“Nature has the highest return on investment”

by Michael Bird | 08.12.2022

Can a regenerative farm succeed in Romania?

At the edge of a village in Dâmbovița county, I leave a 4×4 parked on a strip of land, and walk into a field, fringed by wild grass and tall trees. Lines of parsnip, lettuce and cabbage open their leaves to the October light. Fat pumpkins nest in a jungle of corn. In a wooden gazebo, sprigs of dried rosemary hang from the ceiling, and the shelves are piled with fired clay bowls and a single pineapple. A table is laid for visitors, with one bowl of plums, and another of vegan mash, topped with a plate to discourage flies. On a folk pattern sofa stretches a black and white kitten, collarless and feral. A hammock is strung between birch trees, where a woman in a sleeveless top reads a book on eastern philosophy. Young men in tie-dye shirts and beards bag up vegetables in hemp sacks, and speak English with accents from different continents. On a clothesline dance colored flags, inscribed with mantras and drawings of tigers. I guess these symbolize the pure lights of Tibetan Buddhism, the pancha-varna, which spreads good fortune, peace, sympathy and wisdom. Next to them dangles a mirrorball, sparkling in the gold autumn air.

Yesterday, I called ahead to one of the owners of this farm, Ionuț Bădică, and checked out its website. I know little about what I will find here, except that it embraces the spirit of organic and regenerative agriculture, and champions permaculture, a holistic theory of growing plants in harmony with the wild. This eco-friendliness is reflected in the name of the smallholding, Sol și Suflet, meaning soil and soul.

Ionuț greets me, in a plain blue T and with a beard and ponytail, and introduces his colleague Alex Tudose, who wears a bushy beard and sandals. They want to present their farm. I expect a lecture on how millennials must escape from the city, and bind with nature, free of the tyranny of the tech age, so we can reset our chakras, unleash our primeval id, and unearth the meaning of existence. 

Ionuț answers:

“I want to show you some spreadsheets.”

We sit down in a dark office inside a farmhouse. Alex turns on his computer and opens pages of statistics on Excel.

“This is a carrot,” he says.

The information shows the coordinates of the vegetable’s location in the farm, the moment it was sown, how long it took to grow, and the time of the harvest. It reveals everything about the soil, including the inputs of water and fertilizer. More cells detail the hours a person has spent seeding, tending and harvesting the vegetable, and its price per kilo. This is a digital twin of the farm on spreadsheets, demonstrating everything that goes into the ground, and all that comes out.

“Then you get results,” says Alex, clicking on an icon, which calculates the money the farm has made out of a single carrot. 

“We can work out what is a good cash crop,” says Ionuț. “Parsley, carrots, leak, black radish, rocket, everything is in here.”

“You’re saying farming is databases?” I ask.

“For us, yes,” says Alex.

“We are creating a regenerative organic model for growing veggies that takes care of the soil, the farmers, and improves biodiversity,” says Ionuț. “It’s efficient, and it makes a profit.”

“Most permaculture people only care about nature and other people,” adds Alex, “They are broke. And they don’t have any money because they don’t scale up, and this is what we are trying to do.

“It’s not only about the planet, it’s also about ourselves.”

“Most permaculture people only care about nature and other people. They are broke. And they don’t have any money because they don’t scale up,” Alex Tudose, Sol și Suflet

“Looking at my spreadsheets, I can smell freedom”

Ionuț is the president of the Permaculture Institute of Romania and project manager of Sol și Suflet, and Alex is the farm manager. The NGO was set up in 2015, and launched Bucharest’s first urban community garden network in 2017, the ‘Gradinescu’ project. 

Before the pandemic, the Institute wanted to finance peri-urban regenerative farms at the edge of cities. “We didn’t find enough skilled people, and couldn’t trust the ones who applied,” says Alex. “There was no legal capacity and no know-how. The pandemic showed us: why give other people money when we can do it ourselves?”

They started looking online for properties, and found a 4.2 hectare farm on sales website OLX. “The guy who owned the land before us farmed ostriches, and he failed, and he farmed goats, and he failed, and he farmed cows, and he failed, and he farmed pigs, and he failed,” says Alex. “Ionuț and I looked at the pictures, said this is the place, and we started negotiating.” 

In 2020, they bought the farm for 42,000 Euro, three days before a new law drawn up by the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD), which declared that citizens cannot buy farmland unless they have five years of experience, an agricultural firm and are registered with the Farm Subsidies Authority (APIA), and 75% of the work is agriculture. 

“If we had waited three more days we wouldn’t have been allowed,” says Alex. The project was financed with help from hypermarket Kaufland’s Corporate Social Responsibility division.

The boys moved in, and started re-building the infrastructure, irrigation systems and greenhouses. Now they live inside the farmhouse and in a trailer. In the local village is a rented house for the workers, including interns from America, Europe and the Middle East. Seedlings are nurtured in a warehouse, and caterpillar tunnels host vine plants. A power line from the local village supplies electricity, and solar panels heat the showers. Ten percent of the land is left wild. 

The boys are building a new hall, which includes a vegetable washing station. They show me a large room of wet cement, which will host a jacuzzi. This will not, they stress, be a hot tub. “We will wash leaves, which decants all the dust and particles,” says Alex. These are premium plants, including loose-leaf lettuce, rocket and tatsoi. The boys will place the leaves in a vertical drier, to keep them crispy. “The idea is to harvest the plants one day before, wash, dry, store in the fridge and deliver the next day,” he says. In the future they will build an orchard and grow spices.

Ionuț is a civil engineer with a background in construction, who finished a masters’ in horticulture biodiversity and conservation, and Alex studied anthropology, ethnology and folklore, and is fascinated with peasant culture and traditional industries. Both are fanatical about preserving nature and the future of farming, and finish each other’s sentences, or road-test snappy, aphoristic phrases on each other, to see which sounds smartest.

“Why decide on farming?” I ask.

“Freedom to live life on my own terms and be free in nature,” says Ionuț. “Some people I spoke to said they thought farming would make them free, but it ended up being more bureaucratic than they hoped for. I think you can be free. Looking at my spreadsheets, I can smell freedom.”

“Some people I spoke to said they thought farming would make them free, but it ended up being more bureaucratic than they hoped for,” Ionut Badica

“If you invest money in the soil, you will get a lot out of it”

Permaculture is a design system and philosophy centered on an agricultural system that works with and not against nature. The concept was drawn up in the 1970s by Australian biologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren as a vision of sustainable, or permanent, agriculture [hence perma-culture]. 

“It’s about how you design and connect elements to create a working whole, based on the observation of natural patterns,” says Alex, showing me his rows of cabbage and lettuce, “and it relies heavily on what there is to capture energy, such as solar, wind, water, and to make the best use of natural resources.”

The theory also encourages high yields and a good quality of life. Its three mantras are earth care, people care and fair share. This is where ecology meets ethics. The boys want to follow this philosophy, which feeds into the name ‘soil and soul’.

“Soul is our passion,” says Alex, walking onto a naked land-plot. “The natural, romantic aspect of living in nature and having the life of an adventurer, more connected to the earth. But it’s also soil, this clump of soil,” he scoops up a fistful of dirt. “Let’s make this happen, how are we going to modulate this passion with a practical catalyst to obtain the result we envision? We are trying to produce a healthy product, and trying to increase soil fertility and the capacity of the soil. For me, nature has the highest return on investment. If you invest money in the soil, you will get a lot out of it. 

“But it’s about caring for people. The agricultural laborer. We would like to stop working after eight hours a day. Overworking, after smoking and sugar, is one of the largest killers in the world. Farming has the largest suicide rate of any job. Farmers take money risks, mortgage risks, and natural risks. We want organic and healthy soil, a healthy product, healthy people, and healthy, happy animals.”

“Regenerative agriculture does not pay you back in money. It pays you back indirectly in five, seven or ten years, and it pays the world back,”

Alex Tudose, farm manager

The farm also believes in the concept of regenerative agriculture, which protects the soil, reduces water use, and prevents deforestation. “In the world there is a huge cost in agriculture which is invisible,” says Alex. “It is based on the degradation of the soil and that is why the soil is depleting. Excessive plowing, cultivation and erosion leads to degenerative loops. Chemical fertilizers are killing soil life. We will pay, and our children will pay. Regenerative agriculture does not pay you back in money. It pays you back indirectly in five, seven or ten years. And it pays the world back.”

As we sit in a gazebo, there is a kitten lounging on a sofa, its eyes closed and its belly aching for a stroke.

“Why do you have cats?” I ask.

“There’s one reason to have cats,” says Alex, calculating something in his head. “Out of five carrots we pull out of the ground, one is eaten by mice. If we plant 4,000 carrots, that’s 20%, and we lose 800 carrots. That’s why we have cats.”

“Is it in the spirit of permaculture and regenerative agriculture to have cats killing mice on your farm?” I ask.

“It’s in the spirit of a household,” says Alex. “It’s about input and output and about supporting the regeneration of trophic chains, which contribute to the balance and resilience of an ecosystem. We are dealing with nature, people and money. This is what permaculture is.”

“There’s one reason to have cats. Out of five carrots we pull out of the ground, one is eaten by mice,” says Alex Tudose, Sol si Suflet

“Organic certification does not add value to our product”

Although the farmers follow many rules for organic agriculture, the products are not certified as organic. “We are trust certified,” says Alex. “People know us. We do it in good faith. Anyone who wants to see how we work can come here, and we will show them.”

A problem with the certification process is the high bureaucracy. 

“We don’t think it would add value to our product,” says Alex. “People get certified organic to sell bulk in supermarkets. We care about developing the growing model and prototypes of farms.”

“Our opinion is organic is mostly a political term,” adds Ionuț. 

“It does nothing for farmers or the soil,” says Alex.

To plow or not to plow is a debate among farmers.

“Turning the soil is the worst thing that can happen,” says Alex.

“Why?” I ask.

“Imagine teleporting to a Himalayan mountain at an altitude of 8,000 meters. Imagine a bacterium that lives at five centimeters under the soil going to 25 centimeters under the soil — it has the same effect: like ‘Woah!’ Either it kills them, or it severely fucks up its system.”

 In Sol și Suflet, there are no tilling machines or horses to take on this role, but the boys do plow by hand to loosen up the earth, and prepare the initial planting surface.

Although organic agriculture does not use synthetic fertilizer, there are natural options available. The boys let the weeds die and dump them in a pile, where they decompose. They also grow ‘green manure’ crops, like alfalfa, which they slice, chop, bail and use to supply nutrients and sustain growth in the other plants.

“When you feed the plant chemically, you just feed the plant,” says Alex. “But the soil degrades. So you have to enable other decomposers, like earthworms and beneficial fungi, which have lasso-like tendrils. Fungi decomposes cellulose. Earthworms eat the wet stuff.” 

As organic growers, they can use a small spectrum of soluble minerals as pesticides. Alex shows me a cabinet of plastic jars, and picks one up. “This is Bacillus Thuringiensis,” he says, “a bacterium that works on the lepidoptera genus — butterflies and caterpillars — and stops their digestion. It is killing them, but killing them organically. We use zeolite insecticide against ants. This is essentially clay. It’s still mining the earth, but it’s good stuff. We are not doing much. We do not hack and slash and kill all bacteria.”

The farm uses ‘green manure’ crops, like alfalfa, which they slice, chop, bail and use to supply nutrients and sustain growth in the other plants

“Community supported agriculture in Romania is not growing”

Every week, the boys harvest, collect and assemble produce in baskets for sale. As well as standard vegetables, they grow specialist products like Swiss chard, kale, and Iceberg lettuce. They use a community-supported agricultural model, where customers pay in advance in tiers of up to 12 months. Every week, the boys choose a pick-up point for the veggies, in or around Bucharest. This weekly basket is “a form of partnership and solidarity between consumer and producer” where they share risks and benefits through a long term commitment.

“A subscription minimizes the risk,” says Alex. “Because I know exactly how many customers I have, and I have money up front, so I can grow my seed, and pay my bills until harvest is done.”

“Community-supported agriculture has been in Romania for the past ten years, and it is not growing,” says Ionuț. “Why not? In France there are thousands of farmers. What is missing? Money, the mindset, and transparency. This is something we have to spread into the people. They have to understand how it is working: not to treat the farmer, like: ‘Hey, motherfucker, this tomato is not perfect!’”

“Why do customers come to you?” I ask.

“Quality and they want to make a difference with their money,” says Alex.

“Who are your customers?” I ask.

“Mostly urban and very successful women who are very powerful and sociable,” says Alex. “Our Facebook is 75% women between the ages of 35 and 50.”

“Why women?” I ask.

“Because they care,” says Ionuț. “They take care of themselves. Some are mothers. If they are not mothers, they are aware of what is happening to the world. They have the capacity of empathy. Most men don’t give a fuck. Men are skeptical. From the clients who we sell to, there are two or three men, and those are the ones who were sent by their wives.”

Customers of Sol si Suflet “want quality and to make a difference with their money”

“Carrots equal success”

Vegetables are profitable, the boys have discovered. This includes radish, rocket, turnip, courgette, and leek. “Purple and green basil are a cash crop,” says Alex. “Thai basil is not a cash crop.” The boys tried to sell this fresh herb to a Thai restaurant in the city, but they didn’t want it. 

Selling basil and celery allows them to grow new products such as lemon grass, rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, bay leaf, and mint. Corn and onions are storage foods for the winter. Pumpkin is a good product, as it grows underneath corn-stalks, and can be ignored until it’s big enough to eat. But strawberries are needy. They require constant defoliation to stop diseases spreading. Plus they are too attractive, which means birds eat the fruit.

Some crops are indicators of success, says Ionuț. They show the land is fertile, and the soil has few weeds. These include parsley, parsnips and carrots. “Carrots are a hard crop,” he says. “But if you manage to do it, this becomes one of the best cash crops. Our aim is to grow carrots and make a lot of money.”

Alex’s calculator brain starts buzzing.

“300 carrots in a bed means 1,000 Euro for a 90-day growing cycle,” he says.

“If you don’t have mice,” I put in.

“No, I counted the mice with 20 percent loss.”

“We are a school of young farmers. You come to us, spend a season with us, and then you hit the ground running,” Alex Tudose, farm manager

“We aim to provide a model for young farmers”

In the EU, only 11 percent of farm managers are under 40 years old, and in Romania this figure is below eight per cent, according to Eurostat in 2016.

“There are barriers to being a young regenerative farmer,” says Alex. “You have to jump through so many bureaucratic hoops it is partially impossible. You don’t have money for access to land. You have to buy water, electricity, a kitchen for the summer and greenhouses, and that costs around 150,000 euro. Infrastructure investments tie you to a bank, and to loans at high interest rates. This is going to crap on your income and take all your profits, so you are only covering operating costs, which stops you from expanding.”

Subsidies are available. The Romanian Government has supplied money for people returning from abroad. There has also been money available for young farmers and organic farms from the EU, and European funds through the Common Agricultural Policy, though the boys can’t access these as they run an NGO, not a farm. 

“We wanted to do something for us, but also enable us to live the life we want,” says Alex. “But also to give to the community, and provide a model for young farmers. We are a school. You come to us, spend a season with us, and then you hit the ground running.” 

One of the Institute’s former interns is now running a fully-financed 50 hectare farm.

“Some young farmers are practical, most are dreamers: ‘Let’s plant trees! Have permaculture! Make a fruit forest!’ They will burn out in one year,” Ionuț Bădică, project manager

“We cannot sustain the culture of Romanians as peasants”

Sol și Suflet is located on the fertile plains near Băleni, the allotment of Romania, which supplies fruit and vegetables that feed the country. In backyard greenhouses in this area, farmers grow tomato, cabbages, celery, cucumber, radish, pepper and eggplants. Many farmers use a model of production supported by herbicides, pesticides, and chemicals. This is not sustainable or profitable, argue Ionuț and Alex. One problem is that farmers work too hard, and charge too little for their products.

“The farmers don’t have life insurance or pensions,” says Ionuț. “They work from the age of ten years until they die. They sell a kilo of tomatoes for 2.5 lei [0.5 eurocents]. How can it be so cheap? If you pay taxes and everything it should be double the price. They are happy if they have 500 euros at the end of the season. But they don’t measure how much time they work on it. It’s not self-sufficient. So why do it?”

“Is the peasant ideal not working in Romania?” I ask.

“It’s romanticized by people from the urban area,” says Ionuț. “I want to be a peasant…”

“ …but I want tomatoes in December,” says Alex.

“The reality is that if you look at numbers, how many young farmers are rising up from the villages? Literally zero. People are working in the city or abroad. We cannot sustain the culture of Romanians as peasants. Who is paying appreciation to the peasants? No one, if you expect to pay 2.5 lei for a kilo of a perfect product.”

“It’s medieval slavery,” says Alex.

“The model kills you as a young person,” says Ionuț. “I went to buy tomatoes from Băleni for tomato juice because we ran out. I bought them from a guy who had four operations this year. He had a syringe in his kidney and a catheter pumping glucose into his body and he wanted to lift a box of tomato and give this to me.”

“Why didn’t he say: ‘I can’t do it?’” I ask. 

“Because otherwise he has no more income,” says Alex.

“He’s gonna die if he is not able to work, and he’s going to work until he dies,” says Ionuț.

“This makes you look at life differently.”

“This makes you look at tomatoes differently.”

Price must reflect the real cost, argue the boys. “In regenerative agriculture, we want to put a price on the dignity of the farmers,” says Ionuț. “We have dignity, and we want to work on the same fees that people in IT have.”

“We want to go on vacation in Greece with our wives,” says Alex.

There is a schism between the old and the new farmers. Alex admits that the locals in the village “think we are crazy hippies or hipsters”. 

This is because many city folk have gone back to earth, started a farm, gambled all their money, and lost. “Some young farmers are practical. Most are dreamers,” says Ionuț. “They think: ‘Let’s plant trees! Have permaculture! Make a fruit forest!’ They will burn out in one year.”

Locals from traditional farms in Băleni don’t tend to read academic literature on new trends in agriculture, nor use terms such as ‘regenerative’ and ‘permaculture’. At the same time, the newcomers from the city don’t know the terrain and the lifestyle, or understand the physical demands of the work. Couldn’t these two worlds come together and pool their skills and knowledge?

Ionuț has found that the locals are skeptical because Soil and Soul hasn’t yet proved itself. He says there is one end result that both the old farmers and the hipsters can agree on: profit.

“We have to prove our model,” says Ionuț. “Get the model fixed, show the numbers, and people will come. We must set up the economic system: customers, habits, infrastructure, and pay our bills.”

It seems there is only one piece of advice needed for anyone crazy enough to set up a farm in Romania.

“Start being pragmatic,” he says, “and that will be the one principle that will save your ass.”