Tasting the inefficient sustainability

By László Demeter

A year and a half ago I had an idea for sustainability: I started farming. First, I got three lambs from a neighbor, through an other neighbor, who has shepherding in his blood [as his mother was a Romanian shepherd girl and his father a Hungarian farmer. They met somewhere on the ridge of the Carpathians, and so my neighbor was born during a winter migration with the sheep on the way to the Danube. But that’s an other story.] Then my farm increased with two water buffalo calves, two more lambs, not to mention a gift rabbit. A year ago two horses were added. I had a number of reasons to do all this, I list just a few here.

Every time I saw a buffalo herd in a village of Southern Transylvania, I felt a nostalgia for my childhood (late 1980-s, early 90-s) in my grandparents village, where almost all families had a couple of these spectacular beasts, and we knew many of them personally, some kids rid them. There are almost none left in that village – and the Transylvanian water buffalo is now an endangered breed. I learned (and enjoyed doing) all summer farming activities, except probably milking and mowing by hand. The reason for the latter was the recent introduction of small mowing machines – my family was one of the firsts who switched from hand to machine mowing (my uncle now mows by tractor and bales the hay with old West-European machines). So ever since, I wanted to learn to milk and mow by hand. And also I envied my grandfather’s palm. In Hungarian it’s simply called bark-like. Probably this term and the effect is not known in Western Europe, because it develops after years of physical work using tools with wooden handle. – and not wearing a glove 🙂

mowing in the mountains

Mowing with a frieend (LD in the left)

I felt sorry for a long time for the decline of village culture and traditional agriculture, from an informational (and the mentioned sentimental) point of view. All the information that is now largely found in ethnography books about essentially how to use local natural resources. Ethnographers and sociologists recognized long time ago the decay of rural society, and they did a lot to record and collect elements of this. They invested a lot of time, money, etc. to collect all these into museums. A few decades later ecologists discovered the ecological value of rural societies and do their best to study it. No museums, but tons of scientific papers are preserving traditional ecological knowledge for future generations.

I remember a British guest in his 70s in our area making a remark on the traditional farming and the landscape that we saw: “we had all this in my grandparent’s time”. I really don’t want this to happen to my generation, I want my grandchildren to be familiar with living on grass and hay.

A few years ago nature conservation grew like a balloon in my country. Mountain hay meadows became a habitat of conservation interest, and people started to mention habitat management with a high frequency. Ok, I said to myself, so what we did in my childhood for months and years, was habitat management, just we didn’t know that it was. We raked, made hay stacks and packed haycarts in the hottest hours of the day (not to mention hand mowing, which other people of my generation did in the very same time in more mountainous areas), when modern man does not even want to count flowers. (By the way, I consider this exercise very educative, and highly recommend to be included in the school curricula of all people involved in teaching, decision making and advisory regarding agriculture, sustainability, food security and climate change.)

haycart convoy

Haycart convoy

This day I “manage” a farm composed of four water buffaloes, a dozen of sheep, two horses, not to mention the rabbits (I share part of the animals with a friend), which, in local terms is a decent size farm. I built or rebuilt a couple of barns, made hay, learned a lot from true local small farmers. It’s lucky that there are still people around to learn from. And my palm started to look better now 🙂

A practical person would immediately ask: what is the use of all these animals? Well, the horses are responsible for transport, sheep give wool that I used to insulate  the stable, milk (cheese) and meat. The buffaloes for now provide very nice manure, as the others do too. Hopefully they will give milk and they might pull heavy loads too.

By the way and luckily again, I’m not the only “intellectual” in Transylvania who returned to farming. Several priests, artists and schoolteachers did that in the past decade. However, I’m the only conservationist (if you know somebody else please tell me) who also does farming. I hope that this will change by time.

I must admit that in the past year I didn’t have so much time for publications and similar activities, although in collaboration with colleagues I managed some nice little papers on amphibians, temporary ponds and hay meadows, and quite a few nature-related publications for children and nature-lovers.

A very famous Hungarian writer, Elek Benedek (1859-1929) considered that “only that man is somewhat complete, for whom the pen is light and the scythe not heavy”. We should quote him more often.


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