Word of mouth and internet advertising: Pastoralists in Romania dealing with the COVID-19 crisis

Written by Cosmin Marius Ivascu, a biologist working with Romanian pastoralists

The current COVID-19 pandemic in the EU has been a time of multiple challenges for the Romanian farmers and especially for the many small pastoralists spread all over the country, from the plains to the high mountains. People have been forced to adapt to an unprecedented situation, which not only limited their freedom of movement but also that of the rest of society. This situation has also led people to search for new ways to cope with the economic problems brought by the state of emergency declared by the authorities. The major problems and concerns of pastoralists in Romania have been regarding the newly arisen difficulties in selling their products. The limitation of movement brought by the quarantine has meant that fewer customers have come to buy products directly from the producers. Pastoralists have organised accordingly.

The main concern of pastoralists: Selling lambs for Easter

In Romania, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Easter were celebrated this year under strict conditions, to avoid further increases in the numbers of contagion. There were strong limitations from the Romanian Government, some of which included the avoidance of family visits to the countryside and the gathering of large numbers of people for Easter celebrations. Traditionally, this would be the time when families and relatives visit each other and celebrate Easter through giving gifts and having dinner together. Each year before both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Easter, large animal markets are held in the vicinities of cities and villages across the country, where customers can buy the lambs directly from the farmers. According to the preferences of the customer, the animal could be brought home alive or it could be slaughtered in specially arranged places in the marketplace.

ANSVSA (Autoritatea Națională Sanitară Veterinară și pentru Siguranța Alimentelor, En. Food Safety and National Sanitary Veterinary Autority) is in charge of the control of animal markets and animal welfare in Romania. This institution is also responsible for the ways that animals are slaughtered, which must be done according to  EU regulations. However, because pastoralists were exposed to considerable economic losses due to COVID-19, many associations of sheep and cattle breeders have asked for an exception this year. This allowed pastoralists to slaughter the animals directly at their farms, in case they were not able to access and use slaughterhouses or specific places arranged by local institutions. At the same time, customers could go directly to farms and purchase the animals, either living or slaughtered and packed.  One of the most active associations that lobbied for this change in regulations was the Association of Professional Shepherds (Asociația Prefosesională a Ciobanilor), which has over 3,000 members.

While most measures taken by national authorities were similar to the COVID-19 related lock-down seen elsewhere in Europe, the Romanian police released an official statement acknowledging that it was permitted to go directly to farmers to buy lambs or other products, although with a declaration indicating the reason and the route. Furthermore, the authorities encouraged the home delivery of products by the farmers, though only when carrying the necessary documentation, including ID cards and tax receipts. These measures supported the pastoral sector, as the high fines associated with illegal movement had discouraged most consumers from approaching pastoralists directly for purchasing their products.

These new regulatory arrangements have been met with criticism by some animal rights NGOs, which considered the slaughtering of lambs directly at the farms as cruel and illegal, leading to a complaint against the European Commission. However, this was just a fringe movement, since concerns over the economic problems of farmers, pastoralists and the food security of society prevailed among the general public and policy makers. Many parts of Romanian civil society have been instrumental in supporting pastoralists and farmers. For example, the association Tradiția Moldovei has put on the internet a list with the phone numbers and the locations of local pastoralists, encouraging people to go directly to them to buy the products and to avoid middlemen (see the video).

Low prices and remaining lambs: Serious economic burdens

Another concern for pastoralists was the market price for lamb meat during the pandemic. This situation varied across the country. In Moldova, in the eastern part of the country, the expected price was around 15 lei (around 3.1 EUR) for a kg of a live lamb but this decreased to 8-9 lei (around 1.5-2 EUR). This was not, however, the case in all regions of Romania. On the contrary, the average price for a live lamb was above 16 lei (3.2 EUR) in some parts; a price that was double that of the 2019 Easter price. Many pastoralists also offered clients the possibility of booking the lamb in advance, thus benefiting from substantial discounts from the producers.

Despite all these measures to counteract negative effects of the pandemic, some pastoralists have recorded a significant decrease in sales. Romanian pastoralists hoped that the remaining lambs will be eventually exported, including to Arab countries. During the pandemic though exports within and outside the EU were halted, generating new concerns. Figures in fact attest that the internal market of Romania is consuming above two million lambs per year, whilst exports to the EU and other countries is around four million lambs per year.

The remaining lambs generate new economic hardships for pastoralists, especially small scale ones, as larger flocks often involve higher costs, including for ensuring the necessary fodder or for paying some more personnel. Even before the quarantine, shepherds in the Eastern part of the country (Moldova and Dobrogea regions) had faced serious problems because of a prolonged drought. Many shepherds considered slaughtering some of their animals because the pastures had dried out and animals could barely find any grass. Coupled with the decrease in cheese and meat sales, this had some negative impact for the shepherds.

For example, a shepherd from Siminoc village in Constanța county (Dobrogea region) has asked his two sons to return home from England and help him with demand for lamb meat for Easter. They were slaughtering 7-8 lambs per day and selling them directly at their farm to the people who came from nearby and even the city of Constanța. They also considered slaughtering more animals due to the drought, taking into account that the subsidy per animal given to them by government could barely cover some of the costs for fodder.

Enhancing resilience

More broadly, pastoralists showed great capacities to quickly adapt to the crisis generated by the pandemic. The Easter holiday provided the opportunity for many to engage in home delivery for their products; so not just lamb meat but also milk or cheese. Several also created Internet pages, especially via Facebook, to advertise their products. Even Romanian popular Internet advertising sites, like olx.ro, were full of ads related to lamb meat and home delivery. Some courier companies even introduced refrigerator cars for the home delivery of fresh lamb meat.

For some small-scale pastoralists, like the Bojin family from Forotic village (Caraș-Severin County), who have a family history in breeding one of the purest flocks of Racka sheep from Romania, the challenges generated by the COVID-19 crisis have not been felt as hard as in other regions. According to Elena Bojin (60 years old), they managed to adapt to the restrictions of the quarantine and have created a business Facebook page where they advertise their products. However, it is their opinion that the internet advertising would have not been effective without the information passed by word of mouth. They relied heavily on the recommendations of their clients who were satisfied with their products and thus recommend them to other people. Many times, they cannot even satisfy the demand for milk products from their close clients and have to resort to buying milk from other villagers. The quality of their products is the main reason why the word of mouth system is working and helping them so much with their business. During the pandemic, they have delivered around 5-6 lambs per day to clients from the city but also to other people, as well as milk products. Ion Bojin even jokes that it is easier than previous years, as they have sold all their lambs and there was a high demand for their milk products. Ion Bojin considers that one of the reasons for this was the general concern of people for food supplies during those uncertain times. Even the police were flexible with animal breeders because of the hard work they have to do and the fact they could not respect the requirement to remain indoors between specified hours.

In Southern Transylvania, a region famous for transhumance, pastoralists have not been affected by the COVID-19 crisis – according to the president of the Association of Animal Breeders in Șugag. On the contrary, this year businesses have been better off than in past years, due to a high demand for local natural products. In this region, small-scale pastoralists have benefited most from the situation. Large sheep and cattle famers are not as common in this area and they were not as successful as the small ones, but they also did not record significant losses. 

The COVID-19 crisis has had multiple impacts on Romanian society, with uncertain outcomes for the future. A potential implication might be the reconsideration of the importance of pastoralists for food security at a local, regional and even national level. The resilience of pastoralists is of great importance in a very uncertain future, with healthy products provided locally by small-scale producers for the rest of the society.

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