by Petra Rietberg
From April 25th to May 1st, an intensive program (IP) on ‘the role of agriculture in regional identity and competitiveness in rural areas’ takes place in Podkylava, a small Slovakian village. For two weeks, around 50 students from countries all over Europe gather to see and analyze rural development in Western Slovakia. Since our flight is obstructed by the ash of Eyjafjallajökull, Marlies and I head off for a journey by car, train and bus and, eventually, are able to make it in time. The majority of the participants has found similar solutions, so the program proceeds as planned.
After two days of lectures, the group is split up and we are able to go into the field. Traces, or more than traces, of agriculture as it was in the socialist era are clearly visible still – something I did not expect. Mr. Compas, a farmer we are visiting, explains that 70 to 80% of the cooperations that existed in the communist period are still up and running – the main difference is that now they are run by the management of the cooperative and not by the state. He himself is managing over 1100 ha, of which he owns 300. Before 1989, he was working on this land, too, having a high position in a cooperation. Other field visits and talks to other persons teach us that his situation, and that of his farm, are no exception: farm and power structures in place before 1989 appear to be maintained to a large extent.
It is interesting to see and hear the stories of local communities – from farmers to mayors, from representatives of local action groups to tea processors . Besides, the warm welcome we get in the house of a farmer and his parents (to name but one example), including home-made slivovice and freshly baked pastry, is not something to forget easily.
The trips we make by bus allow us to get an impression of what the countryside in Western Slovakia looks like. We see the landscape changing from fertile plains with huge yellow rapeseed fields to hilly areas in which subsistence agriculture is ubiquitous. The concept of multifunctionality has not (yet) settled firmly here: agriculture seems either very large-scale and intensive, or existing of home-gardens.
Upon return in Podkylava, a week of analysis, report writing and presentation making is awaiting us. In the evenings, groups of students present their country and the role of agriculture in it. This provides for funny observations and, sometimes, seeing prejudices confirmed: the Italians, for example, give a clear illustration of their food culture by presenting a load of regional products, each with their background and special qualities. The Slovakians on the other hand dress up in a traditional folklore outfit and include a typical dance in their presentation.
In the little spare time left, we enjoy the facilities of the luxury pension in which we are stationed like the swimming pool, the Jacuzzi, the large grass field or the bar. (The owner of the pension, a rather conceited middle-aged man, turns out to possess the adjacent agricultural lands, a large cattle herd, a horse farm, other touristic facilities and the local primary school, in short: the village, as well. Something that proved to be a challenge for the group analyzing this specific region…). Back in The Netherlands I look back at a truly intensive program – and a fine experience.