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To keep up with the remaining: Baltî, Republic of Moldova

by André-Daniel Stucki,(Bern University of Applied Sciences School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL)Usually it took me about half an hour to make my way from the Institute of Agroecology of the University of BaltI to the “Brigade”, the machinery section of the research Institute “Selectia” on the outskirts of the city. This way always included some traffic with the municipal trolleybus line No 3. While the doors barely managed to stay in their frames, the inside of the windows were sometimes covered by frost patterns,sometimes by a thick layer of black dust, which has been blown into the city from the dried out surrounding countryside.Once arrived at the Brigade, the black fields of Selectia appeared, covering the wide planes of northern Moldova. In the past, this area used to be dominated by a fertile steppe whose ever-lasting cycle of frost and drought resulted in the Chernozem (black earth), rich in humus and therefore leading to some of the most fertile soils that we know on this planet.In order to learn more about this global heritage, the agricultural research centre Selectia started to conduct an impressive number of long term field trials fifty years ago. Since then, the institute investigates the consequences of different cropping systems and crop rotations on the fertility of Chernozem.Today, we know that the annual use of the moldboard plow and the high share of row crops are the main reasons for the increasing soil degradation and humus decrease that we are experiencing all over Moldova. But who else knows about it?Moldova’s independence in the 1990’s, the civil war with Transnistria and the subsequent privatization of the land left a deep economic and social scar on the face of the young republic.Today, the scientific management of Selectia keeps up its work in the long term trials with the remaining assets. Not only a big part of the technical equipment is outdated or corrupted but also the labour force is limited due to the limited financial possibilities.Today, the agricultural structures are no longer dominated by Kolchoses and Sovchoses but by a big number of smallholder farmers, mainly producing for self consumption or the local markets. On the other hand, there are huge farming enterprises, often capitalized by joint ventures and producing for global export. On the smallholders side, a big part of the Moldovan small and medium farmers are struggling due to a lack basic knowledge on agricultural production. But who could provide them with the nescessary knowledge?At this point it seems obvious that the huge experience from the staff of Selectia and the need for knowledge of small and medium farmers could perfectly meet each other on the level of professional education and rural extension. However, besides the fundamental research on Chernozem, Selectia by now invests the biggest part of its workforce in the continuous breeding work of local varieties of sugar beet, sunflower and other field crops. But only few of these varieties can keep up with the new breeds of multinational seed enterprises which are conquering the Moldovan market. As the seed business remains the main income generating activity of Selectia, the vicious circle resulting in the dire financial situation become obvious.In these days of ongoing transition, a considerable part of the Moldovan rural population is either still living below the poverty line or depends on remittances.Considering that, it should be a development imperative to join present forces for a “renovation” of the agricultural education system. Vocational training, applied research and the development of markets must be one part of the solution; while a second part should simply be the recognition of the present situation by decision makers as the first step towards change.In my daily conversation with the citizens of Baltî and the young farmers of the surrounding districts, it became clear to me that the research institute Selectia has always been a location that represented the agroindustrial north of the country.Policy makers all around Eastern Europe should realize that the reintegration of scientific structures into a new process of rural development can not only preserve local knowledge and experience but also help to restore the reputation of the agricultural sector in its present form. This counts today for Moldova as well as for many other countries of the commonwealth of independent states.Last year, Selectia with the help of the government of Moldova called upon UNESCO to recognize the long term trials on Chernozem as a world heritage. We hope that such recognition from the United Nations could help increase the focus on the soils and people of Moldova today.This article was published in the World Farmers Organisation's newsletter of February 2013, p.14.