Friday, July 04, 2008

Milking it

A couple of years ago, I pondered on the impact that EU membership would have on the small farmers of Romania. Just to clarify, the farmers of Romania are not, to my knowledge, any smaller than farmers anywhere else - many are of average height and build, while some are even quite tall. There are just rather a lot of them (farmers of all sizes) and they mostly have very small farms. In fact many of their farms would not actually be described as farms by most people and more like "having a cow or two in their back garden". In fact, I think I should probably go with smallholder, so as to not delude you as to the scale of their operations.

Anyway, I have recently learned a little bit more about what EU membership means for these smallholders (and indeed what having all these smallholders means for the EU). Specifically in the dairy sector.

You see, the way things work around here is that people in villages own a cow or two. Every morning people open their gates, and the cows wander out on to the street and follow each other and the village cowbloke who escorts them all to a field where they all spend the day quietly pondering the scenery, rambling, and painting watercolours of the tranquil countryside. At the end of the day, they are led back through the village, during which walk they all peel off and go into their own homes. Really, they do that, they don't need to be guided or anything, and the cowbloke doesn't need to recognise all the cows, they just go home of their own accord. I mean cows may not be the most actively intelligent of animals, but they are not, well, sheep.

[By the way, and I have no idea whether this is true or not, but the joke around these parts is that the one place that it doesn't work like this is in the Ploiesti area, in which everybody has so little to do, that they all take care of their own cows. Sort of a one-cow town]

Anyway, before they all go out for the day to their alfresco creche (Kühegarten?), they get milked by their owners. The aformentioned owners then take the milk to the village collection point, where it is deposited and cooled and then at some point picked up by the tanker which takes it all to the dairy. I think in the past, much of this dairy activity happened in the village itself, or at least in some villages, but with the changes brought upon by the EU, the only dairies that remain are the large ones which can afford to ensure all procedures and tests are met, and which are usually situated in the major population centres. So a fleet of tankers is despatched every morning to the collection points in the villages, where the milk is transferred to the tanker and brought back to the dairy, where it is tested and pasteurised and what have you (ie converted into good things, like butter, or crimes against humanity, like cheese).

Now this process is pretty much the only way that the old system of lots of people with few cows each can sustain itself (and not morph into the agribusiness model of very few people owning all the cows), but it obviously has a number of problems inherent in it. The main one is that it takes a long while to isolate a problem. If one cow is receiving antibiotics, for example, that cow's milk cannot be sold (because milk cannot legally contain antibiotics). But if the owner and the village vet keep it secret (because obviously you lose income for a while), then the antbiotics show up at the dairy, meaning that the whole tanker full is unusable. At that point, all of the villages on that tanker's route are under suspicion, and the next day the milk of all those villages will be checked at the collection points to determine which village it is. From that point, I guess the guilty cow can be identified, arrested, and charged, but it's at least a three-day process. The other problem is that there are an awful lot of people who have been milking cows for a awfully long time who now have to re-learn some things to ensure that the milk they obtain is cleaner (in terms of bacteria content).

I also learned that each of these producers has to have a quota to sell the dairy issued by the EU (or I presume issued more locally, under EU rules). Because of Romania's smallholding culture, there are 250,000 of these quota holders in this country. That is one half of all the quota holders in the whole of the EU. That's one of those statistics that sounds like it should be really interesting, but when you delve deep down into it, it's kind of hard to see why. A bit like this post, I fear.


Gadjo Dilo said...

It is interesting, Andy, and it affects a lot of people's lives. A part of me - the more foolish part - hopes that the world's crude oil runs out soon - it's gonna happen before too long anyway - so that food can't be shipped around so easily and EU regulations will have to be scrapped and Romanian smallholders will be at last be the envy of the world :-)

Or, perhaps even better, the huge tracts of unused pasture in Romania are used to cultivate oil-seed rape; this makes adequate fuel, I believe, which can then be sold at an exhorbitant price to Jeremy Clarkson* et al.

I didn't know I was this ecologically concerned - I didn't know I had it in me.

* A British journalist who has convinced many people that burning as much petrol as possible is a great idea.

Frank Sellin said...

I noticed in areas near Deva that some smallholders also have access to land held by absentee landlords...they graze their animals and/or cultivate orchards in the hills on larger holdings, and in return, they provide the landlord whose land it is some cheese, milk, meat, or other goods. Sort of a sharecropping among village acquaintances. ;-)