Zsámboki Biokert: A visit with sustainable agriculture leaders in Hungary

Author: Amy Garrett, Oregon State University Small Farms Program

Publish Date: Summer 2019

I had the amazing opportunity to present my work with the OSU Dry Farming Project at the 3rd Agriculture and Climate Change Conference in Budapest, Hungary in March 2019. While preparing for this trip I started spreading the word to friends and colleagues and inquiring about farm contacts. Patrick O’Connor (farm manager at the Herb Farm in Washington and member of the Dry Farming Collaborative) connected me with his friend, Renata Christen. Renata, currently a research analyst for the Access to Seeds Index in Amsterdam, knew Logan Strenchock through mutual friends in Budapest. She generously introduced me to Logan and shared with me a map of her favorite places in Budapest.

A couple of days before the conference I met with Logan at a café to learn more about his path and perspective on sustainable agriculture in Hungary and his involvement in the Degrowth movement. Degrowth was a new term for me, but I learned from Logan and reading about it afterward that it is a political, cultural, and socio-economic movement supporting societies living within their ecological means. An International Degrowth conference has been held every two years since 2008. Logan helped to organize the one in Budapest in 2016. The next one will be held in Manchester in 2020 (https://www.degrowth.info/en/next-international-degrowth-conference-manc...).

Logan, originally from Pennsylvania, has been in Hungary for more than 10 years. He is highly motivated and passionate about his work and wears many hats such as:
  • The Environmental and Sustainability Officer at Central European University in Budapest.
  • An active participant in sustainable agriculture and conscious food consumption movements in Hungary.
  • Trainee, partner, and business development con­sultant for an organic farm, Zsámboki Biokert (https://www.zsambokibiokert.hu).

The following day I took a bus one hour outside of Budapest to the small village of Zsámbosk. Unsure which direction to head, two older women kindly walked me to the street the farm was on and pointed me in the right direction. When I arrived at the farm about a half mile down that road, they were just serv­ing a farm lunch to farm helpers and visiting students. This was an open volunteer day and fruit tree pruning workshop event at the farm. They aim to have mul­tiple open days and courses like this for participants throughout the year.

Logan introduced me to Matthew Hayes, the farm manager, while he continued to facilitate discussions with the students. Matthew walked me around the farm and shared the history of this farm and his background and path into farming.

Zsámboki Biokert is about 3.5 hectares (8.6 acres) organic farm situated in the transition from gentle hills to plains on very deep (>6 meters) silty soil and surrounded by mostly large-scale conventional cropland. One hectare is for vegetable production, and a small orchard and prairie occupy the other 2.5 hectares. The farm grows diversified vegetables and some tree fruit for one of the first CSAs in Hungary (started in 1998) and the only organic farmers market in Budapest that he helped to start a few years ago. The rest of the markets, including a large indoor market in central Pest, offer conventional produce and import from as far away as Peru in the month of March.

Matthew explained to me that the agricultural economy collapsed with the regime change in 1989. He arrived in Hungary in 1991 but had started apprenticing on farms in the U.K. in 1984. Some of his inspirations early on were Eliot Coleman and later on Jean Martin-Fortier. In describing the founding vision for the farm he mentioned that “a reductionist scientific track goes against a more holistic approach.” For example, he uses horse-drawn cultivation for soil preparation on the farm and uses some of the horse bedding to make their own compost and heat their greenhouse benches. He also mentioned that he, “loves being a part of a process that encourages young people into farming.”

When discussing the changes he has noticed on the farm over the past 25 years, he has observed, “later, dryer, and longer autumns; windier early springs; and shorter winters.” He said, “25 years ago there would be snow in November and it would be frozen until February. Now it doesn’t really stay frozen.”

This led to a discussion about water. He showed me the well with the water table about 2 meters below the surface in March. Matthew mentioned that currently they do not have to pay for water, except for the infrastructure and electricity for the pump, but this is likely to change. He currently uses drip irrigation and works to increase soil water-holding capacity by improving soil quality through minimizing compaction (not using a tractor or walking in the permanent beds) and adding organic matter via compost and cover crops.

Many of the issues Logan and Matthew described that small farmers face in Hungary are similar to the ones we face in Oregon and other parts of the U.S. but there is much less support from the local government. It is sheer passion, willpower, and their own bootstraps driving them forward in their mission. Logan said despite a “lack of institutional support for small organic farms, there are some benefits to working in a very small, but creative and dynamic sector in Hun­gary such as creativity, resilience, and having many personal, face-to-face relationships with sustainable food advocates. “

Reflecting on this trip, I found it so inspiring after a long winter to be reminded that there are people all over the world, like Logan and Matthew, working to promote small farms and vibrant local food systems. It is so valuable to be able to step outside of our microcosm in whatever way we are able for the refreshing realization that we are all in this together.