Țopa Ecological Farm, or human knowledge through ecological agriculture
For the past 16 years, in the village Țopa, which belongs to the Albești commune, right next to Sighișoara, there has been a farm based on the principles of ecological farming and short food chains. Țopa Ecological Farm is an initiative maintained by Dan and Tincuța Cismaș and their son, Dragoș.
It's quite easy to get to Țopa with public transport from Sighișoara – once you arrive, from the main street you walk on a muddy alley towards the farm. It's impossible to miss the place, as it is singled out by colour and design in the village landscape, without being in aesthetic conflict with it, but on the contrary, completing it with its vitality. From the street, you notice a metallic container painted in bright colours, which I would later find out is a drying chamber for medicinal plants teas. After you pass it, the gate opens towards the farm's main, U-shaped building; in front of it, a cross whose significance will be revealed later, together with the story of the farm. The gate and fence are also painted in bright colours, marking a crossing towards the farm space, but also its symbols and values.
Dan Cismaș was still at the mill when we arrived, grinding wheat for the white flour, and didn't get to eat yet. We had lunch together and dived into the history of the farm. It begins around 2004 and is strongly tied to a personal spiritual experience he lived through. This experience meant for him a personal search, a search of the self, and the answers he received led to the idea of dedicating himself to ecological agriculture: "there was no other decision but this, to look for the connection between earth and sky through my hands, by working the land." It's for this reason Dan thinks ecological farming is not a purpose in itself, but a method of knowing oneself, human condition and the purpose on earth. His sons' passion for raising animals encouraged his endeavour, as they managed, from their childhood, to breed and raise a herd of 50 goats, starting with two or three kids they had received as a gift.
Driven by these prompts, Dan first applied his idea in 2005, when he found out about a foundation's project to teach children from the neighbouring village, Boiu, the principles of ecological farming. This included sponsoring the planting of jam roses on a plot of land that belonged to the school. The project grew towards financing a farm where the village children would be educated in ecological agriculture. Dan was directly involved in developing the project and constructing the farm in the Țopa village. In 2009 he became its administrator, even though the farm is still owned by the foundation: "property was not a goal, it was no big deal to me to own something – I wanted to do something, where and how didn't matter much", Dan says.
The farm was initiated with a purpose that it still keeps: using the connection with the school and the local community, "to offer the children in Boiu, Țopa, a chance to see something different from conventional agriculture based on chemical fertilizers". Dan mentions that nowadays they have partnerships with the schools from Boiu and Albești, hoping to extend them to Sighișoara schools, to offer students and young people the possibility of direct contact with nature and food production.
Starting with 2009-2010, Dan and Tincuța implemented many public funding projects. One of the first projects, helping young farmers set up, granted them money for equipment. Another important project for the development of the farm was accessing funds dedicated to short food chains, which enabled them to buy a refrigerator car and a trailer – they use them to distribute the products to consumers in Sighișoara, parking the trailer on a spot assigned by the city hall in an apartment neighbourhood. Selling straight from the trailer allowed them to carry their activity without interruption even during the tightest movement restrictions during the pandemic. For Dan it's important that he doesn't distribute his products in the same place as the market sellers: "I don't like going to the same place with the others – a lot of people buy from here and sell in the Sighișoara market". He affirms that ecological agriculture also has the value of an alternative lifestyle, of a world parallel to the conventional one. As he needs to find and construct an alternative system for food production and distribution, his mind is "put to work in an unconventional way" and offers him more freedom.
The farm comprises a main building, where the products are processed and packed, a stable sheltering 30 cows, as well as pigs and hens, two solariums, one used as a seedbed. In the small sized garden, there are two tractors, a trailer, the container for drying medicinal plants, one container for milk processing, various machines and attachments for the tractor, a corn pile and hay for the animals. The farm also comprises 40 hectares of land, most of it grasslands, almost 15 ha of arable land cultivated with lucerne, wheat and corn, and one hectare is dedicated to vegetable cultures.
The farm produces vegetables, raw milk, eggs, white and integral wheat flour, medicinal teas, as well as processed foods: zakuska, pickles, preserved legumes, syrups, jams and comfiture, cheese. The products are packed and labelled manually at the farm and they're all made in an organic farming system, being certified as such. The farmland is worked exclusively using ecological practices, without using herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. To ensure nourishment to the crops, they use stable waste, as well as nettle and lucerne maceration – they stimulate the plant growth and its resistance to pests. He explains the principle:
basically, the idea is: you need to facilitate the processes which happen in the soil and in your garden; you don't need to
brutally intervene with crop dusting, to control – you need to facilitate the process and let nature do her work. So, and this is
what I like, and it's not valid only in the garden, but everywhere: you facilitate, you make it possible so that interactions exist, so things happen naturally. The principles of ecological farming, as explained by Dan, require that people control the crops as little as possible using treatments and interventions. These human interventions in the natural plant growth process lead to an even bigger need for control and eventually, to the loss of control over nature. So, to keep away from chemical fertilizers and ingredients like nitrogen, they use crop rotation; this means an initial lucerne crop, which is a very good at fixating nitrogen from air and enriching the soil for next crops. It's for this reason Dan avoids using hybrid strains of seeds on the market, because they dictate using chemical treatments for growth. The seeds they use are exclusively seeds from their own previous crops, or which they've obtained from other producers – people they've met through the network formed by EcoRuralis, an association of peasants and farmers which practice ecological farming, counting over 12000 members; Dan has been a member since its formation.
The activities on the farm are attributed based on the roles in the family. Dan is in charge of transports to and from the mill, or to clients in other places; Dragoș is in charge of agricultural works; Tincuța is in charge of distribution.
The farm products are distributed twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, using a trailer they park on common ground, in an intersection from the Bărăgan neighbourhood. The place is in front of the sports hall which, during this stage of the pandemic, functions as a vaccination center. Dan highlights that people stop by and buy products from them after getting vaccinated. The distribution area represents a community spot of the neighbourhood, hosting many public and commercial spaces. In the vicinity of the sports hall there is a bazaar, an outdoor market, a supermarket, a restaurant, but also a church, garages and community gardens.
After the visit to the farm, I witnessed the distribution. The area was animated by the people shopping and entering the vaccination centre. Even before the farm trailer arrived, around ten people were waiting for it, as they knew where it would park, and warned other drivers not to park in its spot. During the first minutes of opening the trailer, close to 20 people had bought farm products, especially milk, the first product to sell out, and then the eggs.
Tincuța was the seller – most clients knew her already, and some of them had brought her plastic bottles in exchange for milk, or jugs. Despite the short interactions, the atmosphere was intimate and many of the clients knew each other as well. This conviviality is not arbitrary at all, because the distribution is substantiated on the principles of short food chains, which imply a direct encounter between the producers and consumers, as well as an exchange of feedback between them. Dan and Tincuța appreciate opinions coming straight from the clients, and the latter choose to buy from Țopa Ecological Farm due to the trust they have in the people who cultivate and process the food they buy. "I come to them because they are honest people, from the village, not the city", says a client. The trust in the origin of the products and the ones which produce and sell it is kept also because the label of the products features Tincuța and her name, the actual person people buy from, representing a warranty of genuine origin.
The agriculture practiced on Țopa Ecological Farm is proven to have a strong personal and intimate component, starting from the impulses which determined its existence, up until the final consumer, which mindfully chooses to buy from certain producers – the choice is based on a personal relationship, and not conventional commerce.
Dan Cismaș provides a definition to ecological farming:
The definition of ecological farming is: a science which studies the interaction between living organisms and their living environment. (...) It is basically a science which studies interactions, and here we reach the starting point: we study
ourselves in our interactions and we define ourselves as people, as a species, in all these interactions that we have – we practically somehow build our identity. And the result is not very conclusive, but it is rather an evolution, a permanent movement, something which will never end. We won't get somewhere and tell ourselves, that's it, we've learned ecology or ecological business or reached a final result, we're done. It's a permanent movement of interaction and evolution in the world we are living in.
In conclusion, for Dan Cismaș, ecological agriculture is a model to follow and apply in life, a metaphor for the way interactions need to be nourished in the soil and in society; a model for the construction of identity, and of knowing the world and the human condition.
Research and text by Alexandru Vârtej
Translation by Dana Andrei
The research is part of Regenerative-Reliable-Resourceful, the mapping of resilient practices in the Romanian countryside that tranzit.ro develops in the frame of C4R and of the Experimental Station for Research.