26 March 1999

GIFT OF SEED NOT

SO EASY TO GIVE

WE BRITISH fondly imagine we do a good line in bureaucracy, but were rank amateurs compared to some of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. They may have ditched many of the unsavoury aspects of communism with commendable vigour, but their love of paperwork remains undiminished.

Peter Gwynne, who manages the 260ha (650 acres) of combinable crops, beet and potatoes at R&D Greens Bollitree Farm, Weston under Penyard, knows more about east European paperwork than most. Four years ago he was managing the farm at Holme Lacy College near Hereford when he got involved in a project with the Bodenham Romania Support Group to help a small Romanian farming community called Enlaka.

Enlaka is typical of many east European farming areas. In 1989, in a burst of post-communist enthusiasm, the government disbanded the local state farm and gave every family in the village 10ha (25 acres). Which was fine, except that no-one had the money or the machinery to farm it properly. The result was land lying bare and a lot of frustrated farmers.

Two visits to Enlaka later, it was clear what the village needed – decent seed wheat. The existing seed had been saved for 16 consecutive years, its exhausted genes now mustering no more than 50% germination rates and 2.4t/ha (1t/acre) yields. In early 1995 seed firm Cargill UK (in the shape of Chris Hinks) said it was happy to donate 4.5t of Ritmo milling wheat seed. All that was needed was to get the seed from Britain to Romania.

Fierce reluctance

Mr Gwynne set to with enthusiasm and vigour. What he hadnt bargained on was the Romanians fierce reluctance to let any foreign seed cross their border (not surprising, given that Eastern Europe has become a bit of a dumping ground for out-of-date seed and chemicals from the EU for several years).

He contacted the Romanian Embassy in London requesting permission to bring the seed in. Nothing worthwhile happened for two and half years, but in June 1997 the Romanian government unexpectedly passed a law allowing in EU-registered seed.

Mr Gwynne swung into action. He wrote to the Ministry of Agriculture in the Romanian capital Bucharest for import permits.

Next, he had to get an official declaration from the village of Enlaka that they would keep the seed for their own use and would not sell it on the thriving black market. Normally, non-Romanians would find it next-to-impossible to get hold of such a document, and it was only the intervention of Gabor Kolumban, president of the local county council, which fixed it.

As if that were not enough, he discovered that Romanian law prohibits donations to individuals, so a non-profit-making foundation had to be set up in Enlaka as the official recipient of the grain.

By September 1998 everything was ready. But Mr Gwynne was still nervous.

"We knew that other charities had tried to get seed into the country and been turned back at the border," he says. "Link Romania (who were hauling the grain) quoted £750 for the haulage but were so worried the lorry wouldnt get through that they said wed be charged another £250 for every 24 hours wait at the border. I sweated when I read that, as I had said Id pay for any extras personally!"

The lorry and its cargo of 4.5t of Cargills seed set off on Sept 14, 1998, complete with letter of donation, letter of intent and NIAB phytosanitary certificate. By Saturday night it had reached the Romanian border.

"My phone rang at 10.30 on Saturday night," says Mr Gwynne. "It was the lorry driver saying he had been refused entry because two documents were missing. One was an ISTA (a declaration of the seeds parentage) and the other was an OECD certificate of seed purity.

"On Monday I rang Richard Vennell at MAFF. At first it looked like we would have to take the seed back to Britain to have it retested. But luckily they had the batch number so they were able to do it from another batch of the same seed. We had a certificate by the end of the week and faxed it straight through to the border post."

Seven days delay

The seven days of delay would have meant a £1750 bill for Mr Gwynne, were it not for another intervention by the ever-resourceful Mr Kolumban. He pulled strings at the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture and got special permission for the seed to pass through customs late on Sunday night, just 24 hours after it was impounded. But there was a price to pay – the seed had to be quarantined until the new certificates had been received and the Romanian ministry had carried out their own tests.

In a surreal episode, this involved the bags of seed being unloaded into tractors and trailers from the village, taken 15 miles to a barn and held under lock and key. "This was the only time I wished I hadnt started the whole project," says Mr Gwynne. "I had visions of it being there for weeks."

The seed was finally drilled at the beginning of October and its now a case of waiting to see how it yields. Mr Gwynne knows that the unfamiliar soils and cold winters – sometimes 100 days below freezing – of Romania make yield predictions rather tricky.

"I sent a set of agronomy instructions and suggested that they plant 5ha according to these and do the rest as they normally would to see the difference."

And the future? A recent phone-call from the Know-How Fund, a government-sponsored project to help with information and training in E Europe, could mean the setting up of a bigger project. This would involve sending UK advisers over to help train locals in rural development and social welfare as well as farm production. But thats another story.

Anyone wanting to know more about the seed-to-Romania saga can fax Peter Gwynne via Holme Lacy College – 01432-870566.