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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Romania: Basket Case to Basket

BUCHAREST -- Romanian farming is on the mend. Once a grain basket for Europe, then devastated by communist misrule, Romania is producing food surpluses again. For the first time in decades, peasants can be seen tending their crops with old-fashioned love -- on private plots. Markets are brimming with fresh produce -- vegetables, fruit and meat. Even fish is reappearing. The country is awaiting bumper grain harvests. A private housebuilding boom can be seenacross the country. Five years ago, on the eve of the revolution, Romania's markets were quiet, dark, bare, soulles as dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu exported as much food as possible to pay off Romania's debt. But times are changing in this land of 23 million people. "We are witnessing a boom in our agriculture," said senior agricultural ministry official Iosif Pop. The fledgling private farming sector is the key, building up food surpluses and competing with state farms. "We have managed to overcome the food crisis and now we can produce enough food to meet local demand," Pop said. Up to two million hectares of farmland remained unsown over in recent years, but not now, after people were allowed to claim up to 10 hectares each when communism was swept away. Some 93 percent of the country's total 15 million hectares of farmland, including pastures, orchards and vineyards, are now in private hands. "But if you travel now across the country now you will not see a single plot of land lying fallow. People work the land much better when they know it's theirs," Pop said. Ministry forecasts put the 1994 grain crop at a record 19 million tons -- 80 percent of it wheat and corn -- against 15.5 million tons last year. "Crops will be sufficient to ensure our needs for strategic reserves and consumption and we will not import any grain or food in 1994. On the contrary, we have surpluses of meat, dairy products and eggs now," Pop said. He said in 1994 Romania would import only limited amounts of sugar and powder milk. Ministry officials said that state-owned harvesting equipment stations and oversized storage and food processing facilities could cope with the expected 1994 bumper crops. The state sector had built up food surpluses as local markets were flooded with private sector produce. He said state farms had now a surplus of over 100,000 "fat pigs," 35 million eggs and 45,000 tons of cheese. "The problem is that our products are dearer than those of private farmers," Pop said. Interest represents 55 percent of the price for milk, for instance. The redistribution of land has seen new houses mushroom in the countryside. New tractors, trucks and modern farming equipment can be seen in courtyards in villages across Romania. Pop said international financial organizations granted private farmers loans worth $170 million "under extremely advantageous conditions" to buy farming equipment in 1993. But state farm and food industry units were burdened by the high interest paid on credits. Interest on loans from commercial banks to the state food and farming sectors ranged from 60 to 135 percent which made new investments virtually impossible. The ministry is considering ways to boost the growth of the private sector further, Pop said, including privatization of state-owned farm machinery stations.