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Back to the land

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An alarming rumour has begun to circulate: depopulated villages, small farms shutting, the countryside under threat. The world that gave birth to the modern Czech nation has turned into a mysterious part of the country inhabited only by holidaymakers and old-fashioned people in overalls and flower scarves. However, some fresh blood flows against the current. People leave cities to move to the countryside. Not simply combining rural life with city jobs and salaries, they want the full package. They earn livings as farmers.

Jan Velík, 35, moved from Prague to the village of Čížkov, near Spálené Poříčí, to live according to his wishes. Three years ago he bought a farm, moved with his family and added sheep, goats and bees. Velík’s farm miraculously managed to weather communist collectivisation, so the family takes pride in a relatively luxurious house with original windows, a stone staircase and decorated doorframes. They moved in straightaway without any major investment.

“We know who the original owners were and what they did here, what they tried to achieve, and we have a sense of continuity,” Velík says. He’d enjoyed city life – concerts, theatres, cinemas, shops, pubs and cafes – “more than enough”, and nothing remained for him in the hectic streets.

Velík developed an appreciation for the countryside as a child while visiting his grandmother’s farm in Velké Popovice. He started his transformation into a villager before he left the capital. “Some 10 years ago, I worked for the Prague City Court as a shepherd with 30 sheep that I borrowed from a friend to graze in protected areas such as Prokofiev valley,” Velík says. Today he transports 200 sheep from place to place when landowners hire him.

This method works for them. The owners do not need to care for anything, and the Velíks get a CZK 5,000 subsidy per grazed hectare. “This kind of farming is useful and considerate toward nature: Sheep-grazed areas become home to flowers, often even rare ones,” Velík says. “Being useful makes me happy.” He says he has a beautiful but demanding job: Sheep go out early in the morning, a trained dog guards them all day, and then he drives back into the enclosure in the evening. It takes about a month per hectare. Velík earns CZK 15,000 for grazing two places at once. Because he uses the so-called meat breeds, he earns money from selling his flock as food. “I earn some CZK 30,000 before taxes monthly,” he says. He can live on that because he has other products such as eggs and honey, and fruit and vegetables from his garden.

Still, it makes for an imperfect idyll. “I lack pastures,” he says. “I have tiny pieces on the peripheries of fields. If I want to rent a big meadow for hay for winter, they are preferentially leased to those who have a local monopoly: two co-operatives, the remnants of a communist co-operative. I won’t win even if I offer a thousand times better price. I don’t want to say that we’re not doing well, but I’m the only private owner here. In Austria, each village might have 10 families such as ours, so everyone needs to profit from local land.”

A generation of idealists
Even this first story shows that leaving for the countryside is not so easy. The Czech Republic has already experienced one such wave after 1989. Back then, the newly discovered phenomenon turned into a boom and many enthusiastic ecologists and nature lovers chose a radical ending to their city lives.

They perceived their departure for the countryside cottages as an end of the passive life of “forced consumerism”. Other groups of people were those demanding the restitution of confiscated property, and entrepreneurs who saw new opportunities outside of cities.

But the majority of these people returned to the cities, disillusioned after a couple of years. They were unable to get used to the conditions of living in a village society – especially the locals. They had difficulty with the loss of privacy or with establishing relationships or with finding a proper job. City professionals have a hard time finding their place in the countryside, and if the refugees were lucky enough and could live on freelancing with the help of internet, they did not have much time and energy for cutting the wood. Some of them got homesick for the city.

That is a crude description of the experience of those who took part in the country experiment at the beginning of the 1990s. “You basically lack the right instinct: When I laboriously ploughed the field and sowed potatoes, I realised that the field is too far from the house and so I can’t water it,” says Karel Hošek, a 50-year-old printer who also tried to live in the countryside. “I toiled a lot on it. A man from the village would not do such a thing.”

‘There are no manuals’
According to the biologist and environmentalist Hana Librová, who has been looking into the phenomenon of country life, it was a generation of idealists who were likely to fail. They were mostly intellectuals and artists who did not look at the practical side of things. “Life in the country is often very limiting and stands in opposition to the desire for individuality, unlimited choices, leisure and fun,” says Pavel Klvač, a sociologist from the Department of Environmental Studies in the Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno. “What it traditionally means for the farmers is that their work relies heavily on the weather conditions and daily hard physical labour, an exhausting work cycle that cannot be ignored: feeding, milking, cleaning, ploughing, sowing and harvesting. This can be a huge problem for someone coming from the city. There are no manuals that cover everything.”

Farmer Pavel Dobrovolný, who was born in the country and returned there from Prague as an adult, says that rural areas have undergone a great change. They bear little resemblance to the generally popular idyll. “You can feel certain alienation among the country people. They no longer sit under a canopy of lindens talking. They no longer sing together while cleaning feathers. There are no balls and no theatre groups. You can only find the firefighters and hunters in the village,” Dobrovolný says. “The strength, however, was exactly in that community. It used to be a world of special rituals. When our village bought a fire hose in the 1930s, it was blessed by the local priest during a great celebration.”

Despite all of that, there is a way of mastering the traps of the “new life in nature’s lap”. “The main condition of moving into the country is not to have any illusions and to be good at socialising, be ready to weather a lot of things, not to get offended, to forgive and not patronise,” Librová says. “And what might be even more important is to try and grow your own vegetables and fruit trees and ask locals for advice.”

A billy goat named Jindra
The story of Ondřej Šanc, 30, can serve as a special example when it comes to the relationship between a newcomer and the village. Šanc moved into a devastated house once occupied by Sudeten Germans and decided to renew it along with the farm. He was successful to a degree. The old building was marked as a historical monument thanks to him. It is located on a riverbank in the small mountain village of Merboltice. Upon seeing a couple of cottages buried in the wild bushes and mostly inhabited by weekend visitors, not many would guess that before the war there used to be a small town of 1,200 inhabitants, with five mills, seven pubs, a newspaper stand, an ophthalmologist, a carpenter and a tailor. The town was prosperous enough to afford its own musical-instrument maker, too.

Šanc’s home, the former house of one-time Merboltice Mayor Rudolf Rössler, is monumental at first sight. The two-storey timbered building with a balcony can be seen under large lindens and a richly decorated stone cross. Red geraniums gleam in the windows, and the house is surrounded by flowerbeds and a vegetable patch. Behind the house, under walnut trees, you will find a large reconstructed barn that was built in 1879. Inside the house there are original pigpens with vaulted ceilings and the spacious kitchen holds the farmer’s pride: a green tile stove, by which he likes to sit. The walls are surrounded by painted cupboards and dressers, and on them there are ordinary country pictures reading “God bless us and our work”. The shelves are full of clay jugs, teapots and a jar for flour inscribed with the German word “Mehl”. “It was a fallen ruin overgrown with bushes and nettles; everything inside it was broken,” Šanc says. “I am not building some kind of museum, but a functional household. What can be more fascinating than realising that people up here in the mountains managed to live on animals, grass and fruit trees?”

Šanc is starting a new phase after five years of hard work and asceticism, during which he reconstructed the main part of the house. He has a herd of 50 goats (he started out with two), led by a billy named Jindra, and is producing cheese from them.

Attracting ousiders
“That was my goal,” Šanc says, “to live modestly outside in the country and to do meaningful work.” To pursue his idea, he abandoned a well-paid managerial post at the TR Logistic company in Ústí nad Labem and moved to the wilderness of an isolated mountain village with his family. In addition to all of that, they also look after a mentally disabled adult here because Šanc used to work in an agency that helped find jobs for similar people.

“We are not alone here. My brother, who is a doctor, and a bunch of friends live nearby. I don’t get homesick since everything is now reachable by car,” he says. He and his wife relish in the miracles they can see here – the way the leaves bud in the trees or which tree sheds the leaves first – and they remember with enthusiasm how they planted a new linden or an oak in the village and how they renovated a bench at the shrine on the village commons. So far it all is a rather expensive freedom paid for by a huge financial investment. Apart from a house renovation subsidy of CZK 800,000 from the Ústí nad Labem region and the historical monument institute (paid under the condition that he will contribute another CZK 500,000 to his home), Šanc also received an EU subsidy of EUR 40,000 (half paid in advance and half after the launch) to support an independent beginning farmer with ecological certification. However, as his business licence is only in its trial phase, he had to borrow another CZK 800,000 from friends. “The equipment is very expensive and so is the feed,” Šanc says. “And I’m still working on the reconstruction. There’s a lot to do.”

Daily production takes place in the barn, and, due to hygiene regulations, there are a number of carefully isolated rooms, one of which holds a brand new production line controlled by a computer. “Building approval that should be granted in about a month is essential since once it’s done I will start earning money from my own products,” Šanc says. So far he has been earning money working on building sites and cutting wood in the forest. He also processes 100 litres of milk daily to produce some 13kg of soft cheese of various flavours as part of the trial production. One kilogram costs CZK 350. “If all goes well, I’d like to add a little bed and breakfast with an offer of agricultural tourism and educational courses showing how the food is made. I would also like to keep rabbits, hens and horses,” Šanc says. So far he harvests blackberries, potatoes, plums and apples in the garden and is able to produce up to 250 litres of apple cider. “I think the cheese will sell,” Šanc says. “I have approached our neighbours and local shops – our future customers – and it also seems that city people have started to value goat cheese as a healthy delicacy too.”

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