More expensive Lithuanian apples can outdo the cheaper Polish ones with quality, says Lithuania’s Minister of Agriculture Kazys Starkevičius. The politician, who spends his evenings tending to his carrots, offers himself as an example for those who are dissatisfied with surging food prices – he suggests planting a small garden, Eglė Digrytė writes in 15min.lt.
- Lithuanians often joke they are the second generation from the plough. Agriculture has been feeding our nation for centuries. How big a share does it have in our current economy?
- It had its best indicators during the crisis: in 2010, agriculture grew almost 2 percent, while economy as a whole contracted by 15 percent and construction industry dipped as much as 45 percent. Agriculture accounts for 7 percent of GDP. Our exports grew over 30 percent last year. That shows huge potential.
Our export market includes 123 countries. 60 percent of Lithuania’s agricultural exports end up in the European Union, the remaining 40 percent – in other countries. A third goes to Russia. The Russian market is currently very important to us and we’re happy that it is solvent.
However, we are looking for alternatives. We signed a cooperation agreement for 2012-2013 with Chinese vice-minister. He came here with good news – China will import our fish products and canned goods. We hope to start exporting meat and dairies to China this year.
Domestic consumption is on the rise too. What we have to do now is to strengthen stockbreeding and dairy farming.
We have 111 thousand registered farmers but only about 60 thousand actually farm, while the rest registered just to get certain exemptions. There are particularly many farmers in the Vilnius region, even though economic indicators are less than shiny there.
We have introduced a mandatory number of livestock – farmers declaring land must have at least 0.1 conventional animal (cattle over 2 years old and horses over 6 months old correspond to one conventional animal; one sow equals 0.5; layer hen – 0.014 conventional animal).
Many people own country houses and it would be great if they at least grew their own cucumbers, tomatoes, onions. We must remember – or ask our grandmothers – how to grow vegetables.
The main reason behind these changes is a wish to not create one more system of social benefits through agriculture. We’ve already have one in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. For mowing your land once this year, you could get 400 litas. Your expenditure on that is no more than 150 litas. A pasture is intended to feed cattle, but instead all it fed was grasshoppers and tiny animals.
We crop over 3 million tons of grain every year and we exported 1.7 million tons in 2010, our record year. But it is not a good figure. Grain is just a raw material for creating bigger added value. We will therefore encourage building dairy farms, cattle rearing, shepherding, so we create as much added value as possible.
- You point out that export is growing, that you are looking for new markets. How can Lithuania engage other, especially distant countries?
- We can entice them with green production. We use less pesticides and herbicides, our soil is less polluted. Everything that we grow is of better quality. We do not grow GMO wheat and other crops. And this fact is a sign of quality, it distinguishes us from other countries.
I would start with Lithuanian dairy products, beef, pork that we export in great amounts. We take chicken breasts to England, chicken legs to China. Our dairy production is 167 percent of what we consume, chicken – 200 percent. Pork is the only thing that falls short – 52 percent of domestic needs.
- Why is it that in some richer countries, like the UK, many types of groceries cost the same or even less than in Lithuania?
- Production costs are the same in England, Germany, or Lithuania. Save for labour which is cheaper here.
As yet, we do not have a true cooperative production system, just cooperative buying. We do not have a single budget supermarket. Some merely declare themselves to be such.
- Why are fruit and vegetables grown by our farmers more expensive than apples or tomatoes transported over thousands of miles?
- We cannot fully meet the demand for apples ourselves, only 70 percent. Apples brought from faraway countries are inferior in that they must be chemically processed more. Retailers save by bringing bigger quantities.
It would be great if we could at least grow the most necessary fruit and vegetables here. Let’s take my own family as an example: yesterday after work I was weeding out my garden – two beds of carrots. It helped me relax. I went on a business trip during weekend, it was rank with grass when I got back.
US President’s wife Michelle Obama started promoting healthy vegetables. In the garden outside the White House, there’s a place for her vegetable garden. She grows them and uses in the kitchen.
Lithuania, too, needs such examples. Many people own country houses and it would be great if they at least grew their own cucumbers, tomatoes, onions. We must remember – or ask our grandmothers – how to grow vegetables.
Unfortunately, what we have instead is a system of social benefits. Walking in rural villages, you meet people who grew up on social benefits and cannot tell a weed from a vegetable. If you hire them to weed out your garden, you’ll need to teach them the very basics.
The situation is worse than even during the Soviet times. Back then, if people had a small plot of land, they would grow a cow and a few pigs too. And now it’s all up to the government.
- You welcome the fact that agricultural production grew even during the downturn, yet VAT rates that apply to meat and vegetables is so punishing that it is hardly worth it buying a Lithuanian product or producing one.
- There is no unified system in the EU. Poland has lover VAT rates, 5 to 8 percent, and plays with zloty’s exchange rates. There must be a set-aside list of essential goods that would be taxed less and a gentlemen’s agreement with producers and retailers that they would not exploit it by raising prices. Otherwise, we’re all in a deplorable situation.
Why not have an experiment – 5-8 percent VAT rate on essential products: meat, fruit, vegetables, certain dairy products. If we see that retailers and processing plants are not playing fairly, we will repeal it.
- Do you personally have time for farming?
- I could do more before I became a minister. During sowing season, when evenings are longer, I come back from work and drive my tractor until dusk. Sometimes my friends from the city call and ask what I do. I tell them: driving four wheels. They think I mean a four-wheeler. Great, they say, I have one too, can I come? No, I say, mine is different…
My farm is now 300 hectares big. This year is an anniversary of sorts – 20 years since my first crop. Farming pays off, provided you do it rationally, you like your work, and you’re good at it. There were good years and bad years. The period before the EU was exceptionally tough, when we didn’t know how it would all turn out.
- Several years ago, you declined a 334-thousand-litas EU support because it was administered by your subordinates. How much EU money do you get now? Perhaps it would be ethical to refuse it while serving as a minister?
- As far as I know, I haven’t and I will not take EU support for as long as I’m a minister. I only took out a loan from a bank. But we do get direct payments as we would not survive otherwise. Payments are the same that everyone else gets – for whatever you declare. But it is not me who takes them – I passed everything to my wife, I do not sign under anything. I’m only allowed to work the tractor.