Orchards at the nursery and fruit-growing operation Plantex are protected from hail. In the distance is a nuclear power plant.
The entrepreneurial spirit was stamped out in Slovakia during 40 years of Communist rule. But, today, the central European country is enjoying an unprecedented economic boom.
Its tree fruit industry is small, but expanding as a supplier to Russia and western Europe.
Joseph Vazár established his first orchard 15 years ago near Dunajská LuΩná, near Bratislava, not long after the country lost its Communist fetters and adopted a democratic system of government.
Before World War II, Vazár’s grandparents had a 20-hectare (50-acre) farm in Slovakia, which was then part of Czechoslovakia. When the Communists took control of the country in the late 1940s, they took all the family’s property.
"The big farmer was an enemy of the state and was put into jail or work camp," Vazár explained.
The Communists formed collectives to farm the land, and nothing was privately owned. The entrepreneurial spirit almost died during that time, he said, but people retained their connection to the soil. After the end of Communism in 1989, his parents got back their land.
After university, Vazár worked as an intern with farm operations in Germany and Belgium, where he did low-paying jobs such as pruning trees. It was in Belgium that he met a fruit producer and exporter who became his partner and helped finance the planting of the orchard in Slovakia in 1994. Today, his fruit-growing operation, called Danubius Fruct, has 100 hectares (240 acres) of orchard, of which 70 percent are apples, more than 20 percent sweet cherries, and 8 percent pears.
As the orchards began to produce more fruit than could be consumed locally, Vazár formed a trading company called Boni Fructi, which packs and sells fruit for Danubius Fruct and the five other members of a farmer cooperative called Bonum. His Belgian partner, a major exporter to Russia, provides the marketing know-how. Most of the production is sold in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, though the best quality fruit is exported to Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Belgium.
Since Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004, the company has been eligible for European funding to help establish orchards. Vazár estimates that about 30 percent of the establishment costs are subsidized.
The company grows Golden Delicious, Gala, Braeburn, Jonagold, Fuji, and Granny Smith apples, along with Kordia (Attika), Regina, Van, Karina Schneiders, Summit, and Lapins cherries. Dunajská Luzná is in an early maturing region, and its Kordia cherries fetch high prices in European markets at the start of the season in June. Regina is a less successful variety in the region because of its late maturity. Ninety percent of the cherries are exported to other European countries. Russia has been a big importer of apples in the past, but is going through an economic crisis because of the low price of oil, Vazár said.
The climate in Slovakia is good for apple production, he said, though he estimates that the entire Slovak Republic has only about 1,000 hectares (2,400 acres) of good quality apples and 50 hectares (120 acres) of cherries so far. The country produces pears, but many pear orchards have been removed because of fireblight. The Bratislava area receives about 15 to 20 inches of rain annually, so the orchards need to be irrigated.
Labor costs in Slovakia are comparatively low at 5 euros per hour for full-time orchard and packing house employees, 7 euros for supervisors, and 3.5 to 4 euros for temporary workers. (One euro is equivalent to about 1.3 U.S. dollars). Danubius hires temporary workers from the Ukraine and Serbia, but Vazár said the Slovak government is trying to protect the employment of the Slovaks and is making it more difficult to hire foreigners.
Cheap labor and proximity to eastern Europe are among the reasons for Slovakia’s economic boom, as technology companies and others move into the region. Ironically, however, the high demand for construction workers has created a scarcity of labor, pushing wages higher. Five years ago, labor costs were about half the level of today, Vazár said. "We have bigger and bigger problems with labor because the Bratislava economy is booming so."
In the village of Vesele, north of Bratislava, Eva Sedlakova and Lubomir Lovrant run a limited company called Plantex, which grows more than a million nursery trees each year and has 100 hectares (250 acres) of orchard.
Sedlakova tells a similar story to Vazár’s. Before the second World War, her grandparents had a large farm. The Communists stole their land, machinery, and animals, and persecuted people over a long period of time. "It was considered bad to own something," she explained.
Political changes in eastern Europe eventually led to democratic systems of government, she said, but there was no continuity in the family farms. "This period of 40 years is not easy to forget," she said.
Her family was unable to retrieve their property.
For ten years, Sedlakova worked at a state-owned research station that had a plant-breeding program focusing on developing late-blooming stone fruit varieties that were suited to the Slovakia climate and resistant to plum pox virus.
Sedlakova said she and her partner were interested in privatizing the breeding program after the end of Communism, but, for political reasons, someone else was selected to take it over. So, in 1996, they established a small nursery instead.
"We had some knowledge, some know-how, some skills, and we tried to give jobs to people who know how to do grafting and budding," she recalled. "We also had contact with researchers and breeders in Europe."
Plantex, is now one of the most modern nurseries in Central Europe, producing a wide variety of apple, cherry, and stone fruit varieties. Most of the apple trees they supply to commercial growers are two-year-old knips. Slovakia, with a population of 5 million, is too small a market, so 80 percent of the production is exported to other European countries.
The company also supplies fruit trees and ornamental plants for hobbyist gardeners. During Communist times, many people had gardens where they grew their own fruits and vegetables. Today, they are less inclined to do that, Sedlakova said. They might have less time to work in their own gardens, and they can buy produce at the supermarkets.
This year, Plantex will harvest 4,500 tons of apples from its own orchard. The company is a member of the Bonum cooperative. Recent Fuji plantings are on Malling 9 rootstocks with trees 1 meter (3.3 feet) apart and 11.5 feet between rows. Golden Delicious trees are planted 0.8 meters (2.6 feet) apart.
In recent years, the company has begun to cover the orchards with hail netting, and it has a hail cannon in the nursery and another in the orchard. About 26 hectares (64 acres) are now under hail nets.
"We try to improve every year our orchard," Sedlakova said.