Although Marian Jurečka, as Minister of Agriculture, once planned that the Czech Republic would be self-sufficient in growing vegetables and fruits by 2030, the trend is currently rather the opposite. Many Czech growers claim that they cannot compete with cheaper foreign production due to high energy and employee costs. And they ask for help from the state. “Our segment has been hit very hard by the energy crisis. We are fighting for survival,” says the grower.
“Just try them, they are really very tasty, they meet the requirements for baby nutrition,” offers Jan Fučík, the tomatoes that have just been harvested from this year’s first crop in the greenhouses he heads. “I enjoy this work immensely, and I also see a great sense in it. Thanks to us, people can eat fresh and healthy food without chemicals, which we grow in an ecologically friendly environment,” he explains.
The place is exceptional on a Czech scale, tomatoes are grown here on 12 hectares. Nowhere else are there such large greenhouses as here, not far from Ostrava, in Dolní Lutyn, where Farma Bezdínek is located. “Today we pick them and tomorrow the customers can eat them. This is a huge advantage compared to the big competition, especially from Morocco and Spain, where they pick the tomatoes often while they are still green and leave them to ripen during the long journey to the Czech Republic. It is no wonder that the taste of domestic tomatoes is completely different,” says Fučík.
However, according to him, Czech vegetable and fruit growers are going through a very difficult period. According to him, they cannot compete with foreign farmers with their price. “Our segment was hit very hard by the energy crisis. We are fighting for survival. Energy prices went up threefold, we couldn’t afford to have the grow lights in operation that tomatoes need to ripen. So we didn’t produce tomatoes over the winter, we only had small plants that so much they don’t need lights,” explains Jan Fučík.
Jiří Stodůlka, the manager of Bezdínek Farm, came up with the idea of growing tomatoes in greenhouses. In the past, he worked in information technology, from where he decided to switch to the year-round cultivation of fresh vegetables with the help of the most modern technologies. However, that was a different time.
Director of the greenhouses at the Bezdínek Farm in Dolní Lutyn, Jan Fučík, shows this year’s first crop of tomatoes. | Photo: Radek Bartoníček
At the time, the Minister of Agriculture was Marian Jurečka, who wanted to support domestic vegetable and fruit growers more from the state budget. “Our goal is for the Czech Republic to be self-sufficient in agriculture by 2030,” he declared.
He planned to almost halve the size of the fruit orchards, triple the area for growing vegetables and more than a quarter of the potato fields. Hop farms and vineyards were also to occupy a larger space. “There is a demand for Czech vegetables and fruit, people would buy them, but we import them from abroad. Unfortunately, someone abroad makes money from it and our economy suffers,” he complained in 2014.
We have to sell below cost, claims the grower
But Jiří Stodůlka says that the state’s aid to vegetable growers in modern greenhouses is minimal. “We are going through an enormously difficult period. If we did not subsidize the cultivation of tomatoes from another type of business outside of agriculture, we probably would not survive anymore,” he claims.
“In terms of per capita vegetable production, we are almost the last in Europe, only Slovakia and Luxembourg are behind us. We are absolutely not self-sufficient. At the same time, vegetables and fruits are commodities of the future that clearly benefit human health and for which people spend more money every year,” he points out .
He describes the current situation as a “deadly cocktail”, which consists not only of expensive energy, but also of the situation on the markets. In the summer, there will be a surplus of tomatoes throughout Europe, so according to him, growers will often have no choice but to sell them below cost.
“Unfortunately, it will be the same situation as last year. We threw away part of the production or sold it at fractional prices in the Netherlands. The question is who will survive this period,” asks Stodůlka. They make no secret of the fact that they could use state aid now.
We help, says the state. According to growers, not enough
The Ministry of Agriculture, now led by Jurečka’s party colleague Zdenek Nekula, claims that it supports Czech fruit and vegetable growers with many subsidy programs from Czech and European money.
Recently, the spokesman of the department, Vojtěch Bílý, appointed 109 million crowns for the activities of organizations of fruit and vegetable producers, other money to support cultivation or irrigation. “For the acquisition of irrigation equipment in 2021, vegetable growers drew 44 million, for 2022 it was 59 million. Last year, the ministry provided 316 million crowns to the vegetable sector from European subsidies,” said the spokesperson.
The manager of Farma Bezdínek, Jiří Stodůlka, responds by saying that state aid does exist, but according to him, it is completely insufficient. “This is clearly evidenced by the already mentioned information, how badly we are doing in the production of vegetables and fruit per capita compared to other countries. Strong production is mainly in those countries that support producers. And we need to have equal conditions with them, otherwise we will not survive ” he means.
As an example, he cites that there are currently no subsidies for greenhouses to help with the enormously rising costs. “Operating subsidies from the state are less than one percent of our sales, which is the least of all sectors in agriculture. We pay much more in taxes, we employ a large number of local people, year-round. I am almost certain that the economic results of producers in greenhouses for 2022 are even worse than for apples,” alludes to reports that some apple growers couldn’t wait for state aid and were cutting down orchards.
As an example, he gives Slovakia, which provided a subsidy of 15,000 euros per hectare of modern greenhouses. The Kameničany farm, which lies just over the border and also belongs to Stodůlka, has already received the money. The same aid is being prepared in Slovakia for this year as well.
It is cheaper in Poland
According to Stodůlka, growers would be helped if the ministry opened another round of investment support or compensated high costs, similar to Slovakia. “However, the most long-term help would be to reduce the taxation of labor in the fruit and vegetable sector, so that we can reach a comparable level to that of many countries in Europe,” he says, describing the comparison with the greenhouse, which is only one kilometer from theirs, but already in Poland.
“The employer there pays only 269 zlotys in levies and taxes for an employee in a greenhouse or an orchard, which is approximately 1,345 crowns. If we give our employees 25,000 crowns net, we pay the state 15,000 crowns in taxes and levies. That is more than ten times ,” he complains. He would also welcome an increase in subsidies for biological protection, which they use instead of much cheaper artificial pesticides.
In his opinion, little support from the state can also be seen in the overall approach to healthy nutrition. “Many countries support fruit and vegetables with a low or even zero VAT rate, in some countries there is a debate about reducing VAT overall on healthy foods. They know that investing in prevention is much cheaper,” notes Stodůlka. In the Czech Republic, 15 percent VAT has been paid on food for ten years, one of the highest in Europe.
Video: This year’s first Czech tomatoes from the greenhouse in Dolní Lutyn
In the largest greenhouses in the Czech Republic, they are currently harvesting this year’s first crop of tomatoes. Due to high energy prices, they missed the winter harvest this year. | Video: Radek Bartoníček
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