I’m happy to announce that Hungarian consumers no longer have to wait. It’s watermelon season. In the last month alone more than 200 articles appeared about the excellence of watermelons grown in Hungary. The Orbán government fell in love with the watermelon and made it “prestige produce,” as MTV’s Híradó called it. Or, put another way, it became a national fruit, which is really funny considering that watermelon in Hungarian is called “Greek melon” and the Hungarian word for “melon” (“dinnye”) comes from one of the Southern Slavic languages. Watermelon arrived in Hungary sometime in the later fourteenth century, most likely from the Byzantine Empire with which Hungary had close relations.
Watermelon may be called “Greek melon” in Hungarian, but the ministry of agriculture began a campaign against buying “Greek melon from Greece.” Instead, consumers should buy “Greek melon from Hungary.” Preferably twice as many as they would normally buy. Why? Because Hungarian watermelon is much better than the Greek import and because there is an overproduction of watermelon year after year.
Shortly after the formation of the second Orbán government the ministry of agriculture decided to subsidize watermelon production. And they promoted the idea of farmers using their land to grow watermelon. Why watermelon? I have no idea, especially since growing melons is an expensive undertaking, and growers specializing in watermelon have only a month to sell enough watermelon to provide them with income for a whole year.
Growing melons requires a lot of land. It is also labor and capital intensive because one needs greenhouses equipped with incubators and farmers have to carefully graft watermelon plant shoots onto squash vines. Yes, you heard it right. This is a fairly new method that makes the watermelon plants more resistant to blight and disease. Growers tell us that the final result is practically indistinguishable from the old-fashioned watermelons. And the ministry assures people that these hybrid melons are absolutely safe, unlike some of those coming from elsewhere.
From the very beginning there have been problems with Orbán’s prestige product. During the summer of 2011 many jokes were cracked about how “Orbán will slip on a watermelon peel.” Although the government set up “watermelon stands” which growers could rent for very little, there was minimal interest. Because of overproduction, prices were low. The lowest prices could be found at László Baldauf’s CBA chain, which is a favorite of the Orbán government. In addition, the weather was lousy: it was cold and wet, and watermelon needs a warm climate and lots of sunshine. No wonder that Greece, Italy, and Spain are large exporters of melon.
The summer of 2012 was not much better. Prices were again terribly low. Gyula Budai, undersecretary of the ministry of agriculture, blamed the supermarket chains for buying imported watermelons about a month before the Hungarian season began. An abundance of watermelons in June would reduce interest in the superior Hungarian melons in July. At this point the ministry put pressure on the supermarket chains and forced uniform pricing on them. They had to promise that they would not sell watermelon under 99Ft/kg. Apparently, the chains thought that the Hungarian Competition Authority (Gazdasági Versenyhivatal/GVH) had given its blessing to the deal. They were mistaken, and when GVH learned about the price fixing they investigated and threatened the participants with heavy fines. At this point a Fidesz MP, who himself was a watermelon grower, suggested a change in the law that allowed GVH to investigate agricultural cartels only with the permission of the ministry of agriculture.
In 2013 the ministry again tried to force price controls on the supermarkets, but they refused because such an agreement would have meant banning practically all imported watermelon from the Hungarian market. They were also afraid that the European Union might investigate and fine the businesses for engaging in price fixing. By the end the government only asked the firms not to buy Hungarian watermelon for less than they were paying for Italian or Macedonian imports.
What is the situation today? The campaign is on. About three weeks ago an article appeared with this headline: “Be careful, imported watermelons have already appeared in the stores!” According to a headline in Figyelő: “One doesn’t have to bear it much longer: the watermelon season is about to begin.” “Only two more weeks and the watermelon season will begin!,” says an article in Népszabadság, with the author adding that “this will be the real Hungarian season.” We learn from the article that watermelon is being grown on 5,800 hectares, mostly in the southern section of Békés County, along the Romanian-Hungarian border. Almost half of the watermelon is exported, primarily to Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland.
Meanwhile some of the supermarket chains have made their peace with the Orbán government. Lidl stocks Hungarian watermelons earlier than any other chain because for them “assisting Hungarian farmers, in particular watermelon growers, is very important.”
The ministry of agriculture urges people not to buy Greek watermelon/görögdinnye because by buying the Hungarian product the customer will support 11,000 Hungarian families engaged in melon growing. The crop looks very good. About 220,000 tons of watermelon are expected to reach market this year. Meanwhile the National Office of Taxation and Customs–NAV (Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal)–is out in full force to find people who are selling watermelon at roadside stands. Farmers who have the requisite permit can sell their own produce at roadside stands. But the NAV officials found a few stands where watermelons of unknown origin were being sold. They were promptly confiscated.
And latest happy news on the watermelon front. An internet site from Pécs announced that “the watermelon season has burst onto Pécs.” The watermelon comes from the Ormánság region of Baranya, south of Pécs. The article assures consumers that not only is watermelon available but also “freshly picked squash from reliable peasant women [kofa] at the markets.” I guess one can’t be too careful when screening peasant women who sell squash.