Connecting farmers and consumers in Lithuania
Rachel Harries - 04 October 2013
As part of an EU learning exchange on access to land I recently spent four days in Lithuania. What I found was a country of contrasts, a beautiful very old town bordered by brutalist Soviet architecture, miles upon miles of high rise concrete blocks, and endless dense pine forests interspersed with villages of wooden houses, pasture with solitary cows and large arable fields, many growing buckwheat.
But it took some explanation by our hosts, Audrius and Valdas of Viva Sol, an association of cheese makers and eaters to really understand what we were seeing, its history and potential future.
Lithuania is traditionally a peasant farming country, which in the 1950s underwent a massive industrialisation of its agriculture under Soviet control. We saw the remnants of this in the countryside, huge derelict farm buildings that had formed the ‘caucuses’ or collective farms – equivalent to a mega-farm in each village.
From 1990 onwards when the USSR was dismantled the country started a process of land reform, redistributing land that had been confiscated back to original owners or where it has been lost to industry or urbanisation, allocating land in different parts of the country. On the surface this sounds like a fair and admirable practice. In reality land was parcelled up arbitrarily with no thought to its future agricultural use and doled out like a country handing out its natural wealth to be later bought and sold whenever people need to cash in their assets. Furthermore, land was redistributed to pre-Soviet land owners, so the landless agricultural workers of the collective farms remained landless.
The outcome is similar to agriculture all over the world, with small plots bought up and amalgamated into larger farms. At the other end of the scale, many small plots of land have been left abandoned as the owners who now live in the cities have no interest in farming. The result is not just a loss of farmers from the countryside but also traditional breeds of cattle as the large farms favour arable production.
While the number of small farms has decreased they do still exist, either as family plots producing for their own consumption, or small scale farms of 10-15 hectares. Our hosts Viva Sol are in this bracket and are part of a new generation of Lithuanians returning to the land and attempting to rebuild the link between farmers and consumers.
They describe themselves as an association of cheese-makers and eaters. Over the past seven years they have introduced the first farmers markets to the capital, Vilnius, initially selling cheese informally in a smart café, until the chef Julija realised what they were doing and offered to support them. She has now left the kitchen and the city and started her own veg growing enterprise.
Viva Sol have established a shop and café - The Cheesemakers House - in a remote village, attached to Valdas’ small farm, which employs four people and uses local wild mushrooms, bread and vegetables. Valdas compares this to the 1000ha Soviet collective farm that once employed a whole village, and now employs just one person. Its success as an example of rural economic development has prompted visits by politicians and even the prime minister, although not owning a TV they didn’t recognise them!
Despite its dramatic history the problems facing Lithuania are similar to those facing agriculture in many other countries including the UK – disconnection between farmers and consumers, security of tenure, lack of government support for small farms, training, finance, and farm succession. The challenges are many but it is crucial that ways are found to ensure that skills, knowledge and land are passed from one generation to the next.
Lithuania also faces a more urgent and pressing problem. In 2014, along with other new EU countries, it will open up its agricultural markets to foreign investment, potentially accelerating land speculation, land grabbing and the further concentration of land in the hands of a few.
Rachel is Future Growers and Community Supported Agriculture Coordinator at the Soil Association.