Slovakia's potato problem

Slovaks love their potatoes and they eat a lot. But it seems the modern world of the EU and open markets is leading local farmers to stop planting them. Anca Dragu reports from Bratislava.

I wonder whether there is anybody in this world who has never eaten potatoes. If there is, he or she definitely doesn't live in Slovakia. Here potatoes are so popular that people regard them as a second type of bread.

"They have been playing a very important role in the folk culture of Slovakia because villagers can store them and cook a wide range of meals during the whole year", says Elena Zahradnikova a curator at the Slovak National Museum.

Maria Theresa
Slovaks began eating potatoes in the 18th century only after the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa persuaded them that the edible part is actually in the ground and not those green fruits above the ground.

"Maria Theresia issued written explanations that were posted in Slovak villages so people could learn how to eat the potatoes. Her goal was to persuade people to cultivate potatoes because they bore higher yields than cereals for example. Slovaks have a saying that you put one potato in the ground in the spring and can pick up eight in the autumn," says Zahradnikova.

Well, it seems that the economic reasoning applied at that time doesn't work today in the complex world of supermarkets and the European Union. The total surface cultivated with potatoes in Slovakia decreased by a third since 2000 to 18,400 hectares this year. In the same period of time the production fell by 17 percent to 346 thousand tonnes in 2006.

"The production costs went up. The supermarkets are trying to push the purchasing prices down, around 8.50 Crowns per kilo while most producers calculated that they should get 11-13 Crowns per kilo. Some decided that it's not worth selling potatoes to the local market anymore and tried Germany, France or Holland. The problem is that not all Slovak potatoes are of a quality good enough to be sold on the European Union market. Some farmers decided to switch to other crops", said Julius Danis the Head of the regional Agriculture Chamber in Poprad, Northern Slovakia.

Slovak potato producers have another disadvantage. They live close to Poland, which is one of the largest potato producers in Europe. Sparks appeared between the two neighbours when Slovaks accused Poles of selling their potatoes at dumping prices and with no consideration for the European Union's strict fito-sanitary norms. Polish farmers rejected such accusations. Julius Danis says he is not worried that Slovak potato farmers will be pushed out of the market by European competitors.

"Slovaks will keep on eating potatoes. It is a part of our culture and they are healthy", said Julian Danis.

Well if you happen to be in Central Europe this autumn, come to Slovakia and try some delicious potato pancakes or any other of the few hundreds dishes based on potatoes.