Agriculture in the Varaždin region – history and present

15. March 2024. Marko Kozjak

Food is necessary for life, so people have no choice but to stick to farming, even when productivity is low.

Text written by: dr. sc. Dragutin Vincek

The past of each region can be viewed in many ways: as a historical overview of the most important events, as a time scale of economic ups and downs, or through changes in socio-political life. However, it can also be studied through food production. In history, agriculture enabled the creation of the first civilizations and became a tool for the organization of society. The political, economic and religious system was based on the systems of food production and distribution. Food literally kept everything alive and moving, people and animals, therefore there was power in the control of food, which of course the ruling elites used over the centuries by appropriating surplus food, while today’s rulers own seed and planting material, and again in some way control food production and have power.

Hrana je neophodna za život pa ljudi nemaju drugoga izbora nego držati se zemljoradnje, čak i onda kada je produktivnost niska. U strukturi gospodarstava u prošlosti je dominirala poljoprivredna proizvodnja jer je više od 90% stanovništva živjelo od poljoprivrede i proizvodnje hrane. Osobine marljivost i radišnost oduvijek su krasile žitelje varaždinskog kraja. Zemlja se godišnje dva puta zasijavala što je danas zaista rijetkost. Većinom se držalo rogato blago, dok je konja bilo jako malo. Zbog malih površina šuma pod hrastom, uzgoj svinja na žirenju bio je vrlo skroman. Iz svega navedenog proizlazi da je ovaj dio Hrvatskog zagorja bilo izrazito agrarno područje s vrlo nepovoljnom posjedovnom strukturom, što je slučaj i dan-danas.

Throughout history, generations and generations of people have built their local identities. Learning from mistakes, they perfected their skills and knowledge and kept agricultural products from being forgotten. Throughout history, this region has also accepted and cultivated vegetables and animals that were indirectly brought to Croatian soil in different ways. The most common botanical species of Columbus that have adapted to this climate are: pumpkin, beans, potatoes, corn, and turkeys. With regard to staple foods and simple dishes, the basic and common nutritional feature was the use of lard, pumpkin oil, plenty of milk and dairy products. The most common meat used in the diet was pork or poultry.

According to historical sources, corn appeared in these regions somewhere around 1600 and only in the following century did this culture begin to gain importance and from that time it spread very quickly to all regions. Corn was the most important crop in terms of the area it occupied and its importance for agricultural holdings. Potatoes are the second most common agricultural crop that has been grown in this area for almost three centuries. It arrived in our region around 1760, brought by soldiers and glassmakers from the Czech Republic. Throughout history, the potato has been grown most successfully in all Croatian areas and is also a symbol of social category. This is confirmed by the folk expression “potatoes exist so that even the poor have someone to peel”. Along with corn and potatoes, a new product that appeared in Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, right after the discovery of America, was pumpkin. In professional literature, pumpkin has been mentioned since the middle of the 16th century, and at the end of the same century, pumpkin oil, under the name Oleum peponis, oil of the Cucurbita pepo species, began to be mentioned. However, what should be emphasized is that, in addition to products imported from America, the model of sowing and planting these products was also introduced. The planting model called the three sisters, where corn, beans and pumpkin are sown together on the same surface at almost the same time, was adopted from the Indians, the homeland of these cultures. This type of agricultural production has been maintained until today, although it is slowly moving to the specialization of production.

However, when it comes to problems, the agriculture of the Varaždin area shares the fate of the entire agriculture of the Republic of Croatia. The problem is small holdings, parceled land and excessive population density. After the agrarian reform in the first Yugoslavia (1919 – 1931), the average peasant property in Croatia was 4.0 ha, which was close to the average level in the 1920s in Germany, and about a third less than that in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and Holland. In the mid-50s of the 20th century, after tectonic changes in war and disaster, the size of the average property in Croatia was reduced to 3.5 ha, and by 2003 it had fallen by another third, to 2.4 ha. At the same time, the surface area of family farms in developed European countries increased about three times.

Varaždin farmers today suffer from the unsettled situation of the past: the fragmentation of agricultural plots, the inheritance law that allows every member of the new generation to have an agricultural farm, and demographic trends are also a problem. The former state favored the combines, and the new Croatian state gave privileged status to private corporations that took over the combines. Small farms are left to their own devices and are usually treated as a kind of social category.
Today, agricultural production is a reflection of the “lifestyle” of those for whom it was their choice. It is the coexistence of man and the natural environment, which sometimes works in favor of the farmer, and sometimes this coexistence is very difficult. Self-sufficiency in food production is between 70-80%. Potatoes and pork are the basis of the household diet and both products are grown on small farms. A large number of small pig farmers produce pork and potatoes exclusively for their own needs, and the surplus, if they have any, they sell at local markets.
Small farms in this region are mostly considered to be the keepers of tradition. They are appreciated because they produce local products, protect the environment, preserve traditions and religious and other customs. In addition, their agricultural products are considered to be of higher quality than those available in supermarkets. The role and survival of small farms do not primarily depend on economic development, but mainly on agricultural policy, inherited land structure, land management policy and others. However, it is a much broader topic in which our farmers are just one small stone in a large mosaic of unsettled relations in Croatian agriculture.

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