You may have noticed that I hardly ever touch on any subject related to agriculture. One reason is that I don’t know anything about it, but the other is more personal. In 1946 my father inherited some land and got it into his head that he wanted to be a gentleman farmer. The peasants in the village watched his endeavors with some skepticism because they were certain that you cannot learn anything about farming from books. As it turned out, they were not quite right. Some of my father’s experiments were actually quite successful.
The trouble was that he decided that I, being an only child who would inherit the farm, had to learn something about agriculture. (Mind you, a few years later Mátyás Rákosi upended my career as a farmer. The government took the land away.) So, every Sunday I received a little booklet with an enticing title like “How to Grow Corn” or “How to Grow Wheat.” By the end of the week I was tested on the material, which mostly went unread. During one summer I was taken for “practical training” where my performance was abysmal. Instead of looking after the hired hands, I fell asleep under the shadow of a haystack.
All that came to mind when I heard of the quickie course offered to would-be farmers. Now that approximately 380,000 hectares of state land will be auctioned off, many people want be “cultivators of the land.” But they can buy agricultural land only if they are bona fide farmers. And who is a bona fide farmer? Someone who has been in the business of farming for at least three years or who has completed a course consisting of 480 hours of instruction both theoretical and practical.
The course, costing approximately 250,000 forints, is offered by private companies–by now perhaps as many as a dozen. It is in high demand, with thousands of people ready to take it in the hope of being able to buy land and thereby receive the generous European Union agricultural subsidies. Businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and doctors, mostly from Budapest, are flocking to enroll so they can take part in the land auction that starts at the end of November. Graduates of the course, the new “gentlemen farmers,” are called “golden ear of wheat farmers” (aranykalászos gazdák).
Horror stories have surfaced about what’s going at these so-called educational companies. Even their websites make it pretty clear that attending lectures or engaging in practical training is unnecessary. The tests themselves are “flexible.” For example, one company advertises that “since it is already cold, the ‘student’ himself can structure the practical part of the exam.” Failing an exam is unknown.
After the first article appeared about this scam, which was discovered by vs.hu, opposition MPs inquired from the minister of agriculture, Sándor Fazekas, what he knows about these phony courses. As is this government’s wont, he refused to investigate. He told Zoltán Gőgös, MSZP’s agricultural expert, that if anyone has a suspicion of wrongdoing he/she should go to the police. So, HírTV decided to visit one of these companies with a hidden camera where a woman pretty well confirmed the charge that it was offering bogus pieces of paper that would allow a person to buy and cultivate land. On the basis of HírTV’s video, in no time István Tényi, a constant visitor to police stations, decided to launch a complaint.
Népszabadság collected a few priceless stories from these newly graduated “golden ear of wheat farmers.” According to one, “no living person has ever failed this course, perhaps not even a dead one.” Or “there were thirty of us in the group but not one of us knew anything about agriculture. We had a long discussion before the test whether ‘birka’ (sheep) and ‘juh’ (just a different word for sheep) are the same animal or whether they belong to different species.” This man spent a weekend becoming a farmer. That’s right, a 480-hour course in a weekend. “One day they took us around the farm and we saw pieces of agricultural equipment, but only from afar and not in motion.” It often happens that the answers are attached to the test questions. “The examiner told us that we will all pass because we have to acquit ourselves in real life and not at a test.”
Once someone completes this course, for his time and money he receives a so-called T-license (T as in tractor) that allows him to drive a tractor. Yes, in Hungary you need a licence to drive a tractor on your farm. Looking into the situation in the United States, I found the following. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, while running for the presidency of the United States in 2011 said the following at one of his election stump speeches in Iowa: “Now you tell me whether this is true or not. But one of my fellas just told me, he said that they’re talking about a new regulation that if you drive your tractor … across one public road, you’re going to have to have a commercial driver’s licence. Get out of here! You’re kiddin’ me. I mean, what are they thinking?”
It’s bad enough that in Hungary you need a T-license to drive a tractor. If you have an ordinary riding mower you need a K-license (K as kert/garden). I could say along with Rick Perry: “Get out of here!” A license just to mow your lawn? Unreal.
But it’s even more unreal that if you’re not already a farmer you have to complete a phony agriculture course in order to purchase a piece of land larger than one hectare.
By contrast, let’s say that you want to buy agricultural land in the United Kingdom. According to The Financial Times it’s a great investment. No proof of your agricultural expertise and no license to drive your tractor is necessary. Because the government regulation clearly says that “if you pass a regular car driving test (category B) you’ll get entitlement to drive agricultural tractors and mowing machines.” As it should be in a normal country. If you go to the list of Hungarian driver’s licenses, you will find that both the T and the K license fall into the “national category.” I would call it “national absurdity.” Not just the licenses. The whole thing.