Posts Tagged With: Transylvania

A big, hairy tale of survival.

The original WB.

Water buffalo aren’t the only species struggling to make a comeback in the beautiful rolling hills of Aschileu, Transylvania. The 1,841 poor farmers who live in these five verdant villages and were shoved off their lands under Communist rule are also fighting to regain a foothold in the local economy. Now thanks to Heifer’s first water buffalo project in Romania, the two may well help each other over the hump.

At 78, Anna remembers feeding the Germans, then the Russians, then the Communists, then losing her land and all her animals. But now she’s got a new water buffalo to call her own…

Water buffalo have been raised in this area since they were first introduced by the Turks during the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. Called the “poor man’s cow,” a water buffalo thrives on even poor fodder, rarely gets sick, makes a terrific draft animal, and will produce 5-10 liters/day of very rich, healthy milk that can be made into delicious cheese, sour cream and yogurt. (And Romanians are nuts about dairy.)

However, after the fall of Communism in 1989, farmers were encouraged to raise cows and the numbers of water buffalo dropped perilously by 80%, threatening the breed’s survival. To promote biodiversity, income generation and better nutrition; offer an alternative to strict EU standards that limit the sale of cow’s milk; and encourage peace & understanding between neighbors in the Hungarian Mera village and Romanian Aschileu village, Heifer started the Revitalization of Water Buffalo project last year, giving 36 water buffalo and trainings to needy Romanian families (who will Pass on the Gift to another 36 Hungarian families in Mera).

About half of Ion & Felicia’s children/grandchildren.

One of the first recipients of a water buffalo was Ion, Felicia and their nine children. Ion is one of 10 orphans whose mother died and were then abandoned by their father and left to raise each other in the village. Today, those 10 brothers are mostly illiterate and work as laboring farmers and shepherds, but each has managed to build a home, establish loving families, and amass a brood of livestock. Their self-sufficiency and dignity were palpable, despite how thin and wan Felicia looked ( and raising 9 children and 3 grandchildren, who wouldn’t be?)

Ion & Felicia

As we climbed into the hills in a horse-drawn cart to visit the goats, cows and water buffalo herds that Ion tends on communal pastures, the views became more and more stunning and I felt more and more like I was in some modern version of The Sound of Music.

Lordana, Ion’s daughter, kept turning around to grin at me, her fingers tucked into her father’s thickly-tooled shepherd’s belt as we lurched across stream beds, and I kept thinking “What a hard life. What a beautiful life.”

With village milk collection centers and cooling tanks in place, and an ever-increasing demand for high-butterfat, high-protein, low- cholesterol buffalo milk, hopefully life here will become a lot less hard and a lot more healthy.

The lovely Miss Lordana.

And the hills will be alive with the (very loud) sound of water buffalo… once more.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Feeling sheepish in Lepsa.

The day we went to see the sheepfolds of Lepsa, Romania was my favorite day ever (til tomorrow). The impossible-to-spell-or-pronounce region of Vrancioaia is located between the Black Sea and Transylvania, on the junction of two tectonic plates and is prone to earth-quakes, has salty soil from when it used to be under the ocean, and is retouched-calendar-photo perfect.

It’s not bread, it’s cottage cheese.

For centuries, this has been sheep-breeding & cheese-making country but with anemic production of the local sheep breed and new cheese standards imposed by the EU (Romania became a member in 2007 and had five years to get up to speed) that traditional way of life is fading fast. People can’t make a living on the farm, and young people are fleeing to Europe and the cities to find jobs.

So Heifer and the 2700-member Mountain Farmers Federation have joined forces to help these sheep-breeders transition to a free market economy. The plan is to revitalize the Red-face Tigaia breed with Black-face meat rams and fresh Red-faced ewes … and train farmers to meet new hygienic standards of cheese production.

It sounds good on paper, but you really don’t get it ‘til you see the sheepfold in action — and then it’s like something right out of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, complete with hay harvested with scythes and fashioned into fat haystacks that will last through the long, hard winter.

From April til October each year, Ion (John) and Dorica Cobzaru live up in the sheepfold with a few other shepherds and seven big dogs, taking care of their own sheep and 100 of their neighbors’ goats and sheep. They rise at 4:30 am, milk the flock at 6 am, take the herd out to pasture and then make the sheep cheese (there is no electricity to refrigerate the milk so it has to be immediately boiled and made into cheese). The flock will produce 8 kilos of cheese each milking: (at noon and 8 pm), and in between there is hay to be harvested, sheep to be shorn, and animals to be herded and fed. During the night, the shepherds make big fires to keep away wolves, bears and wild boars, the seven dogs sleep around the perimeter of the herd, and John sleeps outside to keep guard against the wily wolves.

For their hours of labor, the shepherds will keep 3 kilos out of every 10 kilos of sheep cheese they make, and middlemen regularly come to the sheepfold on horseback to pick up the freshly made, immensely popular cheese to sell in the local markets.

Chubby little lamb.

With Heifer’s gift of 10 new sheep and 1 new ram to each of 50 families in the valley (plus the support of the local veterinarian and town mayor), the project is producing bigger, fatter lambs that are far more profitable for the farmer. Ewes can get pregnant sometime before their second year and will have 2-3 babies a year for about 8 years. Male lambs are sold at 2-3 months and the fatter and sweeter they are (black-faced lambs are reputedly delicious), the more income they’ll bring to the farmer.

And with that income, the farmers can work together (never use the word “collectively” in post-communist Romania) to improve hygiene standards in making sheep cheese, establish better routes to market for wool, leather, milk and lamb, and make Lepsa a place where a farmer can make a living.

Like a leading man out of a Bernardo Bertolucci movie, John loves the rural life.

John went to Italy three times to work before he decided, “If I’m going to be poor, I might as well be poor in my own country.” His son Adrien, 21, just returned from picking strawberries in Italy and is happy to be back in the fold.

Adrien Cobzaru

With the new sheep from Heifer and a new sense of hope in the valley, maybe all the farmer boys of Lepsa can grow up to be prosperous in their own country.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Bună ziua, Romania!

The first thing that strikes you about Romania is that it’s stunningly beautiful. The second is that like many beauties, it’s complicated and has a troubled past.

Caught for centuries between the possessive affections of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia, Romania spent 50 long post-war years in an abusive relationship under repressive and autocratic communist rule. From 1965 – 1989, dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s  policies almost bankrupted the country and kept its people dependent and impoverished until it emerged blinking into the blaze of modern Europe a mere 20 years ago.

Oh, what they’ve seen — three beautiful farming women from Rasca.

Think about that. Virtually every Romanian over the age of 30 has a vivid memory of empty shelves, food rationing, security police “visiting” their homes at night, the collectivization of their land, and 22 hours a day of state television dedicated to poems about their fearless leader. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  And nowhere is that more apparent than in Romania, where the majority of urbanites live in the loathed, butt-ugly Soviet bloc apartments that ring the outside of every city, even the lovely historic towns of Transylvania.

Enchanting old Cluj Napoca…

Meanwhile, the majority of rural people struggle to farm productively without a state Big Brother monitoring their every move. “We’ll pretend to work and they’ll pretend to pay us” was the ironic farming catch phrase under communism, yet under democratic rule, agricultural productivity dropped 90% in a decade. Unlearning communist stagnation seems to be harder than you might think.

Indeed, there are really two Romanias. A member of the EU community since 2007, Romania is a country of 19 million people: 50% living in sophisticated, developed urban areas and 50% living as subsistence farmers on land they just recently reclaimed from the state, clawing out a meager living on long, narrow plots of fertile land, driving horse-drawn carts, and herding their animals on communal pastures.

Gypsies (or Roma people) and Hungarians, shepherds and dairy farmers, the rural half of Romania seems centuries removed from the urban half– a fact that is both lovely and confounding.

Rural life in Romania is so challenging that millions of young people have moved to other EU countries, leaving older people behind to do the hard work of farming. It is in these rural areas that Heifer is working to improve nutrition and increase income through livestock projects and community development … and where I happily spent most of my time.

Now for the question that’s been on everyone’s mind: Yes, I did spend all my time in Transylvania. No, I did not see any vampires. And obviously, I will now be living for thousands of years in my own personal coffin.

I’m gonna live forever …in the Carpathians of Transylvania!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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