Our Food Future is excited to be given the opportunity to publish this beautiful short story extract from ‘Farming for the Landless: New perspectives on the cultivation of our honeybee’.
For more information visit – www.farmingforthelandless.com
Tiberiu and Mihaela Chirãnescu- Migratory beekeepers, Dobruja, Romania
A close group of people, sheltering under the arbour of a few isolated trees, give and take a refreshing break from the surrounding monotony of yellow. While everything else withers on such a brilliantly bright day, sunflowers, with heads held uniformly high as far as the eye can see, collectively demonstrate the succinctness of their name. I’m on the road across Romania’s flat east, south of the reedy Danube Delta. This area, once drained and reclaimed from the marshes, is now arid and yet still overwhelmingly agricultural. I’m scanning the landscape for markers and, on the next bend, I spot what appears to be a traditional caravan by the roadside. The closer I get, the more distinct the caravan continues to look until one side surprisingly reveals that it’s full of beehives. A mobile home for both people and bees would be too interesting a discovery to miss.
Pulling off the road into a small clearing encourages a concealed dog to bark and a young boy to appear. Beside an oil drum stand of honey under the shade of a parasol, the boy attempts to demonstrate something that I’ve no hope of understanding with only a few basic phrasebook words. From the same nearby trees, a girl then arrives who, with the advantage of a couple more school years than her brother, manages to explain that the honey isn’t for sale. As this surprising news doesn’t lead to my anticipated departure, perplexed faces search mine until I manage to communicate with a series of gesticulations and smiles my interest in the hives. As a short message is obviously developing into a much longer conversation, the last two people resting under the trees decide to make their way towards the caravan. Before long, Tiberiu and Mihaela Chirãnescu, who are now as intrigued as their children Razuan and Lavinia, also arrive to reunite the family once more.
I learn that the beekeepers are Seventh-Day Adventists and that I’ve arrived on their weekly day of rest. Not only is their honey therefore not for sale but Tiberiu and Mihaela are also fasting until sundown in respect of their faith. Although as a result I can only offer the children honey tea, I’m generously invited to stay for supper by their parents in return. As the afternoon is still young, the whole family is more than happy to show me around their mobile home-come-apiary in the meantime. Inside the caravan, a cosy living space – just about large enough to accommodate all of us while sitting – combines a cooking, living and sleeping area. The room appears to have been made with only one or two people in mind, so it’s a challenge to imagine how a family of four might miraculously squeeze in here at the end of the day. A tent around the back of their apiary proves to be the answer. The caravan is used throughout the summer months to maximise the Chirãnescu’s honey yield; their actual home is in the Transylvanian city of Râmnicuvâlcea where they’ll return no later than the beginning of October for the start of school, both for the children and their father who is a history teacher.
As we position ourselves around the small plastic picnic table in preparation for supper, Razuan reappears like a magician from inside the caravan clutching a raw carrot. In amongst our laughter, I appreciate the intended sophistication of his vegetable entrée, knowing that precious little food can be carried on the move, especially in such heat. Despite the expansive agriculture around us, food supplies are distant. Only their honey is ready for the taking. As the day’s light finally dissipates, cutlery is collected and divided equally if somewhat haphazardly while bowls of boiled potatoes dressed with pieces of tomato are carefully passed to everyone in turn. Boiled eggs in their shells follow next and in the dark it’s just about possible to see that with fewer eggs than people it’s the parents who take less food regardless of their day’s fasting. Nevertheless, the jovial spirit of a young family sharing an improvised meal with a foreign guest has a holiday feeling. Perhaps the sound of insects that are still active also provides a certain reassurance of productivity while we relax into the evening. Although we’re surrounded by monoculture, something of the profuseness of the area’s sunflowers seems to permeate our optimism. Indeed, having wished one another goodnight, only the dog appears perturbed, barking into the silence of the fields that surround us.
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The next morning I’m able to study more of the mobile apiary’s construction when Mihaela enters the corridor behind the hives to remove some honeycomb and delicately place it into a glass jar. The box she opens is in principle no different to a standard hive, but its containment within the caravan is certainly distinct: twenty-four hives in total are arranged in three rows of eight with space above for each to be extended by one or two supers. Although once horse-drawn, one look at the caravan’s substantial tyres is enough to suggest a faster, mechanical form of transportation is now used to move these hives from one location to the next. The other mobile apiary I’ll see on my travels, kept on display at the Living Bee Museum in Knuellwald, Germany, is a ‘retired’ trailer from East Germany, which, despite its lack of decoration, is near identical to the Romanian caravan. The museum, which also contains other Soviet memorabilia such as large containers for the mass-collection and storage of honey common within Communist farming practice, would also provide comparative evidence of the broad, complex changes exemplified by Mihaela’s use of small jars for today’s honey collection.
Tiberiu, who is preparing for term time from a book of seemingly simple pages detailing the complexities of recent European history, conveys his calm disapproval of the political developments that have resulted in the current condition of this landscape. The dusty, parched soil beneath our feet, which is only capable of supporting undemanding crops, carries the accumulative weight of many inequitable decisions. Between 1965 and 1989, Romania endured the impact of severe agricultural industrialisation under Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist dictatorship. Tiberiu and Mihaela remember the state’s extreme diktat when whole villages were devastated and rural communities relocated to towering concrete blocks in order to increase agricultural landmass. Counter-intuitively, these measures left the country starving. Despite a wealth of knowledge and experience, farmers had no choice other than to follow instructions from Bucharest, which forced them to grow unsuitable crops without rotation and use huge quantities of artificial fertiliser and synthetic pesticides. Yields plummeted as the soil failed, while export* inexplicably continued: food shortages were crippling. A generation may have passed since the collapse of that regime but for those forced into urban life, who now have no land of their own, it is a genuine response to reinvigorate a strong rural past with this landless farming practice. The spirit of adventure that accompanies this family in their summer work is likely based on the pleasure of being able to do something directly productive in their time away from the city. As Tiberiu and Mihaela would have known hunger all too well as children, independent honey production is likely a satisfying and reassuring form of sustenance.
Beekeepers may now be free to journey once more for their own benefit and profit but the country they travel hasn’t miraculously returned to its once-renowned fertility. Since the revolution, potent agricultural chemicals have continued to be produced and used on what is already heavily-treated soil. Tracts of land extended for collectivised farming – which, when privatised, were notably transferred to those influential within the old state system – have remained large-scale monocultures. Since its 2007 entry into the European Union, Romania’s most industrialised crop, the sunflower,†1 has proven less productive than the equivalent grown elsewhere in the EU: both Bulgaria and France produce large-scale sunflower crops with higher yields from less acreage.2 It is cheap agricultural labour that keeps Romania’s sunflower crops competitive.‡3 In a worrying echo of Ceausescu’s times, much of Romania’s produce leaves the country. Although 60% of Romania is officially classified as rural with 14.7 million hectares of agricultural land – one of the largest landmasses dedicated to farming in the EU – a stark statistic measures the country’s current dependency on imported food at 70%.§4 In Romania, Capitalism has all too easily compounded what Communism started.
Looking at the Chirãnescu’s caravan within its current landscape, I’m reminded once more of its incongruity. The combination of a traditional migratory practice with industrial farming reflects a clash of cultures inherent to much contemporary agriculture that isn’t always as evident as it is here today under a clear sky. Although honeybees on this apiary are collecting abundant forage and pollinating the sunflowers in return, something in this relationship is no longer harmonious. Indeed, it may no longer be possible to see all flowers equally optimistically.
Before I leave, Tiberiu and Mihaela hand me two jars of honey: one distinctively liquid yellow, the other proudly displaying comb that was harvested so very recently. While the strong citrus flavour may be waxen, it carries an unmistakable sweetness I’ll savour as a reminder of this family’s justifiable pride in maintaining their farming tradition despite the odds. The children, who may no more own nor be owned by this landscape than I, then rush forward with a keepsake from the fields: a young sunflower, plucked from background to foreground, which in its sudden singularity regains some of its promise.
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* employed by Ceausescu to repay debts incurred after accepting credit and technical aid from the West
† covering near 740,000 hectares of land
‡ 30% of Romanians are employed within agricultural work and provide 20% of overall farm labour within the EU.
§ By 2010, a total of 557,409 tons of exported sunflower seed was valued at €214.8 million, and yet Romania imported 208,284 tons of sunflower seeds worth €109.72 million that same year. Despite a yield that was high enough to secure the total requirement of the internal market, farmers chose to sell their seed abroad, forcing the import of sunflower seeds, which ultimately incurred 27% higher import costs than their export value.
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1 Barbu, C. M.., ‘The Romanian Agriculture: Between myth and reality’, Oeconomica, Vol. 2, No. 13, 2011
2 European Commission, ‘Agriculture in the European Union and the Member States: Statistical factsheet’, 2014 ec.europa.eu/agriculture/statistics/factsheets/index_en.htm [last accessed: Oct 2014]
4 Barbu, C. M., ‘The Romanian Agriculture: Between myth and reality’, op cit.
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The Book – Fresh from its springtime launch in London, Farming for the Landless: New perspectives on the cultivation of our honeybee is now on general release. The book, an informed and engaging cultural study, contextualises the honeybee and beekeeping’s ecological and agricultural significance today.
Research – Much of the initial research for this book, undertaken on a six-month research trip, was formulated through a series of meetings with beekeepers, ecologists, agricultural scientists and representatives from beekeeping associations. The views and experiences of those presented in the book have been chosen for the specifics of their practices such as remote beekeeping on non-agricultural land that was strongly evident in North Sweden, community beekeeping projects established in urban regeneration areas including Paris and London, commercial beekeeping concerned with ecology as exampled in rural England, and small-scale beekeeping co-existing with large-scale agriculture in Austria. In each case, the use of land where apiaries are kept is paramount to the book’s narrative. This story of Romanian migratory beekeepers, for example, highlights the incongruity of a traditional, small-scale beekeeping practice that co-exists with industrial farming in a mis-managed landscape.
In his review of the book, John Phipps, editor of the Beekeepers Quarterly, says:
“This is an important and timely book relevant for beekeepers, farmers, conservationists and anyone who has an interest in our environment. It should be of considerable interest, too, to lay people, who have become aware of some of the problems bees are facing, as dished about by the media, so that they have a better understanding of the issues involved. Sarah has tackled a very difficult and emotive subject rationally, giving the reader an enormous amount of information to digest and consider. It is a very readable book, broken up beautifully from time to time with lyrical passages describing her time with bees and the varied landscapes through which she travelled.”
Sarah will be presenting her book at Stazione di Topolò on Sat 18th July 2015. This internationally renowned art festival is located in a small mountain village on the Italian / Slovenian border, which for an intense period of time each summer reanimates and bustles with the collective creative activity of filmmakers, musicians, artists and writers. For more information: www.stazioneditopolo.it / address: Topolò, Grimacco, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Italy.
For more information visit – www.farmingforthelandless.com