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Farmer Markus Schieber: Agritechnica ideas aid a large-scale crop enterprise in Hungary

By Erminia Ciarleglio

From the family farm near Schwäbisch Hall in German Baden-Württemberg to an expansive arable enterprise over 1000 km away in Baja, Hungary: this was the route followed 25 years ago by Markus Schieber and his father in the search for better crop growing opportunities. Back on the home farm in Sulzbach an der Murr and during his agricultural science studies at Hohenheim University, this farmer recalls long conversations with his father about their common dream of a really big and efficient arable operation. Back home in those days, he recalls, weaned calves were reared and fattened. The arable side of the business featured very small and widely scattered fields. The first signs that ambitions to expand might lead far to the east were through a Hungarian-born lecturer on Markus Schieber’s course at Hohenheim, Dr Josef Haris supplied addresses and farming contacts in his homeland to his young student. In summer 1995 Markus and his father took the road eastwards and looked over some Hungarian properties. They found the land very attractive from a farming viewpoint and soon rented 600 ha in the Baja region around 200 km south of Budapest. Even the buildings for storing the first harvests were only rented. Another move made almost immediately by this young farmer was securing membership of the DLG. He joined in 1997 and with the highlights of the regular DLG Feldtage and Agritechnica, he reports the organisation has been a continual inspiration in his farming business development.       

1 A foreign land, another language: these were doubtless big challenges, but not the only ones to overcome in Hungary?

Getting started had its problems. The only machinery we owned was one 160 HP tractor and a fertiliser spreader. We leased all other tackle. Apart from the language, the first challenges included the weather: a continental climate with an average of just 520 mm annual precipitation and regular drought conditions in spring. In the first few years there was also our uncertainty of when, and even if, we were to be paid for our harvested grain.

2 How did your family farming business develop from then on?

We expanded quite fast. In fact, we now farm 3,200 ha, including 130 ha that could be irrigated. We grow winter wheat, winter durum, oilseed rape, grain maize and sunflowers. Using the irrigation, we also produce vining peas and sweet corn. We also look for added value from our wheat, specialising in growing higher quality varieties. However, any premium we earn from the grain only just about balances the extra growing costs involved.

3 And the grain growing conditions in general for Hungarian farmers?

Well, about a million hectares of grain maize is harvested here annually with one of the main markets offered by three large ethanol plants. Because of the continental climate, corn yields fluctuate markedly, especially in the south. On our farmland, the corn yields have ranged from 5 to 13 t/ha over the last few years. When the harvest is good, we export quite a lot of the grain. Winter wheat area covers a little more than 1 m ha in Hungary. Regarding wheat quality, every class from C to E is grown with the trend towards drilling medium quality varieties with a higher yield potential.

4 Can the farm structure in Hungary be compared with that in Germany, for instance?

Comparison is difficult in this context. For instance, both countries have a range from small units to very large operations of several thousand hectares, although the Hungarian structure/size tends to be more advantageous in general. We have the climatic disadvantages as mentioned, and these increase farm business risks.

5 And what about political and public focus on the way farming is carried out?

I think in this respect we have it easier in Hungary. Admittedly, we also have the Fertiliser Ordinance. But its application is not so strict as in Germany. Here too, some plant protection products have been banned in the last years. On the other hand, we still use some sprays that have not been allowed for some time in Germany. Also, farming here isn’t so much in the public eye as it is back home. Glyphosate or bee mortality, for example, are not thematised to the same extent. There’s less public pressure on the sector – and not so many NGO activities trying to influence government, although there are arguments for and against such pressures with some definitely justified. My feeling is that agriculture here in Hungary is easier to operate and (so far) less complicated, with not quite so much bureaucracy. For instance regulations in crop production and livestock farming, especially concerning erection of new farm buildings, are less complicated