I arrived at Oprisavci, a small village just 20 kilometres from Slavonski Brod, at the same time as Dr. Šimo Beneš, president of the Brod Ecology Society (BED), a great supporter of nature and his local region. The reason for my visit was the story of Gajna, a pasture that is a symbol of the excellent cooperation among local livestock owners, who are conserving the biodiversity here through traditional breeding and grazing practices in this floodplain area. Expecting to spend the next few hours enjoying a pleasant and calm conversation with Dr. Beneš and the local residents who support Gajna, I was surprised at the panic awaiting me.
“We have to go right away!” said Dr. Beneš as soon as I got out of the car. “We have to get to Miška immediately, he's hurrying to save the cows. They have been stranded on Gajna,” he told me, describing the actions of yesterday, when the majority of the livestock owners succeeded in moving their cattle from Gajna. The snowmelt upstream led to rapid flooding of the pasture, making it unavailable to livestock for the next month. Despite the risks, the livestock owners that together form the Pasture Community of the Eco-Gajna veterans’ cooperative, they try to use the pasture until the very last minute, as the quality of products from cattle from the stable is immeasurable compared to those from the pasture.
Five minutes later, we were greeted by Mijo Jaredić at his estate in the neighbouring village of Poljanci. In the village, he is known by the nickname Miško. “I grew up on Gajna, and I've spent my entire life here. The entire village used to keep their livestock on Gajna, there were up to 150 head. Now we're the only ones left,” said Miško, while his wife Justina stood quietly by his side.
“You have to understand, I haven't slept all night out of worry for them,” added Justina. Beneš explained that this will continue for a few more days, until they see all their cattle safe on their land.
“When they're in the stables, it's like prison for the cows. And when they're on Gajna, they do everything: mow the grass, walk around, they have water and natural air-conditioning,” joked Miško, despite his visible concern.
Even though Gajna is a floodplain area, it was designed to ensure that the water levels are never too high. “The pasture was previously overgrown with false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), an invasive species. We restored it back to its function as pasture. The livestock on Gajna keep the floodplain area clean, which in exceptional situations like this one, expands its retention capacity,” explained Beneš. The BED society is always concerned about biodiversity, however, for the local population, it is most important that they can live off the land.
“The subsidies are not high enough for young people to come here and start from scratch. With these milk prices, no one will take up this business. Even the youngest among us, Ivica Kovačević, has been a livestock breeder and on Gajna because he loves it, because he grew up here, like I did. Since no one else in the village has cows anymore, I benefit from that – I sell my milk here in the village, and I don't need to leave at all,” said Miško, who has six cows at the house, and 30 in the pasture. “These six cows give excellent milk, because they too go out to pasture every morning, and in the evening, I bring them back to the stable and milk them.” His oldest cow is 14 years old, which is twice the average lifespan of a cow kept exclusively in the stable.
The 30 cows that are at pasture on Gajna do everything on their own, including birthing. There is more work with the cows in the stable. “We have three daughters, and they have all gone off to college. One is studying fruit growing, so she will probably come back. But the fact is that my wife and I have to do everything on our own, and she also works with the milk and makes cheese,” said Miško. But without any complaints – he loves his cows and he loves Gajna.
“Gajna is the only floodplain pasture organised this way. As a non-governmental organisation, it is our priority to keep people in this region. We invested the first money we received into building a hay barn, which can also be used as a stable. We have invested substantial funds to ensure that with 20 cows, the people can make a living. The cooperative will ultimately survive, though in the next few years, BED will likely withdraw from this story as breeders and just remain as support,” explained Beneš. He added that the cooperative was established in 2007, and they received the first subsidies in 2015, while certain members of the community were against them. “All those who did nothing all this time, while we were working on registering the pasture and lobbying for subsidies.”
“If it weren't for Dr. Beneš, BED and our joint initiative in the cooperative, no one would be living here anymore,” explained Miško
“If it weren't for Dr. Beneš, BED and our joint initiative in the cooperative, no one would be living here anymore,” explained Miško , before leaving us to tend to his cows, adding “This is the result of an incredible amount of persistence, despite the system!”
“Four or five years is enough for pasture land to become overgrown,” Beneš explained as we rowed our way through the waters covering Gajna. Gajna is important pasture land for a number of indigenous animal breeds: Slavonian- Podolian cattle, Posavina horse, Cigaja sheep, Black Slavonian pig and the Pannonian goose. On these 300 hectares, there are 12 species of mammals, 37 species of birds, 11 species of amphibians and reptiles, 24 species of fish, and 39 species of plants, all categorised as protected and strictly protected. A total of 17 family farms and their 150 head of cattle (cows or bulls over the age of 2 years) form the cooperative that cares for Gajna.
Dr. Beneš is disappointed that the model they created for the management of Gajna has not been replicated elsewhere in Croatia, though it could be. “It's a shame, because it's a good model, and the healthiest option for cattle,” he concluded, explaining everything around us. He points out a horse in the distance – a lone horse on a small island. And several other horses on the neighbouring island. Separated by the water for a time. “But don't worry, the horse is fine. It has lots of food, and everything is fine,” he said when he sees the concern on my face.
We stop the boat and walk over towards the cattle currently on the embankment, safe from the water. “These are all Podolian cattle. Aren't they beautiful?” asked Dr. Beneš.
“They really are special”, I responded as I took photographs.
“They have dark meat, so butchers don't dare to buy then, as they are convinced that no one will buy them,” he said, outlining another challenge they regularly face.
Before leaving the village, I want to meet Ivica Kovačević, the youngest cattle owner. We were greeted by his wife Marija. In her arms, she held 2-month old Adam, while 9-year old Marin was getting ready for school.
“Marin helps his dad with everything, there is nothing he doesn't do in the house! We also have three daughters: Ena, Magdalena and Kristina. One of them wants to be a veterinarian,” said Marija, convinced that Ena has chosen this profession thanks to her life around animals. Ivica and Marija, and their five children, care for this large estate on their own.
“At first I told Ivica: Don't! Why would you want to do that, those are wild animals! But today I stand by him, we do everything together. You fall in love with them, and tame them. Now I wouldn't dream of leaving this place,” said Marija as we toured the farm. The Podolian cattle on one side, and mixed cattle breeds on the other.
“If we put the Podolian cattle in the closed stables with the other cows, they would lose their quality. The Podolians have to be outside,” Beneš explained. Horses are kept in a separate stable. The Kovačević's have more than 40 head, though Marija can't say exactly how many.
“If all is well, we will never have to leave here! I'm sorry that there are not more families here like ours, farmers, with five children. We love to manage Gajna, we depend on it, and it depends on us and our cattle,” concluded Kovačević.