This opinion was shared by eighteen farmers’ organizations whose main activity is selling the products of their members. These cooperatives went so far as to accuse Karsai of representing the interests of certain watermelon wholesalers who want to ruin their competitors. They also claimed that on the free market there is no way of selling watermelon at 30 Ft per kilogram, the price Karsai demands.

It seems that some socialist politicians support Karsai and expressed their surprise that farmers would side with the wholesalers. Actually they used a not too nice slang word for the wholesalers: “neppers.”

Well, this time I’m on the side of Magosz, the cooperatives, and the “neppers.” When 90% of Hungarian watermelon is sold abroad and when there is an overproduction of watermelon all over Europe, when the temperature is fairly cold for the season and thus fewer watermelon are sold, it is impossible to play the kinds of games Karsai advocates. Hungarian farmers will not be able to sell their products and Italian watermelon growers will have a heyday. One of the leaders of Magosz kept repeating that “one cannot go against the market.” Indeed. Karsai is on the wrong side.