After the Communists fell in Romania 20 years ago, people received private farm land, but the plots were too small for effective agriculture, according to Albany College of Pharmacy Professor John Polimeni.
The average farm size is around 2 hectares — the equivalent of about 5 acres.
“Production levels weren’t able to be high enough,” said Polimeni, a Schenectady native, who spent four months in the country studying agriculture on a Fulbright Scholarship. In addition, the land was often contaminated from industrial production and chemicals that were used during the Soviet era.
The people that he stayed with lived on roughly $120 a month and made their living on subsistence agriculture.
Romania used to produce food for much of Europe. “Now, it’s nowhere near that level. They have to import a lot of their food,” he said.
Because of importation, Romanians have to pay much higher prices for their food. “In the United States, we spend between 10 to 15 percent on food. In Romania, it’s anywhere from 35 to 65 percent,” he said.
There is tremendous pressure in the country, including from the European Union, to move toward an industrial type of agriculture that is common in the United States.
“I don’t think Romania wants to do that. They want to improve their production for sure. They want to do it in a way that’s sustainable, economically as well as environmentally.”
Agriculture techniques still include horse-drawn plows.
Polimeni, 37, said that Romanians understand perhaps better than Americans the connection between having a sustainable agriculture and good public health.
Polimeni believes that Romanians have an opportunity by pushing more for organic farming that relies less on use of pesticides and chemicals. “Those are the products that are being demanded by Western Europe,” he said.
Polimeni pitched in to help, including carrying water and bagging onions.
There are also some lingering effects of the Communist era. For example, a man would buy onions from the farmers and sell them in the city for five to six times the price he paid. When Polimeni asked why the farmers didn’t band together and sell crops directly. “The answer I kept getting was, ‘We can’t trust each other.’ ”
In addition to observing farmers in the field, Polimeni gave lectures about agriculture at several universities, including the Ecological University of Bucharest and the University of Iasi.
He said he was surprised how familiar people were with American culture and television shows. They followed popular sitcoms, American football and MTV. They also spoke English.
“There’s people that speak English quite frankly better than we do,” he said.
He also managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, including visiting some old monasteries.
He plans to return to Romania this summer to work with his colleagues to analyze the data they collected about farming and come up with policy recommendations.
There are some efforts to increase the size of the farms but it is going to take a while as lands are passed down through families and sold to others, he said. He also believes it will take time for agricultural reforms to have an impact.
But it’s a valuable goal.
“Increasing rural economic development will take a lot of pressure off urban centers,” he said.
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