5 May 1995

Czechs grapple with life after communism…

No subsidies, low cereal prices and vast surpluses. The Czech Republics agricultural industry faces an uphill struggle as it seeks to recover from 40 years of communism. Andy Collings visited the countrys premier machinery show at Brno and discovered that Czech farmers have a modern range of equipment available

SINCE its conversion from communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has experienced some major changes.

Not least has been the effect on the countrys agricultural industry, which is now able to concentrate on food production for its own consumption – rather than being used as a supplier for other communist states.

And the land taken over by the state is now back in the hands of its original owners, or at least, their descendants. But such changes have not been without their difficulties, and have not been universally accepted.

The new governments no subsidy, cheap food policy has meant low prices for farmers and, for a population of less than 11m, a significant degree of over-production.

Low price alert

For Frantisek Brabec, a member of the agricultural chamber for the Czech Republic, low prices mean inputs have to be watched.

"The price of wheat is about £55/t, which means what we can spend on fertiliser and chemicals is severely limited if we are not to be out of pocket," he explains.

"It all means farmers are not working their land to its full potential, incomes are low and there is not sufficient return to invest in new machinery."

About 55% of the Czech Republic is used for food production, the remainder either unsuitable or used for more urban developments.

Crops grown include wheat, barley, rye and oats plus a small amount of oilseed rape and sugar beet. On the better land in the south, vegetables also count as important crops.

Farm size varies, those privately owned might be up to 75ha (185 acres) but larger co-operatives exist in which groups of farmers unite to pool their resources – a legacy, in many ways of the communist rule that went before.

Mr Brabec, although proud of his countrys new found independence, is envious of the EU, where, he says, prices are better, subsidies are generous and the overall agricultural economy appears to be more affluent.

Not quick enough

But, he concedes, he may be a little impatient. "Changes are occurring and there is little doubt the economy is strengthening with each passing year. It is just a pity that it doesnt happen a little quicker."

Evidence that the economy is improving is borne out by the increase in machinery sales over the past year. Tractor sales are reported to have increased by 13% to about a 1000 units a year, and combine harvesters are also selling well – about 130 a year.

On the back of these key sales comes news of an increase in implement sales; the vast majority of which are sourced from western manufacturers. A look around the BVV show reveals names which most UK farms would recognise.

Future prospects?

So what does the future hold for the Czech agricultural industry: "The first thing to recognise is that it is an industry, and one which the government treats as such. The second is that agriculture has to survive, and it will," comments Mr Brabec.

"Our farmers have been through too much in recent years to see it do anything else. The signs are that it is improving, and we can look forward to better times in the future. There is a great deal of optimism."