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“Over The Rainbow” in Hungary:
The Cooperative and Ecological Work of Geza Varga

by Bill Caspary “Over The Rainbow” in Hungary-The Cooperative and Ecological Work of Geza Varga

From a Dream to a Globally Spreading Vision

The remarkable story told to GEO by Geza Varga begins in the 1980´s with a group of friends in Hungary´s Galga River Valley, dreaming about an ecologically sound, cooperatively based future. There was no formal organization, since at this time private organizations were not legal in Hungary. When it became legal to charter organizations, the Gaia Foundation was established, in 1990, to educate local farmers in organic and sustainable agricultural practices. The foundation became the initiator and sponsor of a series of projects of expanding scope. In 1991, a health food store was set up in Budapest for retail sale of organic produce from the Galga Valley, a vegetable growing region 40 miles from the city. In 1992 the Galga Farm Cooperative was formed, a democratic association of 15 members, to raise and sell organic produce. A marketing cooperative was formed to sell organic produce from the Galga Co-op and also from neighboring organic farms. Later a nation-wide Hungarian Federation of Marketing Cooperatives was organized. In the late 1990´s the Gaia Foundation led a participatory planning process to formulate a rural development plan for the Galga Valley region, an area of the 28 towns and villages with a population of 180,000. Agricultural projects decided upon are now getting under way. Another project of the foundation is an eco-village-a housing cooperative for fifty families, which will employ sustainable strategies for energy production and use, and for waste disposal. Next year ground will be broken to build the first units.

In April 2000, Geza visited the United States, to meet with organic food distributors and marketing cooperatives, and arrange for the marketing of Hungarian organic and cooperatively produced products in the United States. This is seen as a pilot project, toward a global cooperative marketing system. In ten years the vision of Geza and his colleagues has spread from farm to village, to region, to nation, and is now on the threshold of spanning the globe. In this light, it merits and rewards closer scrutiny by all of us.

Democratic, Organic, Sustainable, and Rooted in Tradition

Galga Farm is a democratic association of fifteen member units, the first Hungarian organic farming cooperative. It is “built on three pillars;” committed to be environmentally friendly, labor intensive, and rooted in tradition. In Hungary, as recently as 50 years ago, there was practically no use of chemicals in agriculture (DDT was introduced in the 1950´s), so organic farming is seen as a continuation of a cultural tradition, not something radically new. The membership consists of both privately owned farms (80%), and individual investors who have purchased shares (20%). A general assembly of all the members meets two or three times yearly to set fundamental policies. The members are not shy about presenting their views in meetings. On the issue of loan financing, for example, the farmer-members are traditionally adverse to taking on indebtedness, and are vociferous in their opposition. The most difficult decision the cooperative had to take was to expel one member who was attempting to take land from other farmer/members. The process took two years.

The assembly elects a board of directors, a chairman of the cooperative, and a supervisory committee. The chairman is elected to a four-year term and is responsible for day to day operations, and for the hiring of staff. Geza Varga has served two full terms as chair, and was recently re-elected for a third term. Time does not stand still, and the cooperative has to adapt to change. Many of the farmers who are members of the cooperative are aging, and are turning the farm work over to the investor members and staff. The average age of the farmer-owners is over 60, while the average age of staff members is under 28. Although the cooperative continues to operate productively, it is moving to the background as the Gaia Foundation pursues more ambitious projects.

The Gaia Foundation, or more precisely, the Gaia Research and Education Center for Sustainable Rural Development, has been the incubator and sponsor of many cooperative and ecological projects. One of its ongoing activities is training. A conference and education center was built to provide training for farmers-not only in the Galga Farm cooperative, but also throughout the Galga Valley region-in organic and sustainable agricultural methods. Farmers attend weekend workshops at the center, as it is hard for them to leave their work for more than a few days. Occasionally center staff members go out to the farms to bring the training to people who need it. 180 to 250 farmers are trained each year. A few places in the training sessions are reserved for university students interested in ecology and rural development. Several of these attendees have come back to work as interns at the foundation, and upon graduation, have joined the five member foundation staff. Having established the Galga Farm cooperative and the training program, the next step was to develop a marketing cooperative to distribute the new organic products. The fresh grown products include vegetables, pumpkin seeds, grains (corn and rye), milk, and organic eggs. To retain profits from food processing, a cannery and a mill which produces stone ground flour have been built.

This coop has come to be referred to as an “ant-type” cooperative, referring to the cooperative organization of insect societies. This designation sharply distinguishes these cooperatives in people´s minds from the Soviet style Kolkhoz farms which recently claimed the name of “cooperative,” and are in very low regard in Hungary. The ant-type cooperative harks back to an indigenous pre-Soviet tradition of cooperatives in Hungary, going back 150 years. The themes of democratic management and sustainable agriculture draw on existing cultural memory and resources, and are linked to cultural preservation as well as to future visions. More recently, as organic and cooperative farming has grown up in other regions of Hungary, a nation wide federation of ant-type marketing cooperatives has been formed, with the intention of promoting exports as well as serving the domestic market.

An Ingenious Plan for the Region

Hungary seeks to join the European Economic Union, and is in a preparatory phase of several years mandated by the E. U. Under the terms of the preparatory phase, the E. U. will provide 50% of the funding for well-conceived 7-year regional rural development plans. Hungary is divided administratively into regions, or provinces. The Galga Valley region-comprising 28 towns and villages, 200,000 hectares, and a population of 180,000 people-is represented by an association of the 28 mayors. The Gaia foundation was approached by the regional association, in recognition of the services it has already given to the region, to formulate the rural development plan. Geza Varga and his foundation staff put together an ingenious participatory planning process to involve the farmers, workers, and other citizens of the region in identifying the goals of the plan and choosing projects consistent with those goals. The foundation was sure that the people would give far more commitment and energy in carrying out the projects if they developed the plan themselves. A succession of three or more open meetings was held in each of the 28 municipalities, over a period of several years. The promise of European Union financing created tangible prospects of benefit to the region and the individuals. As a result turnout and participation were high. To involve the citizens in discussion, Geza and his staff used the “S.W.O.T.” technique. For each topic, such as employment, people were asked to consider their community´s strengths(S), weaknesses(W), opportunities(O) and threats(T). Eight topics were on the agenda: partnership, employment, environment, infrastructure, cultural heritage, image of one´s village, and structure of land ownership. From the minutes of these discussions a profile of each village or town was drawn up. A matrix of S.W.OT. findings with the 28 villages on one axis and the 8 topics on the other was drafted for visual display. Maps of the region with transparent overlays were also drafted. A second meeting was held in each village, using these bold visual displays to give each village information about the others and broaden the focus of discussion to the whole region. A third meeting at each site was used to draft a formal list of priorities for the region. These included:

  1. Development of human resources, in particular by the formation of cooperatives;

  2. Sustainable agricultural practices exclusively;

  3. A three level marketing system: local, domestic, and export, conducted by marketing cooperatives;

  4. Development and promotion of cultural heritage;

  5. Infrastructure development (improved roads, water, enegy, waste disposal, etc.);

  6. Oversight: the establishment of a regional parliament and regional coordination board to monitor adherence to and progress on the plan.

In the final year of the planning process these six priorities were turned first into a strategic plan, and then an operational plan. This was done by the staff, both working at the foundation office, and returning to the citizens to ask what specific projects they proposed. It was decided for example to develop milk processing at the source, so as to retain for the farmers the profits from value-added. The operational planning phase is being completed this year, and the beginning of work on the development projects is anticipated soon.

Also about to begin is the eco-village. Several years have gone into architectural and energy planning, and the designs are completed. Meanwhile, negotiations with the government were underway about providing the infrastructure. Infrastructure requirements include roads and temporary sources of electricity to tide the community over.

America Discovers the Hungarian Rainbow

In January of this year, Geza brought the story of these exciting projects to the Cuba conference of the International Institute for Self-Management. At this conference he, along with representatives from Mexican cooperatives, urged the I.I.S. to do more than convene conferences: they proposed building a system for exchange of products among cooperatives internationally. Len Krimerman responded by inviting Geza to come to United States and meet with distributors of organic foods who might import Hungarian products. Geza has just completed this trip, having conferred productively with a number of organizations, and considered a number of possible import arrangements. For example, Geza met with Northeast Cooperatives, a large distributor owned by its member consumer cooperatives; and with United Natural Foods, the country´s largest organic and natural foods distributor, doing a billion dollars of business a year. Cost effective ways of shipping Hungarian products were discussed, and the market for specific products was surveyed. One organization offered to work with the Hungarians on developing products specifically for the American market. Geza attended the Northeast Food Fair in Massachusetts, which had twenty aisles of booths for businesses and non-profit organizations, many of them concerned with cooperative and sustainable agriculture. There, he was introduced to the editor of the Cooperative Grocer magazine, which is willing to help promote the Hungarian co-ops and their USA-targeted products. He also had an exchange of ideas with the Study Circle ResourceCenter in Connecticut, an organization that fosters participatory planning in ways similar to the Gaia Foundation.

A tentative project emerging from all of these these meetings is a cooperative food warehouse, which would receive and store for later distribution, imports from cooperative and organic producers in Hungary, and later Mexico and other countries. A warehouse in Connecticut was identified as a possible location, and a cooperative loan organization expressed interest in getting the potential project up and running.

In several meetings, both in Cuba and in the USA, Geza made a slide presentation entitled “A Rainbow Economy.” In it, he envisages the world as headed for a storm but weathering it and emerging into the light of the rainbow, which symbolizes spiritual, cooperative, ecological, and other human values, which are freely available to all. Geza Varga and the Gaia Foundation have made great strides in actualizing this vision, and their work seems destined to continue its remarkable growth.

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