Slovakia: Can the farmer's markets and "home-grown" make a comeback?

Home grown fruit and vegetables and even home-grown meat have a long tradition in Central Europe. Until the last couple of decades almost everyone living in cities had links to the country and to the rural life. Farmer's markets were common. But increasing urbanisation and the spread of supermarkets has changed the way in which people obtain, cook and consume food. We're exploring those changes in this program. Our first story is from Slovakia where Radio Slovakia International's Anca Dragu reports on how the old traditions are struggling to make a comeback.

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Elena Bukovska proudly shows me around her plot. Eight years ago she and her husband decided to develop a small farm to produce organic food. Almost 70 percent of the crop is sun flowers but carrots, beans, potatoes and onion are very much in demand. The farm is located just across from the border with Austria and in the farm’s early years most of the production was sold there. Nowadays, however, Bukovska sells more and more to Slovak grocery shops including a large retail chain and she is only a few months away from opening her own shop right at the farm.

“There is so much talk around about how small farmers are on their way to extinction in Slovakia because they have almot no chance to get subsidies from the European Union. I don’t share such a view because our farm’s experience shows that people become more and more interested in healthy food and began searching for customer friendly even cosy grocery shops.I have more Slovak customers now than I had a few years ago”.

Home grown food used to be very popular among Slovaks during communism. Industrialization pushed crowds of people to move from rural to urban areas so almost everybody living in towns had relatives in villages. People coming back from weekend long trips to the countryside always returned with bags full of vegetables and fruits picked up from the garden of their relatives. Open air markets could be seen in every single borough of Slovak towns. Now they are a rarity.

“Times have changed, people want to spend their free time in a different way than by working in their grandparents’ garden. Why should you bother when you can go to a supermarket and buy everything your heart desires?"

Says Lubomir Drahosky an analyst of the Slovak retail market. He adds that now many people even question the quality of products sold in the few open air markets left in place.

“Supermarkets have to keep clear records of the origin of a product, what kind of fertilizers were used if any, how and when it was harvested and stored and so on. Small producers do not usually have such documents so it’s hard to say whether those products sold in the open air markets are really safe and healthy. Yes, we have this trend with people trying to get closer to nature but home grown food producers in Slovakia have a long way ahead of them if they want to get their groceries on the shelves of supermarkets and bigger shops or if they want to revive the open air markets”.

Producers I talked to say they have more and more customers and many shops selling organic products have indeed begun to sporout in bigger cities like Bratislava and Kosice. It is, however, hard to evaluate the impact of home grown food producers on the Slovak market. First of all nobody knows how many there are. They have no trade association and the Agriculture Ministry has no accurate data concerning their number given the fact that not all of them have been registered as business entities. The Ministry estimates, however, that their number is in the range of 63,000. Former Agriculture Minister Zsolt Simon says it’s mainly this lack of internal organisation which puts these small farmers at a loss.

“I know that people have sad memories from the time of forced colectivization in the 50s but nowadays these small producers’ only chance to survive and make a buck is to unite and set up small cooperatives. Otherwise they will not have enough bargaining power in front of retail chains and they will end up growing crops for their own consumption only”.

Zsolt adds that even small local shops near farms need to be placed in some context in order to be succesful. Elena Bukovska agrees. She dreams of adding a small ranch to her plot of land so parents and children can stop by at the weekends, play in the fields, have a glass of freshly squeezed carrot juice and of course buy a few kilos of home grown tomatoes, potatoes and onions.