Bertényi Gábor: co-founder of research workshop Agri Kulti Kft. and sustainable catering company Házikó

It seemed to Elinor Ostrom that the world contained a large body of common sense. People, left to themselves, would sort out rational ways of surviving and getting along.” Thus stated The Economist on their piece profiling Ostrom after she died in 2012. Ostrom was the first and still the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, and she won for her work essentially disproving the “tragedy of the commons” and asserting that humans flourished best with as little external influence as possible, be it government intervention or other outside factors. She advocated against a top-down approach, with people having a greater independence, and with decisions made on a local level. She found that when communities were left to their own resources and creativity (and common sense), they would not end up depleting commonly shared resources as previously assumed but instead find a way to share, divide, and work for the common good.

This conclusion can be applied to many areas of human living and is well exemplified today in the arena of local, sustainable farming, not so much because these farms exist on communal land (as usually they are not), but because they rely on decisions being made by each farmer on a local level and on food distribution systems which are community based and devoid of unnecessary middlemen and other third-party players. It would appear that farmers know best what they should grow, and consumers know best what they want to eat. And it turns out, more and more people want to know exactly where their food is coming from as well.

Bertényi Gábor knows all about the importance of connecting people to their food. He is one of the pioneers of making locally grown, sustainable food more attainable here in Hungary and founded Házikó, a catering company and bistro back in 2014.

Bertényi knows that this agricultural trend has as much to do with sound economics as it does with people’s desire for locally grown food. Buying local means shorter supply chains, which in turn mean greater efficiencies, resulting in lower costs for the consumer and more profit in the pocket of the farmer. Of course, most people associate farm-fresh food with higher prices due to their smaller end-market size and actual supply limitations. And economies of scale have still not taken effect here for any real price advantage to be seen. Having said that, the prices Házikó charges are very similar to other food purveyors, and, perhaps more importantly, demand is good. More consumers today are seeking to buy local for healthier, environmentally conscious food and are well aware of the lower carbon footprint they are leaving and greater impact they are having on they way food is sourced. These consumers are part of a movement to affect change on a local level.

Házikó has doubled its sales over the past year and a half, and growth is set to continue with its Farmbistro concept now taking off. Bertényi is positive and yet a bit anxious about the future as the group is still not in the black. But he is well aware of how to make a trend stick, and this is far from his first time around in the food business. Bertényi was behind one of the first and arguably the most famous ruin pubs in Budapest, Szimpla Kert, back in 2001. He handed over the reigns to the pub and its nightlife in 2014 but remained ever-present in the form of the wildly popular Szimpla farmers’ market held there every Sunday starting in 2012. 

The team seeks to take the urban-rural connection to an entirely new level by reexamining people’s relationship to food and the community surrounding it

Farmers’ markets were certainly nothing new. There were, and still are, neighborhood markets throughout the city and, of course, there is the famous Nagycsarnok, or Great Market Hall, where tourists can roam the never-ending stalls of produce, goods, and gifts. Many sellers at these markets do indeed source from smaller farmers in the countryside, but far too many are simply buying their produce and other products from commercial farms and importing non-seasonal items from other countries to meet today’s normal consumer tastes. In some cases you literally might as well be shopping at Spar or other supermarket chains. As for organic foods, these are an even rarer find.

Bertényi and his partners, Králl Attila and Szalai Mihály, had actually already been organizing farmers’ markets in the countryside since 2011 as part of their agricultural research work via Agri Kulti Kft. Szimpla’s market moved the action to the city with an array of some of Hungary’s finest fruits, veggies, cheeses, jams, olives, spreads, sausages, butter, and other edibles direct from local, small farms. And there was a selection of organic foods as well.

Given the demand for the goods brought by farmers from around the country to this weekly event, Bertényi then decided to start a new venture to better tap into and push the local agriculture trend. Thus, Házikó was born as a more visible extension of Agri Kulti’s work seeking to “draw the Countryside into the City.”​

Házikó goes a step further than the farmers’ market in that it brings fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farms direct to your door in a ready-to-eat form and eco-friendly, biodegradable packaging to boot. The catering company offers up the perfect solution to busy families and professionals who want to support sustainable, rural development as well as enjoy delicious food made with no preservatives, no artificial additives, and no food coloring but do not have time to shop or cook. Companies have especially jumped at the opportunity to provide a healthy and environmentally friendly catering alternative for conferences, seminars, parties, and daily lunches, and they love even more that their food budgets are going towards bringing life to local farmers and their surrounding communities.

Everything at Házikó is prepared fresh the same day as delivery, and all baked goods are made on-site per EU healthy standards. Best of all, people can not only know the exact ingredients of what they are eating but where it originally came from either via labels directly on packaged goods, from display cards at events, or by asking the company directly. Házikó even incorporates a QR code into event displays that takes people directly to its site where they can learn about 25 farms all over Hungary from which ingredients are sourced. Displays and/or maps listing the group’s farmer partners can also be found in the company’s bistros.

Mit eszel? People today want to know what they’re eating
Just a few of the items available from Házikó’s catering service and Farmbistro.

Partner farms include Csomád Tej, a milk and butter supplier that runs off of a biogas power station and boasts 300 cows on 500 hectares just 30 kms outside of Budapest; there is the migratory beekeeper József Bácskai with his 120 bee colonies for honey, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly who literally follows the blooming season around the country; the Csósza family grows a wide selection of fruits and vegetables with a focus on teaching traditional recipes and processing techniques; and Csabai Kolbász Kamra produces fresh sausages from Mangalica pigs who freely roam a forest near Győr. One of Házikó’s supplier entries tells the story of a couple, previously a building contractor and a trainee in the clothing industry, who left the city to start a cheesemaking farm. Today the pair champion healthy eating and live with 70 goats, 17 cattle, and a couple of pigs fed with chemical-free fodder that is grown right on their own land. Want to actually visit one of these farms to see them for yourself? This is also possible.

Házikó offers up a completely transparent food chain from the ground (or cow, tree, hive, etc) to the consumer’s mouth. And the company’s brick-and-mortar Farmbistro now allows people to sit down and enjoy a farm-fresh and healthy yoghurt, sandwich, soup, or baked good knowing that they are helping farms in the countryside thrive.

Bertényi and his partners are dedicated to redefining not just what we eat but how we get it and what we know about it. The team seeks to take the urban-rural connection to an entirely new level by reexamining people’s relationship to food and the community surrounding it. And it is their work at Agri Kulti which continues to further this transparency by creating a quality-control system for the farmers who are chosen to supply Házikó.

Agri Kulti explores local resource-based solutions and structures that are ecological, self-sustaining, and socially inclusive. The research center aims to build a decentralized food distribution system that promotes supplier independence, strong rural development, and a thriving local community. In this way, farmers can exist without the need for external resources and aid, and the system’s short food chains guarantee “authentic, reliable and verifiable resources” for food with higher nutritional content and less chemicals. 

But this isn’t just about making sure consumers get to eat healthier, higher-quality food and driving rural growth. Agri Kulti also seeks to preserve local ecosystems and the cultural heritage of Hungary’s regional landscapes. Along these lines, farms must meet strict guidelines, including evaluation criteria pertaining to, yes, the quality and transparency of sources of all products and/or ingredients as well as standards of cleanliness. But farms must also show a commitment to eco-friendly, traditional farming methods and agro biodiversity based on sustainable ecological and socio-geographical regions that Agri Kulti has mapped out. Small-scale farms are also always preferred as well as those engaged in organic farming if possible.

Agri Kulti completes its holistic approach with education and consultancy activities to help further explore best practices for everything from food production to processing and organizes markets and other opportunities to raise awareness of local, sustainable food choices as well. The team’s newest endeavor is working with scientific bodies/institutes to create a more formal certification process for locally sourced food in a drive to formalize the transparency they have championed. Individuals can learn more about this quality assurance program at the site “Mit Eszel?”, or “What do you eat?”

“Made in Hungary” may mean something very different
​to the Hungarian government

The goal with this new work is to help decentralized food systems become more and more legitimate, increase demand, lower prices, and allow small farms to flourish. That’s the theory. Yes, consumers have been receptive, and sales have grown, but Bertényi tells me with a bit of a reluctant laugh, “we just had to raise prices and staff salaries… and, of course, one (farm) is still dying every fifth minute.” There is still much work to be done.

The Hungarian government is not blind to the need for rural development programs. Leaders seem dedicated to helping grow agricultural activities in the countryside and support the preservation of land as well as the access to markets by small local producers. In this vein, whereas farmers in other CEE countries suffer countless safety and hygienic standards and other bureaucratic barriers that eliminate them from being able to sell their goods directly, Hungary issued a Ministerial Decree in 2010 that exempted many small-scale farms from some unnecessarily strict requirements. This was followed in 2012 by a new decree on farmers’ markets, according to which products must be sold by the farmers themselves (no middlemen) and farmers are restricted to selling within 40 kms, in the same county, or in Budapest. However, they are also allowed to sell to restaurants and for public catering needs, which further opens market possibilities. Bertényi agrees that this was a massive shift for farmers and “opened up an entirely new perspective for small producers.” 
It is no surprise that the government should look to helping smaller producers. Hungary is comprised mostly of small farms with 85 % of some 500,000 farms covering less than five hectares. Per a CEE Web report published in 2013, there were 26,000 private farms (5% of the total) and 629 companies (9%) engaged in direct sales back in 2010. As a comparison, this same report stated that the countries with the highest percentages of farms with direct sales were Austria with 11% and France with 9%. According to the Farm Structure Survey cited in the report, the percentage of EU farms that process independently and sell direct is only 3.5%. Bertényi noted cautiously that it would be interesting to see the actual volume of direct sales relative to the total output of a given farm as the 9% figure for Hungary seemed to him a bit aggressive.

There are also government agencies dedicated to aiding farmers such as the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund (EAGF) and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), which receives support from money received under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for 2014–2020. Hungary was set to receive over €20 billion under this initiative for Rural Development Programmes covering everything from various environmental and energy-efficient initiatives, ecosystem preservation, and sustainable resource management to fighting poverty and education, employment, infrastructure, and social inclusion. The Summary of the Partnership Agreement for Hungary, 2014–2020 indicates that €3.45 billion was to be focused on the development of the agricultural sector and rural areas via EAFRD.

A later report in 2016 from Europa’s site specified that more than €12 billion would be invested directly in the farming sector and rural areas and touted the new system of Direct Payments as an improved way to get funds to the Member States and individual farmers. However, both Králl and Bertényi clarified the downside of this approach. Direct Payments (Pillar 1 of CAP) provide production-related subsidies and commercial support in which direct payment is provided via SAPS (single area payment system) based on the number hectares of land available for crops, i.e. the size of the farm. This has resulted in a massive intensification of agriculture towards larger farms, over-farming of land, and environmental damage. “The Greening of SAPS is today a bad joke,” they tell me.

One farm is still dying every fifth minute
A map showing all of the farmers that Házikó sources from along with the types of food they produce.

The Summary of the Partnership Agreement for Hungary also mentions “Improving the competitiveness and global performance of the business sector” as the very first goal. This does not seem to be in line with the spirit of a decentralized system focused on empowering local communities and enhancing shorter distribution routes. Furthermore, all monies received from the EU are handled by the Ministry of Agriculture, and farmers looking for funding must apply directly to the government who then decides how support is allocated. And how much do smaller farms actually receive?

The amounts are incredibly small once spread out over thousands of recipients. The report from 2016 states that “In 2014 some 174,870 Hungarian farm businesses received more than EUR 1.2 billion in Direct Payments, 80.1 % of which received a payment below EUR 5 000.” Bertényi chuckles at this amount. Clearly this is not enough to make any real difference. Another local farmer had clearly noted to me as well that the hoops you have to jump through to apply for funding are simply too burdensome and take too long. Furthermore, in an affront to those promoting environmentally friendly practices, there are exceptions to certain “Greening” rules for the smallest farms to be able to qualify for payments.

Králl Attila informed me that certain of their suppliers have found a balance in their production so as to take advantage of these subsidies. Some have enough land to continue with say their plots for farm-fresh vegetables sold at markets and also set aside enough hectares of arable land to receive funding to produce one of the “big four” crops that the market supports and the government loves; they can also use the harvest from such crops as fodder for their own livestock. The “big four” consist of corn, rape, wheat, and sunflowers, most of which drive exports for the country.

“Made in Hungary” may mean something very different to the Hungarian government. Its focus on keeping food production inside the country seems solely geared towards helping grow larger commercial farms in order to power up the agricultural sector, fuel exports, and pad the country’s GDP. And as larger farms are favored, small producers are simply squeezed out of the market both in terms of their inability to sell at the same price points and in terms of literally being pushed off their land by larger players buying them out when their sales dry up.

It is worth noting that supermarket chain Tesco’s site proudly asserts on its Tesco Hungary section that “Local products account for around 85% of our sales, and some categories are even higher. In order to foster local production, we’ve developed a support network for our local suppliers, including seminars and a suppliers’ academy. Our efforts in Hungary have been successful and our suppliers export more than £100 million worth of products from the country to the UK.” So Tesco even sources from Hungarian farmers for their own outside markets. This may result in rural development and jobs, but it is a far cry from small-scale farming and a focus on short food distributions systems and local markets.

Again, both Bertényi and Králl do say that some of their suppliers have been able to get in on some of this commercial action but that this market has nothing to do with agricultural and natural biodiversity, innovative farming methods, and sustainable trends.

Other central governments in the world have taken an active role in aiding small farms with results that seem to have been a boon to some local farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture named local and regional food systems in 2012 as “one of the four pillars supporting a new rural American economy.” One billion dollars was invested, and in 2016 the Secretary of Agriculture reported in an article on Medium.com that “more than 160,000 farmers and ranchers nationwide are selling into local markets, from farmers markets and CSAs to local restaurants, grocery stores and institutions, generating huge returns for local communities.” The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF2) was also launched in 2009 and even has a site listing all federal investments and grants made over the years along with a directory of 8,500 farmers nationwide for those looking to buy local. Other incentives include microloans, tools to help local farmers meet safety requirements to sell to stores, and the “GroupGAP” program, which allows groups of farmers to share the cost of acquiring GAP certification for food safety.

The trend in local agriculture is strong throughout Europe as well. The same CEE Web report above, which cited the strong direct sales figures for farmers in Austria and France, also called the multiple benefits of shorter food distributions such as a lower carbon footprint, better connection between farmers and consumers, healthier eating, and environmentally sound food production as outright “social capital.” And EURACTIV France reported this past February that France is committed to shorter supply chains and will continue helping local farmers and consumers produce, sell, and eat fresh, local organic goods, citing a 2014 study stating that 75% of French people prefer to buy local.

Of course the enthusiasm for such intervention is not universal, and the efforts in the US come after a lengthy period of government favoritism and lobbying biased towards the interests of large farms. Per David DeRemer, economics lecturer at Northeastern University, “Economists often exhibit healthy skepticism about whether top-down government programs can identify market failures and target them effectively with subsidies. In the case of U.S. agriculture though, the market has been so distorted for so long by big farm interests, local food policies have more opportunity to provide some valuable corrective.”

Házikó has doubled its sales over the past year and a half, and growth is set to continue with its Farmbistro concept now taking off
The new transparency: a Hazikó label showing exactly what you are eating and the producer it comes from.

Back in Hungary, Házikó’s work is more important than ever. And it has been recognized for its efforts. The group took home the DELFIN-Award from Telekom Hungary in 2016 and the FILFest Social Enterprise Award of FAB-Move project supported by the European Commission. Házikó is not the only player in this field. There are a number of city gardens run by locals in Budapest and other distributors of locally grown food who work hard to bring farm-fresh groceries to city dwellers via weekly food box deliveries and small shops.

Zsámboki Biokert is an organic farm under 50 km from Budapest which has been working for a number of years with locals to establish cooperative food systems based on regular direct interaction between producers and consumers. Logan Strenchock has become a well-known face of the farm and champions a community-centered approach as well as transparency with customers and continuously seeks to educate consumers about the benefits of organic eating, biodiversity, crop rotation, and other ecosystem topics. The farm serves as a learning ground for all, from curious children to university students in the agro field, and its multiple distribution points in Budapest have become lively community centers for people to pick up their weekly boxes, learn how to best prepare seasonal foods, exchange other ideas, or simply stop by for a coffee and chat. For Logan, this is not only about good business; it’s about making an impact and showing how sustainable agriculture and local food distribution systems work for the benefit of all.

Szatyorbolt is another group that seeks to focus on quality and sustainability over growing profits and promotes a “shopping community” based on closer connections to farmers along with healthy living practices. Szatyorbolt organizes farm visits as well and even helps individuals start or find a “shopping community” close to them based on similar values and goals.

It is no surprise that those dedicated to this urban-rural movement support one another. After all, it is about community. And this community has yet another piece of news in its favor. According to testing performed by Hungary’s food safety authority, NEBIH, on items sold in both Austria and Hungary, Hungarian consumers are purchasing lower-quality foods of the same brand than their Austrian counterparts. The Minister of State for Food Chain Supervision, Róbert Zsigó, demanded that Brussels put an end to this practice at the FMCG Top 2017 food industry conference in Zamárdi this past April, and he is joined by other CEE countries also concerned by this practice, including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Croatia. Along these lines, the Hungarian government reiterated its commitment to the food production sector with an investment of 300 billion forint (€960M) and continued VAT reductions. Hungary is also looking to confirm further CAP investments from the EU past the 2020 deadline for the last agreement as well. ​

This is about individuals working to ensure the common good… 
​This is really all about “social capital”

It is great to know that the government is committed to Hungarian farmers. But, again, Bertényi’s work goes far beyond spurring rural development and increasing Hungary’s food independence or export market potential. Házikó’s work aims to drive a rural-urban connection by giving consumers the choice of buying products from farmers they know and trust and by equipping farmers with the incentive and means of communicating properly about their food to consumers they have grown to count on.

Házikó has just opened the second Farmbistro in Budapest. And it is yet another example of bottom-up action at work given the location was provided for and completely renovated by MagNet Bank, a community bank centered around ethical practices, sustainability, and loans for socially driven enterprises such as local agriculture. MagNet attracts customers looking to bank with an institution that uses their money for good. Makes sense.

Házikó and Agri Kulti’s work is all about local initiatives, transparency, and community-driven markets. This is about individuals working to ensure the common good, from high-quality eating and physical well-being to jobs, sustainability, and rural preservation. This is really all about “social capital.” Elinor Ostrom would be proud.

I met Bertényi at the new Farmbistro a couple hours prior to its official opening to speak further about his work. The place was buzzing, phones were ringing, and staff was anxiously placing and preparing around us. Before the start at 6 PM, people were already flooding in, and as I took my leave, I discovered guests crowded outside. The sun was shining bright, wine glasses glimmered next to a small covered wine-wagon, and strips of green lawn covered the concrete sidewalks. It was as if Bertényi had literally brought a bit of the countryside into the city, and as I waved goodbye outside, he wore a proud smile across his face. And he should have. The local trend may have a long road ahead, and farmers may still be struggling; but the enthusiasm for Házikó’s work is palpable.

The community is very clearly on board.

Copyright Liz Frommer

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