A Comparison of Romanian Village Farming with Crofting on Balmacara Estate

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By Gavin Skipper, National Trust for Scotland

For several years I have been aware of the courses offered within the NET project, developed by ARCH and funded by the Erasmus + programme that allow those working within the natural and cultural heritage sectors an opportunity to undertake a structured training course with relevant European host training organisations. What always caught my eye was an opportunity to experience and learn about Romanian village farming with the focus on hay meadows and subsistence farming. All this sounded very relevant to my own role and location, working as a ranger for the National Trust for Scotland, based on Balmacara Estate, situated in the north-west Highlands of Scotland.

Balmacara Estate covering 2,500 hectares promotes and encourages the crofting way of life, small-scale low intensive farming and this forms an integral part of the landscape which is rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage. There are 84 registered crofts set over eight townships or villages and approximately 75% of this land is under crofting tenure. The opportunity to compare and contrast crofting on Balmacara Estate with Romanian village farming through field trips, interactive discussions, meeting with experts and community groups, combined with hands-on practical experience was the main driver behind my application. Each year during my annual review with our Property Manager this specific training course has been mentioned, but dates and commitments have always clashed until 2019 came around.

During our week in Romania the course was hosted by Associatia Satul Verde (Monica Oprean and Martin Clark). Satul Verde “Green Village” is an NGO that promotes culture, nature and traditional skills in the context of sustainable rural communities. Monica and Martin proved to be wonderful hosts and they were a great double act. They looked after us very well and were attentive to the needs of the group. We learnt so much from them, hearing interesting anecdotes and very relevant facts and stories about agricultural practices, the wildlife, the history and the places we visited. Their knowledge and enthusiasm across the subject areas was very infectious.

We arrived at our destination in the dark so I was eager to see what the morning view might hold. In the vicinity of our accommodation was a field of lavender, another of maize, a vineyard with a modern winery and enclosed fields for grazing. The buildings of the local village Ciumburd, were visible to the south with the outlines of two churches, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic standing proud. Set below and looking west appeared a fertile landscape fed by the river Mures with the market town of Aiud sitting prominent. Beyond and to the north and south of the town lay heavily wooded slopes with the imposing limestone based Apuseni Mountains rearing upwards over and above the tree line. During the next few days we were going to explore this landscape reaching into the hidden glens to find villages reliant on subsistence farming and travelling through and above some of the woodlands to reach rural mountain communities.

On our way to Monica’s family farm steading in the village of Girbovita we travelled across and along the wide valley floor through which the river Mures flowed. I was reminded of rural Perthshire or the Black Isle with a collection of polytunnels and large field boundaries holding many crops that would have been managed using machinery and modern farming practices. As we turned off the main road and wound our way up the glen, the landscape and the type of farming changed. The ground was more undulating, the rising slopes on either side giving way to woodland. What I could see was more reminiscent of a crofting landscape. There were a number of smallholdings that included a family home with an area for growing vegetables, grazing interspersed with fruit trees and a mixture of livestock. Where the hay had been cut and gathered, so sat the wonderful haystacks.

On arrival at Girbovita we were greeted by Monica’s relatives with a toast of home-made plum brandy or wine. This compact and tight-knit family farm steading contains the dwelling house and a water well in the front with livestock and storage out the back. The livestock includes pigs, poultry, caged rabbits and a cow with calf. A boundary fence runs around the perimeter and dogs kept chained during the day are free to roam during the night to deter any predators. The family has an area close by for growing vegetables and scattered plots in the surrounding glen holding orchards and hay meadows. The villagers share a common grazing and whilst we were there the cow was brought back at lunch time to give milk to the calf. Sheep were seen in a neighbouring paddock and elsewhere during our travels.

Left Image: Left to right – Monica, Silvia and Eleonora.
Right Image: The Oprean family dwelling.

Left Image: Family cow returning to give milk to the calf.
Right Image: Sheep in paddock at Girbovita.

Already I was seeing and learning from our host about similarities with crofting life, such as how the land within the village is split into smaller pockets so that there is an equitable share of resources which is then passed down through the generations. Common grazings are managed by the local community as are a mixture of livestock and crops, some of which would not be out of place on a Highland croft.

My introduction to the Romanian meadows will linger long in the memory. A splash of different colours even in mid-September, a wave of grasshoppers and leafhoppers moving with our feet, butterflies aplenty and so many other insects and associated creatures. Many of the flowering plants were familiar to me as the meadows on Balmacara Estate are also very species-rich, but the variety of invertebrates in Balmacara seem less abundant, partly because of the climate but more so because of the way in which the meadows are harvested. At Balmacara the harvest is brought in using tractors and heavy machinery, and these days some of this crop is wrapped in plastic and turned into silage. By contrast the meadows we saw in Romania were cut by hand using scythes, the hay is gathered and stored in stacks, using a tripod frame with a taller central pole for support, allowing the air to circulate. We were told that two or three cuts might be possible in a longer season compared with our annual cut. During the winter the hay tends to be stored in barns closer to the farm steading and a horse and cart is used for transporting this. In a similar way to the croft, cattle are brought in to graze the meadow towards the end of September. As a group we assisted with this current harvest raking the cut meadow and using pitchforks to collect and move the hay, forming small haystacks in the process. All these methods are very labour intensive but quite satisfying with many hands to help out, although hard physical work for a smaller workforce when much of the meadows cover a larger area.

Left Image: Chicory.
Right Image: Knapweed.

Left Image: Grasshopper.
Right Image: Gathering the hay.

On another occasion our group walked to the far end of the village heading up the slopes to where the Oprean family have another orchard. The very tasty plums were ripe and ready for harvest. From the lower branches they could be picked by hand, but the most efficient way of collecting those out of reach was to hold a taught sheet under the fruit and then using long slender poles cut from the neighbouring woodland, whip and shake the upper branches so that the fruit would fall into the waiting sheet. This orchard was showing signs of scrub encroachment as it is further away from the farm steading and less of a priority in terms of what needs to be done on a daily basis. Without regular management, much of this land will eventually return to forest.

Left Image: Village of Girbovita.
Right Image: Picking plums.

Left Image: Willow pollard.
Right Image: Group discussing fence without wire, seen in background.

Trees play a big part within this landscape and pollarding and coppicing is common practice. Their sustainable harvest is used in all manners of construction. I was inspired by the variety of wooden fencing techniques, one of the best was designed to protect a young orchard from wild boar and roe deer. Upright posts, often green, were driven into the ground and woven either side, and in between them were layers of flexible poles. The end product looked like very sturdy hazel hurdles with a protruding top to discourage jumping animals. In some places leaf hay is still created by shredding and stripping the young branches, storing them in a drying barn and using this as animal fodder over winter. Cattle seem to have a preference for ash leaf hay. Something similar used to happen in the Highlands whereby young fresh growth from gorse was cut and crushed then stored as winter feed for cattle.

On reflection what we were witnessing within Girbovita were farming techniques that have changed little over hundreds of years. Sometimes referred to as the last medieval landscape, this form of subsistence farming leaves little to waste. Each farm is almost self-sufficient in terms of food and fuel for cooking and heating. When the crops are harvested, much is preserved or pickled. Most of the livestock get their feed from what is produced on the farm, and their meat is often smoked and stored. Although material wealth may be lacking, their family based structure with three generations of the Oprean family living under the same roof is rich in tradition and cultural heritage.

Romanian village farming and crofting at Balmacara have much in common with little or no use for pesticides or manufactured fertilisers. Indeed, both of these small-scale forms of agriculture have many great environmental benefits. By practising low intensity farming methods, each community is also managing a range of habitats within each landscape that host an abundance of wildlife and plant species. They also share similar threats from economic and social factors and in both instances agricultural activity is declining. These are fragile systems that need to continue to adapt and diversify if they are to secure a sustainable future.

On Balmacara Estate, the National Trust for Scotland offers an incentive scheme that supports the resident crofting community and encourages the continuation of traditional crofting practices. For more than ten years this crofting management scheme has been making payments for rotational cropping and retention of cattle, and includes premium payments for growing hay as opposed to silage, and for late-cut grasslands to encourage species diversity in the meadows. The scheme was set up in response to a perceived inadequacy in the publicly funded support through the Common Agricultural Policy and the Scottish Rural Development Programme. Within Romania the European funding for agricultural practices also appears to be far off the mark. I understand that the emphasis of these programmes are supposed to be moving towards small scale farming, but in Romania, village farmers are not encouraged to apply or be kept informed about the available grant system. Maybe a collaborative approach from the residents of Girbovita or the larger community of subsistence farmers would have more impact in terms of getting results and approval from the funding bodies?

Depopulation is a common issue in many rural communities. For Highland crofting and more especially Romanian village farming, the young growing up in this situation often see much hard work for very little return. The bright lights of the big city and the perception of an easier and more exciting lifestyle can be hard to resist. At Balmacara we run a crofting education programme in association with the local Plockton High School in an attempt to encourage the next generation of crofters. In Girbovita at the nearby town of Aiud there is an agricultural college offering similar courses. In both instances it is hoped that those young persons who have had a taste of traditional farming practices and decide to leave for “pastures green” will realise what a special place they have left behind, and at some point in the future will return to live and work, bringing new ideas, a different skill set and the drive to get things done.

If the agricultural practices within Romanian village farming remain labour intensive and there is a shortage of persons willing to take on this role, then maybe the option of recruiting long term volunteers through programmes such as WWOOF (world-wide opportunities on organic farms) should be considered. A number of crofters at Balmacara rely on these willing helpers on a seasonal basis. With the landscape, the biodiversity and a lifestyle closer to nature on offer, perhaps a system where persons paid a fee and covered their own travelling costs to come on a working holiday would bring a labour force and a source of income. Some of the infrastructure to host this sort of group is already in place, like the accommodation we stayed in during our visit. This type of working holiday works well with for the National Trust for Scotland and on Balmacara Estate we host three of these Thistle Camps each year achieving a tremendous amount of work on each occasion.

Left Image: Traditional building.
Right Image: Haystacks in the hills.

Left Image: Apuseni Mountains.
Right Image: Irina in traditional dress..

During our week in Romania we travelled to many interesting and intriguing places. Some of my highlights included our time in the rural community of Rimet set amidst the Apuseni Mountains where many of the traditional buildings can still be seen. We had lunch with a family who work the land, and they also help run an ethnographic museum and arrange hunting trips into the dense forest. We were able to view images of brown bears and wild boars through camera traps, along with the usual suspects that you might expect to find in the Highlands. We also heard stories about wolves and lynx. No wonder the sheep flock so naturally and cattle are kept close to the village, being brought in before dusk. All these top predators have protected status but wild boar are deemed fair game. It therefore came as no surprise to find that on the menu was wild boar stew, lovely mashed potatoes, courgettes fried in batter and a traditional cabbage salad made with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.

I also really appreciate my cultural heritage and we were treated to an afternoon wandering around Astra Museum of Traditional Folk Civilisation. It contains over three hundred houses and workshops from the pre-industrial era, with exhibits organised into thematic groups such as food production and animal husbandry and production of raw materials. This stunning site is situated in a forest around two lakes with over 10km of walkways linking the exhibits. Most communities we passed through had some eye catching architecture. I was especially taken with the shape and design of the Eastern Orthodox churches along with their interior art work.

Left Image: Traditional grain store: Astra Museum.
Right Image: Astra Museum of Traditional Folk Civilisation: Sibiu.

Left Image: Eastern Orthodox church: Rimet.
Right Image: Ceiling in Eastern Orthodox church: Rimet.

With so much to interpret and admire within this region of Romania, there is a real opportunity to develop small scale eco-tourism that is sympathetic to the environment. There could be an obvious tie-in for villages like Girbovita and the rural mountain communities like Rimet. An itinerary that includes a day on a village farm learning about sustainable farming, sharing in their tasty produce and sampling their home made beverages could appeal to many. Tours could also be targeted at particular interest groups such as walking tours, bird watching or wine tasting. This is where the younger generation could take a lead with their IT and marketing skills. On Balmacara Estate, nestled between the North Coast 500 and the Isle of Skye, we see many of these small group tours getting out of their minibus to admire the sites. From Rabbies trailblazers to Highland guiding services, there is a mixture of young overseas visitors and an older audience with an itinerary structured around the rich natural and cultural heritage.

The aims and the ethos of crofting and village farming appear to be intertwined. Perhaps the Romanian experience is more pure and simple. Both communities struggle to make a living based solely on the land. I see that many crofters and village farmers are required to juggle more than one role, taking on some other part time work to create a viable income. Diversification and job opportunities are of vital importance in moving towards a sustainable future. At present I think this is much easier to achieve within the set up on Balmacara Estate, but opportunities within this region of Romania are beginning to grow. Improved access is coming to the rural communities, and if the development that follows is sympathetic to the environment and in keeping with the landscape, then there is an important role for village farming to maintain the rich mosaic of habitats and the associated biodiversity that make this place such a wonderful location.

Following my structured training course in Romania and subsequent discussion with my colleagues, we now have plans to bring some of the traditional village farming methods from Romania onto Balmacara Estate. We have a demonstration species-rich meadow on a high profile gateway site. Next year before the harvest we will get the students from the crofting course at Plockton High School to establish a number of fixed quadrats on the meadow. They will record and quantify the plant species and invertebrate life within these quadrats giving us a base sample. When the meadow is ready to cut, half will be done by the students using scythes, creating Romanian style haystacks in the process. The other half of the meadow will be cut using modern machinery creating round baling hay. On an annual basis the crofting students will carry out the same procedures, and we will monitor the quadrats to check what is happening to the biodiversity within each half of the meadow. During this time we will also undertake bird surveys to see if there is any obvious change in the numbers and species that are spending time on this particular meadow.

I would like to thank Libby and Seona from ARCH for facilitating this opportunity. My best wishes go out to Monica and Martin who provided a great insight into Romanian village farming, organising a varied and informative programme with lots of ‘wow’ moments. It was a real privilege to be invited into local homes and to share in their kind hospitality. Everyone we met along the way made us feel most welcome. My thanks also go out to my fellow participants who were great company, brought with them a wealth of knowledge and experience which gave our group discussions a wide perspective, and always raised matters I would not have considered myself. I gained a great deal from this experience, smiled often, had a good laugh and will cherish the memories. Transylvania – so much more than vampires!

Left to right. Sitting: Meryl, Roo, Monica, Martin, Lucy, Ron. Front: Jackie, Gavin, Sian, Kate. ARCH Group – Romanian Village Farming in Transylvania – September 2019

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