The last of the farmers - Kosovo 2.0

The last of the farmers

"The noblest thing is to eat what
you have raised by the sweat of your
own labor."

When you’re passing by Krushë e Madhe, between the distant high mountains and the village itself, fields where cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, onions and strawberries grow line both sides of the road.

At the end of a narrow walkway, between a greenhouse and a field full of spring onions, sits Muharrem’s hut, as it is known in the village. A small wooden house, in front of which was carved the words “Reap and Eat.” In front of the hut, a man in his 50s was swinging lightly back and forth in a porch swing. Three other men were standing under the shade cast by the hut.

After we greeted everyone, Muharrem Hoti, a tall 58-year-old man with gray hair and blue eyes who emitted the energy of a fresh 20-year-old farmer invited us inside. He built it a few years ago because the farmers spend most of their time between January and October in the fields and they needed protection from the sun during the summer months.

The improvised wooden chairs were divided by a wide and low wooden table, where they served freshly picked strawberries.

Along with Hoti, in front of me sat Ymer Duraku, the man from the porch swing. Duraku, 54, had coarser features and spoke with a more serious tone. He told me that they were used to visiting politicians, mayors, tourists, visitors and journalists. They jokingly said that their fellow villagers often told them that “they are the only ones they see on TV talking about agriculture.”

I hadn’t yet started recording the conversation when Duraku told me that work that once required around 50 people is now done by only two or three. Technology has largely replaced the need for manpower, at least in some stages of the agricultural process, especially during the planting stage.

Once, they told me, you could find almost all of the village’s 8,000 inhabitants in the fields, planting, watering and reaping the crops. In the last 10 years you are now able to count the number of farmers on two hands. People have given up on working the fields because they bring no profit. 

Duraku says that things were rough back then too. He started working in these fields when he was 13 years old. Together with the men and boys of the village, they usually stayed in the fields from morning, through the midday heat until evening. Back then, they waited for “silla” (breakfast) at 10 in the morning and lunch at 2, both meals were brought by their wives in a baking pan carried over their heads.

Hoti tells me that he has been involved in agriculture since “he was born.” He started going to the fields with his father at the age of seven “to sow the seeds” and to this day he hasn’t left farming. Even his father, who had passed away two months before our conversation, worked these fields until his last days.

Hoti and Duraku functioned in tandem with each other during the conversation. Each time Hoti started telling us about their work, Duraku continued the story by adding casually to the exchange, sometimes countering Hoti’s version of events and begging him not to “change the subject.”

Hoti and Duraku each have eight hectares of land they manage, most of which they rent from fellow villagers. Although the fields are in different parts of the village, they usually spent a lot of time together exchanging technical tools, talking about their problems and sometimes even disagreeing.

Starting in January, they begin working in the early hours of the morning and return at midnight to water the crops. It becomes more intense during the summer months.

“For about two months I don’t even know when I sleep or when I get up,” Duraku told me. Along with cultivating the same crops as other local villagers, he also grows saffron, a spice known as “red gold” because it requires a lot of dedication and patience to grow, and fetches a high price in return. A saffron flower has only three stigmas — fibers — which they remove by hand and further process to produce the spice. For half a kilo of saffron, laborers must remove fibers from 75,000 flowers.

After harvesting their crops, they deliver the products to four collection and processing points in Kosovo, some of which they sell in the domestic market and others for export. One of them is the local cooperative factory run by Fahrije Hoti, who is one of the 200 women Krushë e Madhe who lost their husbands during the war in Kosovo. After the war she established the factory and employed 50 women. Her story was the inspiration for the Oscar-nominated film “Hive.”

Both Hoti and Duraku were wearing green vests with the word “Agronom” written on the left side of the chest. I asked them if this was their company. “They gave these to us,” they said unanimously, laughing. The two men don’t work as part of any registered company. They have never worked anywhere else nor ever had a written contract and despite all their labors over the years, not a single euro has been paid into their pension fund.

“We do not even know how much we earn. Non-stop we are in debt to the bank,” Hoti said. “We cannot afford to save money for retirement.”

People’s interest in working in agriculture is dwindling and Hoti and Duraku are experiencing it firsthand. 

They say they cannot find people who want to work the land, although they pay 25 euros for eight hours of work. With the recent establishment of collection points for purchasing produce, they are now ensured that they are able to sell their harvest at pre-arranged rates. Despite this, due to a lack of workers they said that 10 tons of strawberries went to waste last year.

“Young people see no prospects in agriculture, you work as a laborer, when that work is finished, you are left as a nobody, so it is better to get a profession,” said Hoti. “This is a seasonal job,” Duraku added. According to Hoti, during the last two years young people have given up agriculture, though Duraku says that this happened gradually but appears even more stark today since only a very small number of young people remain in agriculture.

Both speak of the post-war period as the time when the people of Krushë abandoned agriculture, but they both recall a catastrophic storm on August 28, 1993. “The hail fell and it ravaged the whole village and 200 young people left the country in only one week,” said Hoti.

In addition to migration to other countries, the labor force has also been affected by internal migration since the post-war period. Cities, with their economic development and job opportunities, have attracted people from the villages and this affects those most dependent on agriculture.

Besides the lack of a labor force, the two years of price increases have worsened the situation. Even without prices increasing, each spring, both of them take bank loans to cover farming expenses.

“To those who live in Prishtina, it may look expensive because you buy from the trader, but we still sell the product for 30 cents,” said Hoti, adding that recently the increase in prices has made their work more difficult than at any other point during the post-war period.

Out of their sales must be deducted rent for the land, the materials for cultivation and the cost of labor. In the final month, as they call October, when they sell their produce and see their financial balance, their profit is nominal.

“When you buy produce in the market, you assume that the farmer earns a lot,” Duraku said. “But when you see it from our side you ask yourself, how are they surviving?”

According to Duraku, the government has not been focused on the development of agriculture and domestic production over the last many years. In January alone, Kosovo imported five times more goods than it exported. I ask Duraku what needs to be changed in agricultural policies. As he lists dozens of things that can be done in order to promote working the land in the villages he assures us there are people who want to work. “For some, money is a priority, for some it is spiritual pleasure.”

Both told us that in their families, the two of them may be the last generation dealing with agriculture. Their children have either migrated or chosen other professions, except for one of Hoti’s sons, who returned after college to help him. Sometimes he helps in the fields and sometimes he brings things to add to their shelter, such as an old radio that hangs at the end of the hut.

“I can say that these will be the last 10 years that people deal with agriculture. My generation of 50 years will be the last. My children do not work in agriculture,” Duraku stated. “It is just those of us who as a generation had no other opportunity to rely on that work the land.”

“There is no future here, we only do it to not rely on anybody,” Hoti said.

Duraku says that Hoti’s son has started promoting the village’s agricultural values on a Facebook page “Korr e ha n’katun” (Reap and Eat in the Village) to attract tourists. Some of the most frequent visitors are newlywed couples who come to take their wedding photos near the fields. He jokingly tells how — as an anxious person — a couple once took so long taking pictures that he told them to leave because the cabbage seedlings needed to be watered.

Meanwhile, Hoti plans to attract family visitors with children who would learn about things like how strawberries grow.

Both say they feel underappreciated for the work they do as farmers’ work is not respected compared to other jobs.

“Young people don’t like working in farmland, they consider it humiliating when someone tells them to go to the field and work the land,” Hoti said.

“Right now, in society, you are dismissed immediately when you say that you work in agriculture. Across the whole globe, those who keep humanity fed are the most oppressed,” Duraku said. “I will tell you something about myself, when my gardens are grown well, my soul is satisfied. Because there I see the result of how good I am producing something. I see my ability. Ability is if I make a good product, that’s the value, not the market.”

However, Hoti and Duraku are facing other problems as well. Rural areas and agricultural lands are being hit hard by the effects of global warming. It is bringing more dangerous storms, stronger heat waves, longer heat seasons, displacement of people and devastated farmlands.

According to the two farmers, extreme temperatures reduce crop yields and delay production because the plants cannot withstand temperatures above 30 degrees.

“It was only in the fall that the vegetables started to ripen,” Hoti said, adding that it is strange because many believe that higher temperatures speed up the ripening of vegetables. But instead of ripening, they expend all their energy to protect themselves from drying out.

Duraku insists that in Kosovo things often go wrong and that it will take time for them to be put right. He tells me how along with the Drin River bed, many fields have been turned into landfill sites and can no longer be cultivated.

“When I close my eyes, I can still smell the ‘krishna’,” he said, using an archaic word for plant. “That’s how we used to call them. Now, it is a horror,” said Duraku, recalling how healthy the land was in his younger years.

Duraku has little optimism for the future of agriculture, saying that he will leave the sector soon enough. Putting aside the many problems he faces today, he speaks proudly about his produce as they invite us to see the strawberry fields.

Hoti shows me the process of collecting strawberries and differences between strawberries destined for the individuals and those destined for industrial processing. As he tells me that cultivating and picking strawberries is a multiphase process, he takes one and removes its stem. Each industrial strawberry must have its stem and leaves removed by hand before being shipped to the processing plant. While observing the large field planted with strawberries I remember their concern about the 10 tons of strawberries wasted last year.

In the end, they accompany us to Krushë e Madhe’s cooperative plant where their products are processed, packaged and made ready for consumers’ tables. They enter as if it is their own home and we meet the manager of the cooperative who explains to us the procedure of processing and packaging.

Even though we told them that as journalists we could not accept gifts, they made sure to follow village custom and did not let us leave empty-handed. They gave us a jar with peppers and yogurt, jam and a small jar with 400 saffron fibers from 133 flowers.

After almost five hours of conversation, I apologized to Duraku for taking up their working hours. He told me that he had work to do for tomorrow, but that the weather application on his phone told him that it would rain tomorrow. Before, without applications, the sky oriented them.

The next day, in Prishtina, amid the chaos of the buildings, as the sky got gloomy, I tasted the jar of yogurt and pepper and thought about them.

I thought about what Duraku told me: “The noblest thing is to eat what you have raised by the sweat of your own labor.”

Author: Gentiana Paçarizi

photography: Ferdi limani/K2.0

This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.

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