Surprising Expats: Matthew Hayes, Organic Farmer, Owner of Zsámboki Biokert
- 12 Apr 2023 9:18 AM
While the town of Gödöllő, with its baroque palace, is both well-known and much visited, the village of Zsámbok has no such claim to fame. Its uniqueness lies out of sight – in its soil.
“If you look at this village, there’s nothing special about it, it’s just like your average Hungarian settlement,” says Matthew Hayes. “But before I decided to buy land here, I tested the soil in lots of places over a large area, and the soil quality here was the best.”
Prior to his degree in Environmental Biology, Suffolk-bred Matthew Hayes worked as a horticultural instructor for unemployed adults on a farm training project connected with the Camphill movement – a community for people with special educational needs. It was there that he met his Hungarian wife-to-be, and from where they moved to settle in Hungary in 1995.
“I didn’t particularly want to stay in the UK,” says Matthew, “I was up for the adventure of moving to Hungary. I’d been working on some composting projects in England and there were quite a few students who came on exchange visits, including some from Gödöllő university. One of their teachers decided they had to have something like this at the university in Gödöllő. And we were just thinking about our move to Hungary, so I thought this is great, I can have a job.”
Thus it was that Matthew began working on a feasibility study at a compost research unit of Gödöllő university. “But Hungary wasn’t really ready for this, it was too early – there were no subsidies back in the mid-90s,” he says.
Matthew offers a potted history of farming practices in Hungary, from pre-communist peasant farming methods, through the collectivised and intensive farming of the communist years, to the present-day situation:
“About fifty percent of Hungary is good agricultural land,” he explains, “which is an exceptionally large proportion. Before 1989, a lot of chemicals including DDT were still being used, (DDT was banned some time before this, but residues remain), but whatever the quality of food produced, there was a bottomless market for it within the Soviet bloc.
“But after the changes in 1989, the whole system collapsed, their markets were gone. There was a period of about ten years when agriculture stalled, before EU subsidies became available, which was from about 2007.
“Much land went out of production at that time and there was a big drop in the quantity of herbicides and pesticides being used. Then farmers began adjusting to EU support, but now I would say that farming practice here is dire. It looks great, but it’s a disaster!
Environmentally, it’s a huge disaster. The humus in the soil has dropped from 5% to under 1%. That means that the soil has died. There’s no animal manure input, little green matter input, and not enough crop residue going back into the land.
“Although there’s a new initiative from the EU to give support payments for environmental services – that means increasing biodiversity and wildlife, tree-planting, hedging and so on – Hungary’s dragging its feet. Huge amounts of land have been bought up by oligarchs, essentially as investments, and as a new way of making large amounts of money. They not only get 70% of the available EU funding, they also use over-intensive farming practices.”
After Matthew arrived in Gödöllő, he started on his composting project. He found that there was an interest in organic growing as well, and as he already had some experience of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) back in England, he set up the Nyitott Kert Alapitvány with colleagues, which became Hungary’s first CSA project. “At that time, it was new and innovative, and we quickly had a customer base for our vegetables in Gödöllő and the surrounding area,” he says.
With the passing of years, the situation at the university changed, and Matthew felt the future of his project there was limited. “I was involved until 2015, but I had an ambition to have my own farm, and so with a friend we started looking around for land, and I hit on Zsámbok. The land is really good here, the soil is really good; and it’s got a history of growing vegetables for Budapest.”
Suddenly, we are alerted by the clattering hooves of two horses and a cart approaching Matthew’s gate. This is Pista who has arrived with a cart of manure, and his broad country dialect.
The ensuing half hour involves Matthew and Pista shovelling the pig and cattle manure into a concrete receptacle at the far end of the farm, accompanied by conversation that reminds one so forcibly of the chasm in Hungary that still separates the lives and attitudes of country people from the city dwellers.
Pista asks us how we could leave our home countries and live abroad, away from all that is familiar. He tells us that he has only ever spent one night away from his home – a New Year’s Eve spent at his daughter’s house a mere twenty kilometres away – but even this made him homesick.
He goes on to list the names of various nénik (old ladies) in the village who he would worry about were he to leave the area. For someone unfamiliar with country folk in this part of the world, such sentiments are reminiscent of a bygone age in a place untouched by the passing of time – not those of someone living a mere hour’s drive from a European capital city, in 2023.
We walk along the track alongside Pista’s cart, back to the gate, past the chickens and three sheep which Matthew also keeps, though he has no wish to increase the livestock on his farm. “We’re really a micro-farm,” he says, “one hectare for outside production, and then the polytunnels.
Under the tunnels of plastic, thousands of seedlings await warmer days before they will be planted in the outside area. “We’re thinking about extending the vegetable growing area but we’re probably going to have to mechanise a bit. We have stopped ploughing at Zsámboki Biokert to help regenerate soil life,” – but a good amount of the cultivation work is accomplished by the farm’s much-loved horse, Sári.
“We have a team of six full-time staff here, while the average 1,000-hectare farm has about three people doing the work!” Matthew laughs. “They have very simple production systems, they generally grow only four or five different crops and they specialise in just those, and mechanise those.
“We’re doing a lot of different things in a small area. We have successional cropping – that means we sow loads of different types of crop in small quantities every month, about 200-300 plants at a time, so that we can provide a large range of different vegetables all the year round. It means a lot of planning, it’s extremely complex and very labour intensive. It’s also difficult to make it pay - the problem is we love doing things this way!”
Matthew’s Zsámboki Biokert offers its fresh, organic vegetables at MOM Park’s organic market, and they also provide specialist boxes via their own webshop-based ordering system which can be collected from designated pick-up points in Budapest, as well as in Gödöllő.
“There are two groups who buy our vegetables,” Matthew explains. “There are the people who like the different range we can offer – particularly the mixtures of organic salad leaves – and often chefs will buy from us.
“And then there are the people who want real food, good nutritional, unpolluted vegetables, for the sake of the environment. Personally, I don’t think you can separate those two – and I can challenge anyone at all on the taste of non-organic vegetables against our produce.”
Matthew admits that a moderate amount of mechanisation – as opposed to exclusively manual labour – will become necessary to ensure the financial survival of the farm and its community. “The trouble is, I’m a romantic, an idealist,” he chuckles – but it is this, alongside a great deal of hard work, that has enabled Matthew Hayes to realise his dream of farming according to his principles in Zsámbok.
Zsámboki Biokert is on Facebook
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Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.