Shadow of 'mad cow' casts gloom on Czech farms

A rural family fears that its way of life will come to an end.

For six centuries, the Blazek family has farmed the same 125 acres in the Czech village of Stribrec.

But now, after weathering the black plague of the Middle Ages, family feuds, two world wars, and a communist regime, the Blazek agricultural dynasty has run up against a threat it may not survive.

Ending a hard day of building rail fences, Josef Blazek sits in front of the television, waiting for the latest news on the spread of mad-cow disease. In mid-June, a lab in Germany diagnosed the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the Czech Republic. Since then, the price of beef has dropped dramatically, and a sense of gloom has settled on small farms like the Blazeks'.

Almost half of all Czech consumers are afraid to eat beef, according to a recent poll, and the price of beef has sunk 40 percent below what it was this time last year. "Of course, this impacts farmers negatively," says Jan Slaby, a Czech market analyst. "We haven't even seen the total results yet."

Elsewhere in Europe, consumer fears of eating meat infected with mad cow have battered the British beef industry, which has also suffered from a prolonged outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The mad cow epidemic has also affected cattlemen in France, where authorities have banned certain cuts of beef.

Fears of similar problems have arisen in the Czech Republic.

In mid-June, 138 cattle were slaughtered at the Dusejov collective farm in the southeast of the country, where the first BSE case was discovered. While so far no other cattle have been slaughtered, meat prices are still rock-bottom.

Mr. Blazek says he sold calves for 45 crowns ($1.13) per kilo last November. "Now, I will be lucky to get 30 crowns (75 cents) per kilo, if I can sell at all," he grumbles.

If prices remain low when their cattle go to market in the fall, the Blazeks fear they will make no profit this year and will have to turn to their children for support.

Mr. Blazak and his wife, Marie Blazkova, have two sons who sometimes take time off from their city jobs to help with big projects like fishing out the carp ponds or cutting hay for the cows.

Son Martin is the general manager of an upscale spa, and his brother, Dusan, is employed at an Internet retail company in Prague. Before the outbreak of mad cow, Martin was considering returning to the farm. But not now.

Martin shakes his head slowly. "Sometimes I want to get away from all the stress in the city," he says. "but I couldn't be a farmer."

All the Blazeks speaks wistfully of the long family tradition they see fading.

According to village records, the Blazek homestead, a cottage with a tiled roof and four-foot thick walls, was among the first stone structures built in Stribrec, a settlement founded in the 13th century when South Bohemian Vítkovec lords settled their peasants in the highlands between Prague and Vienna. "By the beginning of the 20th century, our farm was the second wealthiest farm in the village," Dusan says. "The Blazek children were all able to attend university, but one always returned to take over the farm."

Then, World War II descended. German invaders forced many Czech farmers to abandon their homes and flee to Prague. The Blazeks narrowly escaped by paying tribute to the advancing army.

During the war, Mr. Blazek's father sheltered a Jewish intellectual named Ivan Albracht from the Nazis. When peace came, Albracht joined the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. As he left Stribrec, he told the Blazek family, "If you ever are in need, call me."

With a wry smile Mr. Blazek recalls that his father refused to call on this connection when he was labeled an "enemy landowner" by communist officials. He was imprisoned three times, while the local collective farm pressured the Stribrec farmers to leave their homes and live in dormitories.

As part of the coercion, the next generation of Blazek children were barred from high school education.

Both Mr. Blazek and his brother, Jan, were sent to work in uranium mines. Jan was forced to work with radioactive ore without protective clothing. He died of leukemia in 1960 at the age of 21.

In the late 1950s, an ultimatum came. The Blazeks were to be removed from their home by force. Finally, they called Albracht and two days before the deadline to move out, a miraculous reprieve was sent from Prague. The Blazeks were the only family in Stribrec allowed to keep their home.

"By 1990 there were practically no family farms left," says Hugo Roldan, press secretary of the Czech Ministry of Agriculture. "Everyone was in huge collective farms. After [the Velvet Revolution] many collectives became big farming companies. Today, small farms still take up only a tiny fraction of the cultivated land."

The surviving small farms are seen here as a vital link to the pre-communist rural past, with its vibrant village culture and extended family ties. The small farms also offer more jobs than the highly mechanized agribusiness operations. In addition, European environmentalists say small farms are more ecologically beneficial, cutting down on erosion, pesticides, energy use, and abuse of soils.

The Czech government is trying to encourage more small farms to start up, particularly those that graze cows on the scenic hills, but it is an uphill battle.

With the BSE threat and the downturn in prices, Mr. Blazek says: "If times were different, I might try to convince my sons to come back to the farm, but these days farming isn't the kind of life a father would want for his sons. You would have to be crazy to start farming today."

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