Life in the union more difficult for some

  • 2004-05-13
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - This is the first in a series of feature articles about the changing lifestyles in the Baltics as a result of European Union membership.

"Life was difficult before and it's still difficult, but now it's just more complicated," said Valentina Kampare, a pensioner who owns a small farm near the town of Nigrande.
She and her husband Inars, a pensioner with a full-time job, have three cows and a calf on the way. Like thousands of other small farm owners in Latvia, the couple has been able to supplement their income over the years by selling milk.
New regulations, however, require even the smallest agricultural enterprises to harmonize their activity with EU standards. This means piles of new paperwork that can be both intimidating and exasperating for the inexperienced.
Worse, many small farm owners are simply incapable of meeting the new requirements - such as larger chicken coops and keeping milk at 10 degrees Celsius.
In a country where milk production makes up nearly a quarter of the agricultural sector, even slight adjustments can have a dramatic effect. It will be easier for many farmers to sell their cows rather than to continue dealing with the new paperwork and quality standards.
"Small farmers cannot complete all the requirements," Kampere said. "In the future we will probably have to sell our farm and move to an apartment."
They are not alone. There have been many reports of Latvian farmers slaughtering or selling their cows as a result of the new bureaucratic environment.
It is no secret that agricultural policy is one of the most contentious issues in the EU - consuming half the union's annual budget - and that Brussels is wary of the high concentration of farmers in Eastern Europe. Indeed, official agricultural policy will inevitably foster market consolidation, squeezing out small farms in favor of large ones.
One answer to the costly regulations would be for owners of small farms to pool their resources and work together - without the help of the state - in cooperatives. However, few Latvians like the idea of cooperatives.
"In Latvia, the word cooperatives has a negative connotation because of its association with the kolkhoz [collective farm], and because of those few people that have formed them," said Ziedone Berzina, director of the agricultural department at the Agricultural Ministry.
Expectedly, ignorance also plays a large role in changing the current situation.
"Not enough Latvian farmers participate in farmer organizations, so many still do not know what to expect from the EU," said Ligita Silraupe, a farmer in the Aizkraules region.
New member states won't see the full benefits of EU agriculture policy for years to come since subsidies will begin at 25 percent of the total given to West European farmers, though they will gradually increase until convergence is reached in 10 years.
The origins of the EU's common agricultural policy date back to the 1950s when subsidies designed to make European agriculture more competitive were first used. To be sure, the widespread use of subsidies has halved the number of farmers in the EU over the past decade. In EU theory, the larger your farm, the more money you get.
In a country that has repeatedly been subjected to foreign rule - and in many cases dispossession of property - the plight of Latvian farmers resonates with their compatriots. Farming is considered a virtue to these historically agricultural people. Even former Prime Minister Einars Repse urged Latvians to return to the countryside in his New Year's address last December. And European officials are keen to this issue as well.
"I want to tell Latvian farmers that the EU, of course, is not paradise, but it is not hell altogether either," Agriculture and Fishers Commissioner Franz Fischler said while in Jelgava on April 23. "For farmers, the welfare standard definitely will be higher within the EU. They will see growth in the level of subsidies, bigger price stability and significant support to the necessary restructuring and modernization process."
Latvian Agriculture Minister Martins Roze told reporters that, "the EU provides a guarantee for a better life, especially in rural areas. Broad opportunities are offered which we must be willing to use."
Yet with spreading reports of countrymen slaughtering their cows, many Latvians wonder whether Brussels understands anything about Baltic agriculture.