Land Ahoy! Hungary’s agriculture by S. K.

This time it's a strictly private opinion that I am risking here, based on an e-mail circular I received during the week. This circular letter is urging the repatriating Hungarians of the diaspora to buy land in Hungary, because the traitor government is conniving to “sell out” the land to foreigners. To facilitate the purchase, there are agents and lawyers of the proper Hungarian patriotic persuasion at the buyer’s disposal. The letter also exhorts the readers to support Jobbik, “because this is the only hope, if they succeed in getting elected to Parliament, only this party shall protect the interest of Hungarians.”

Well, the “protection” of Hungarian lands from foreigners is an idea that cropped up first in the times of the Fidesz government: Viktor Orbán broke out in sanguine oratory against the real and virtual contracts providing agricultural land to many Austrian and a few Dutch farmers to return to production.

But the idea originated in the late nineteenth century, when the tempestuous social, industrial and capitalistic changes brought along a certain inevitable pressure against the rural lifestyle which then and ever since was considered the embodiment of the Hungarian national soul and substance. The land and the peasant way of life was, in the eyes of its defenders, what made the country what it was, and without it, they said, Hungary would cease to exist. This desperate struggle to retain the centuries old, but unsustainable tradition led to the “cultural wars” between urbanists and the Hungarian "narodniks" that culminated after World War I and was rekindled time and again ever since. The Hungarian word for these defenders of the village culture is "népiesek" that is very difficult to translate. "Populists" is the closest but that word is already taken. Therefore I'm using the Russian word "narodnik" most of us are familiar with. These "narodniks" as opposed to the “urbanists” have not rested since the change of the regime in 1990. In fact, the cultural war is steadily escalating, because there is a large number of advocates of the concept that Hungary can be saved only by its traditional agriculture. They are convinced that Hungary could outperform any competition with its agricultural production if only given a fighting chance. At the same time, they claim, the urbanists are nothing more than the decadent and evil emissaries of the foreign banks, themselves the bulwark of predatory Jews, who have no other aims than to colonize the poor, undefended Hungary for their own profit.

This is implied in Viktor Orbán's oratory, this is what the Jobbik is talking about, this is cropping up in Krisztina Morvai's rantings in the European Parliament, and this is behind the circular letter I received this week. Fidesz originally intended to include a question about the sale of land in last year’s notorious referendum, to prevent constitutionally any sale of any land to foreigners at all. The question however was left out at the end.

Indeed, Hungary was probably the largest exporter of produce and cattle in Europe–in the fifteenth century.  But never since. Yet this legend is still alive in the national conciousness. The fact, however, is that while the latifundia and entailed estates were in existence, operated by cheap labour, there was some rationale to support the notion of a prosperous agricultural country. Notwithstanding the fact that even so, those large operators were in constant trouble and were often unable to survive economically, exactly because of the more advanced competition.

Further discrediting the conservative claim is the well-known, but intentionally disregarded fact that a large portion of the agricultural population actually did not own any land and survived only as day laborers, while an even larger segment owned tiny, subsistence farms that were subdivided constantly in each new generation, until finally the peasant family had nothing left and was forced to move to the cities to find work. (There is a legendary criminal case of the women folk of sixteen families who conspired and murdered the heads of their families in Tiszazúg in order to prevent the further subdivision of the families’ meager landholdings by inheritance.) As a consequence, in the words of the poet, “…staggered away to America a million and half of our men.” In any case, Hungary was called the “country of three million beggars.”

This process is repeated now, more or less, as the small farmer’s chances of survival are practically nil, as the produce is delivered daily to the local market, regardless of the local growing season, from Guatemala or from South Africa on airplanes: cheaper, better and fresher than the backward Hungarian farmer could possibly provide. It is very sad indeed, but nevertheless an intractable fact of life.

Further increasing the severity of the situation is the fact that the average Hungarian peasant is close to retirement age, their children having bailed out of the brutal work, poor living conditions and hopeless prospects many years ago, taking up residence in the cities. Those left behind are struggling on without capital, without markets and most of all without the necessary education that would possibly enable them to survive, if only by a miracle. It is no wonder that they themselves see how their fate is sealed and find the only escape in renting their lands to anybody willing to pay enough to live on in their waning years. This is what first  Fidesz and now also Jobbik want to torpedo.

The disintegration of production structure is well demonstrated by this example. The comparatively backward state and the trends of Hungarian agriculture are well demonstrated by these charts.

The “patriotic defense of Hungarian lands” is based on purely fallacious and emotional grounds. The defenders are most likely unversed in economics and probably in agriculture as well, not to mention their total ignorance of the numerous historic precedents of re-populating abandoned areas of the country. (To mention only a few, there were massive re-population efforts after the Turkish era of occupation. The city of Pest was settled by German speaking people, almost exclusively, who decided to learn the language of the country only in the late nineteenth century. Also, following the great cholera epidemics of the 1720s and 1750s, hundreds of villages were re-populated with German people, who are an integral part of the population now and slip by under the radar of the xenophobes.) They have no idea whatsoever what the conservation of the present state of affairs will lead to, or what would be the consequence of releasing the land from its bonds.

So, let us examine at least some of the possible consequences! First and most obvious is that by selling a piece of land only the name of the owner would change; the land itself would undoubtedly remain in Hungary, the new foreign owner could not take it away from where it was before: it would still be Hungarian land. The money paid for the purchase would be added to the positive side of the national balance of payments, therefore it would enrich the country not make it poorer. Although arable land is still cheaper in Hungary than elsewhere in Europe, the buyer would certainly be more able to muster capital necessary for production than the old local guy is, therefore would be able to finance the production better. At the moment this is only possible by the use of large state subsidies. The money wasted on subsidies now would be saved for other budgetary purposes.

By the way, should an elderly expatriate Hungarian return and buy a piece of land, that wouldn’t solve anything. In fact it would almost certainly withdraw that land from production, because this person will hardly have any capital, know-how and especially ambition to start farming, for the first time in his life, just to keep that land out of the hands of the hated foreigners.

If the tiller of the land were not an uneducated elderly peasant but a possibly university educated, professional farmer, the chances of success, the quality of produce and the economy of production would vastly improve. The natural endowment of the Hungarian land is very good. So, the better farming methods would probably yield a much more export-worthy product than what is now only suitable for domestic consumption at best. (There is hardly a year passing without the news of farmers preferring to destroy their crop than to sell it at prices lower than the cost of production.) The exports will certainly add to the balance of payments again.

Dare I say that the foreign farmers would probably have connections and experience in the marketing of the produce which the peasant doesn’t have, not to mention the language difficulties? I have never heard of a Hungarian peasant who could speak any language other than Hungarian. The minuscule size of the Hungarian family farms simply prevents economical production. The economies of scale might be achieved by better-financed, larger enterprises on larger farms. The peasant population, being old and poor, is tilling actually less and less area, the proportion of fallow land is increasing. The new arrivals could comfortably establish themselves without really displacing anyone who wishes to continue working the land.

Although the subsidies enabled some farmers to acquire more advanced equipment, the technological state of farms is inferior to the competition.  Hungary has a sometimes unwelcome and threatening surplus of water, much of the land is often water-logged, but the investment in drainage and irrigation is inadequate, the existing infrastructure, most of which is at least 60-70 years old, is neglected and in disrepair. Hungary is still susceptible to droughts. The improvement in irrigation is definitely necessary, but the requisite capital is in short supply.

On political grounds I do understand the affinity of the right to the peasantry. This mutual support was what elevated the Smallholders Party to its “exalted” position in 1998 to become a member of the coalition government. This party helped to nurture the early nazi organizations that grew up to be Jobbik, and this is the social underpinning that sustains their successes of late. There are large reserves of goodwill towards Jobbik amongst the rural population and they have good reason to cater in return to their fears and hatreds, no matter how ill-conceived and irrational they may be.

Again it seems that the false patriotic sloganeering makes great inroads against all rationality. The gullible, in feverish alliance with the dishonest, are plotting to do damage to others and inadvertently to themselves, without a ghost of a chance of gaining anything more than a few useless seats in the ineffectual parliament that they themselves are trying to abolish. They couldn’t see beyond their noses, they don’t care about the consequences either way.

I wonder: when will these people ever learn anything.

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whoever
Guest

A very interesting post.
My opinion of this is that there are essentially two approaches to this question. You are right in that the status quo is not an option.
The first option would be to relax the rules, allowing large overseas farmers and corporations to buy swathes of land with little restriction.
The second would be go for the partial re-socialisation of farming land. Rather then full-scale nationalisation, this would encourage the creation of local markets and producer/supplier co-operatives to shoulder risk and pool resources. Hungary would, in any case, need foreign expertise to make this approach work.
Personally, I go for the second option.

Hank
Guest

It is not either or, but a combination of both. Hungary could allow foreign farmers to buy land on the condition that they actually live and produce in Hungary. This is what Denmark does as well. So Hungary would not get foreign induced land speculation and ownership from a distance, but it would attract farmers that are willing to actually farm and invest their expertise and capital. That could greatly improve the quality of Hungarian farming and agricultural markets, as well, without crowding out Hungarian farmers or farming cooperatives that do well (because there are).

GW
Guest

The land now assigned to agriculture in Hungary is actually quite mixed in quality, and it is far from clear that agriculture is the best and most sustainable use of much of this land. A great deal of it consists of wetlands that were drained in the 19th century. With modern agriculture so much more productive than traditional agriculture, Hungary now has the opportunity to return a large amount of land to a more natural, even wild, state. With such a wilderness under protection, Hungary could create a national park, similar to that near Vienna, but of a scale otherwise unknown in Europe, and with potential for an eco-tourism industry that would dwarf the meager tourism of the Puzsta, for example. Sadly, environmental concerns have never been major platform elements of any of the Hungarian parties.

Arpad
Guest

A question: would amerikans to sell their land to chines? If yes we, hungarians will sell their land to them too!

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Arpad”: “A question: would amerikans to sell their land to chines? If yes we, hungarians will sell their land to them too!”
(1) Anybody can buy land or property in the United States.
(2) Soon enough Hungary will be obliged to open its market to the people of the European Union and therefore the Hungarian government will not be able to prevent anyone buying land in Hungary.
(3) Price of land is low in Hungary because of lack of competition. That will change once Hungarians can sell their land to anyone who is a citizen of the European Union. That’s one reason the Orbán family is buying up land. It will bring a handsome profit in a few years.

whoever
Guest
I like GW’s idea of extended parks … but there are already 3 big forest ranges in the shape of the Bukk, the Pilis and the Matras. I love these forests, but it’s not clear what the general tourist appeal of the flatlands around, say Hegyeshalom, would be. Nobody is mentioning global warming and the effect this could have on the landscape and agriculture, with gradual desertification being the future risk as the water table drops. Milder winters might allow increased production of certain things but this must be counterbalanced by the extreme summer storms which have caused massive damage the last few years. People would be better focusing on the risk to food supply posed by this, rather than the chance that China will somehow come swooping in and snap up Hungary’s arable land (which admittedly has happened elsewhere). The reorganisation required in the sector may be counterintuitive to many (eg in some ways returning to a pre-1989 system of division and resources) but it is only this which will get farming to the healthy state that Orban envisages, whereby it is providing people with decent jobs. It’s certainly hard to imagine a Fidesz government driving this in the… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
Hungary has to allow land to be sold to all-comers from the EU in 2011. I have friends in the UK who would love to get their hands on a few hundred hectares of Hungarian farm land and farm it as well as they do back in the U.K.. You do not buy good farm land and let it sit lie fallow! These guys know how to farm. The xenophobic ranting of Jobbik and their kind shows their foolishness in two ways. What Ex-pat Hungarian doing nicely elsewhere is going to return to the hard physical grind of a small subsistence farmer. If a foreigner buys land are they going to dig it all up and ship it elsewhere? No the land will stay where it is. They may put in managers, yes, but these guys will also good farmers. Will they try to let it to a subsistence farmer? ‘Not on your nelly’. If they buy land they will capitalise it and farm it to maximise its year on year return to them selves. There was a saying where I lived. It is “The best manure are the farmers boots” and means that the best farmers walk round their… Read more »
Member

When I was living in Hungary a few years ago I went back to my native Northern Ireland for a wedding. The couple were both from farming backgrounds and one or two of the Ulster farmers who were guests were surprisingly well informed about Hungarian and Polish land prices. I would suspect that there could be some who would sell up and head east if they could buy the land out there.

whoever
Guest
I think there are valid concerns which are being drowned out by the background noise and rants about foreigners. I’m not sure that there is a “risk” attached to individual farmers coming into the country – other than showing up the existing practices – perhaps any risk would be more likely to be posed by the corporations, possibly attached in some way to massive food processing companies. Eva cited the US as an example of unrestricted land ownership – and it is an example of the worst kind, as mega-farms have come to dominate, and the environmental impact has been terrible, as well as driving the small farms into extinction. There’s a whole raft of literature on this, but it’s mentioned in “Fast Food Nation” and other such books. UK farming has been historically very intensive and people in the UK suffer in terms of river water and sea water quality; where fertilizer pollution can reach high levels. There is a price to pay, if more intensive practises are widely adopted. As I mentioned in the last post, China has been trying to secure its supplies of food by buying land in the former USSR. I can understand why people… Read more »
Jeff Valkar
Guest

“.., based on an e-mail circular I received during the week”
I have not seen this email. Would someone post a link to it or send to me?
Thanks

Sandor
Guest

Sorry Jeff, I have discarded the email and cannot provide a copy. It was a privately circulated letter and I am unable to find any trace of it on the net. It was also too long time ago to keep such emails.

irrigation systems
Guest

i am in agreement with GW. its true that the land in Hungary is of mixed quality. agriculture is most suitable and sustainable. its a really good blog. i just loved reading it.

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