“Vinehills” (freely translated from “szőlőhegy”) are specific agricultural units in Hungary, and typically throughout Central Europe. These lands form well defined units on the bounds of settlements such as villages, towns or cities, and are typically divided into small plots (between 1000 m2 and 1 hectare). Historically, these areas were community lands of manyfold land use, prevalently vine and fruit production. Residents of nearby settlements used them to produce wine, fruits, nuts and vegetables, mostly for household consumption, occasionally selling the surplus. They typically had mixed purposes, producing also firewood, forage, construction material and grazing. Some families even built their houses and lived on there, in those cases the land functioned as small family farm.
The cultivation of these gardens was knowledge- and labour intensive. They provided food security, produced a large variety of healthy food for the family, and sometimes helped to boost incomes. Vinehills preserve these traditional mosaic arrangement and mixed land-use practices that shaped the landscape for centuries, and that are now vanishing from the landscape.
Zsörk vinehill, on the territory of Pápateszér village, retains these mosaic, mixed land-uses featuring a lot of trees. It stands as a lonely monument to these ancient land-use practices in a landscape that is rapidly being devoured by arable monocultures, large tables cultivated by heavy machinery. Yet is not alone: many other villages in the region have their own vinehills. All, however, are under threat of intensification.
Zsörk and other vinehills enjoyed an exceptional status between 1945 – 1989. They were usually not included in cooperatives. Families could use them to produce food for household use. In the 1970s, it became fashionable to have hobby gardens, something between a weekend lot and an agricultural activity, and the use and complexity of these areas grew. But fashion changed with system change. Mass abandonment took place from the late 1980s onwards. New lifestyles, new food habits, a generational switch and agricultural restructuring changed the whole rural playing ground. From an ecological perspective, this was the best thing that could happen to these areas: in these already diverse landscapes, natural regeneration was swift - and rich.
What is saved many wine hills is how difficult they are to include in larger-scale agricultural production. Their ownership structures have remained untouched for decades. Zsörk’s 74 hectares is divided into over 300 parcels. And as if that legal complexity was not enough, any parcel will often have several owners (imagine siblings inheriting learned from their parents and never bothering to subdivide it). Because it is so difficult to exploit these parcels, people sometimes don’t bother registering ownership changes: some parcels are still listed in land registry offices as belonging to long dead people. Sometimes, plots change hands informally, without being registered registered in the land office. Some plots were owned by Swabian families, expelled after 1945, whose relatives cannot now be found.
My husband and I currently own 25 of those 70 hectares after years of effort. It required more or less full-time investigation, legal work and negotiation with dozens of different owners. Our ownership reflects this history: we have a number of non-contiguous plots ranging in size from 500 m2 to 3 Ha. From a production perspective this is difficult enough to handle, even for our multi-cropping agroforestry approach, but it is nearly impossible for mechanized arable farming. Managing these multiple small plots is difficult enough even in our complexity-promoting, multi-species agroforestry system, but it is nearly impossible for mechanized arable farming, which is hampered by the presence of shrubs, old dispersed trees, bushes and the ruins of old Stone farm buildings. Roads are narrow and bad, overgrown ditches separate plots. This complex ownership structure discourages farmers who might otherwise be tempted to just get the whole area and grub it up.
Rural landscapes have been more transformed in the last 30 years of capitalism than ever before in Hungary’s history. Small farms and family gardens are decimated. Traditional, small-scale agricultural practices are rapidly fading. Cities, towns and the West offer more attractive jobs and lifestyles. The result has been rapid land consolidation. One to three families in each village have bought most the land around, which means that their agricultural practices shape the landscape. The acquisition and deployment of machinery is subsidised and modern supply chains are very much structured in favour of large-scale production. Quality labour is scarce and expensive. Cultivating hundreds of hectares with machinery to feed global commodity chains with the help of European subsidies rapidly became the easiest and most profitable way of farming.
It does not mean that local farmers do not rediscover the potential of these areas from time to time. Livestock keepers reap the grass for hay, arable farmers cultivate suitable strips without having to invest in clearing the rest. Often they are not using their own land, or use much more than their own. Informal rental agreements, sometimes so old as to have been forgotten, form a web of non-written agreements across the landscape.
One of my favourite spots in Zsörk was an almost completely contiguous plot of 3 ha comprised of four lots. “Almost”, because in its middle a small subplot is co-owned by 5 family members of the lady we bought the rest from. It was impossible so far to reach an official land-use agreement with these co-owners: they could not be bothered to go through the hassle of the relevant administration. But while we are happy to live with the legal uncertainty of owning some land which is not registered, it can lead to heartbreaking consequences. We had not touched the land for 4 years, not even for grazing, because it was full of promising, beautiful oak and pear seedlings. Now, that the seedlings are getting stronger, we planned to let in the cattle next year to graze. But last week, we found the whole area completely mowed. We have no idea who did it: it might even be someone completely different from any of the co-owners.
The old fruit orchards, gardens and vineyards survived because it was more expensive to get rid of them than the gain the land could bring. Abandoned plots see a wonderful regeneration of trees and natural vegetation. We see natural plant associations develop and habitats grow. And our farming system, heavy on perennials and grazers, is designed to work with and nurture that biodiversity rather than seeing it as competition to be mastered.
We persevere. We buy land when we can, leave a substantial proportion to natural regeneration, graze our animals, integrate wild species into our production, and market our high quality, varied products. But it is not yet profitable: our project is heavily subsidised by my husband’s transport company.
And therein lies the hardest nut to crack. The fate of Zsörk and other vinehills highlights how our relationship to agriculture and to land changed, how our perception of values changed over the decades. Today, efficiency is king, and complex systems find it difficult to compete without subsidies. As Europe begins to realise how crucially important biodiversity and carbon-rich soils are to its future and that of the planet’s, will it step up to the plate and shift its subsidy regime from destructive to regenerative agriculture?