ISTVÁN CSORDÁS – Reed Thatcher

István Csordás’ family deals with the harvesting of reeds, distribution of reed products and thatching in the neighbourhood of Pakozd in Fejer County, Hungary. Although thanks to his parents’ profession, this was the world that he was brought up in, and as a a child whatever the season, his life revolved around Lake Velence; as a young man, he did not take up the career offered by his parents. He tried different occupations and was even member of the fire department, till he finally found his way back to the family trade. The Start-up Licence was just a few years old when the political changes happened in 1990 and this opened the gateway for a series of new possibilities for this profession as well so he started up a family business along with his wife, distributing assorted reed products to retailers and wholesalers. As well as selling at home, they also export materials and products to Western Europe, primarily to the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Germany and France. Besides harvesting reeds, assembling products and selling them, the business is equally involved in construction work: planning and building thatched roofs and coverings, and also managing their maintenance and refurbishment. They built a number of roofs in other European countries, such as Germany and Belgium as well as the Hungarian market.

Their most succcessful period lasted until the end of the 90’s, after which the economic and political circumstances within the region started to be less and less favourable, not to mention the high risk of continuously changing natural conditions and the growing negative effects of global warming, all making it more difficult to survive. The continuation of the business has never been in question though, nor could the fire which broke out in the warehouse and factory discourage them, mostly because of their love of the profession and the close-to- nature lifestyle associated with it. Continuity is also provided within the family through their daughter and son-in- law both of whom are already working in the family business.

Agricultural Reed Management

Reed is considered to be an ancient building material, whose use as a roof covering material or for other building purposes is widely known across the whole of Europe and other parts of the world as well. The available habitat for it, especially in Western Europe is gradually getting smaller and smaller, even though it can significantly improve the water quality of lakes and ditches, by contributing to the self-purification of the water, typically by acting as a filter for organic and other types of dross. With the elimination of the reed, the associated characteristic wild fauna also disappears with its song birds and other waterlife animals.

Although the reed spreads very quickly wherever it appears, primarily through vegetative propagation ie. through shoots from its roots and stalks, but it equally easily die out should it suffer two reapings in a year. The rootstock or rhizome serving as store for nutrients cannot generally bear this burden and repetitive sprouting can completely impoverish it. Wherever reed is cultivated, the harvest is usually timed for the winter months, always reaping the products of the current year, as only this has value for building and industrial purposes. When harvesting, it is also important to take care to minimise the potential damage to the remaining parts. Similarly, reaping when the water level is low can be also dangerous because a rise in the level of water later on can prevent the roots from breathing. This type of mistake can even affect or completely damage the next year’s growth.

The Reed Colonies of Lake Velencei

Considered to be the third largest lake of Hungary, Lake Velencei with its average depth of 1.5 metres it is an ideal habitat for reed. It is therefore not surprising that until the 1960’s, 60 percent of the water surface was covered by vegetation. Today this number is still high, at around 30-40 percent. There is evidence that this wetland has been cultivated for centuries, contributing to the architectural vernacular of the region and to the close ties of many reed cutter families to the lake and the ‘lacustrine’ world. These reed beds are his homeland, Istvan Csordas insists. His work is inextricably linked to the water world of this region, the actual conditions around the lake, changes in water-level and the effects that these inconsistencies have on the quality and quantity of reed that grows here between two harvests and can be used for construction or distribution.

Lake Velence is one of Hungary’s most visited holiday resorts, and it started to become established in an organised way in the 70’s. The proximity of the capital had an obvious role in this process. The gross built area of the holiday resort and residential area is continuously increasing, leaving less and less space for nature. On the other hand, the excavation of the bottom of the lake which took place during the redevelopment of the area along with the newly built reservoirs around the lake and the maintenance of water supplies is guaranteed to lengthen the lake’s lifetime. This is crucially important as we know that up until then, the lake completely dried out every 100 years on average and the last time this happened was in the mid 19th century. The reed beds themselves had a role in this process, contributing to the continuous decline of their own habitat as a result of their spread and the increased sediment produced.

As the example above shows, there are plenty of conflicting interests and points of view all at the same time, which are impossible to fulfil equally, and therefore only the best possible balance can be found. Best placed to answer these questions is the Hydrographic Office of Central Transdanubia, caretaker of the lake as a state property. The Office can exert power through the continuous supervision of broad water management plans and through the development and delivery of different long-term plans in connection with the lake. Within these plans, as well as many other issues, the sustainment of reed thatching and the continuation of the reed-thatchers profession as a cultural activity with its centuries-old traditions, should be considered high priority as they were once responsible for the characteristic architectural look of certain regions. István Csordás worries most – amongst many other things – about the increasingly frequent absence of the winter season. As he says, long-term freezing periods are getting fewer and fewer, which is disadvantageous for both the economic harvest which is carried out from the surface of ice and the reed as a building material.

From the Harvest to Reed Products

István Csordás and his team work by themselves, not only with the reed harvest but with thatching as well. This way, they are familiar with both the construction and the agricultural work, and this means they are also able to help with other activities in both fields. The harvest period lasts for 5 months, normally from November to March, depending on what the weather (temperature and rainfall) conditions allow. Since the total or even partial reaping of the reeds at Lake of Velence has become almost impossible, the area of the harvest has extended to fishponds and reed-beds in the surrounding area, sometimes even futher than 100 km from the store in Pákozd. By the end of the harvest period, cones made of sheaves are standing throughout Northern Transdanubia waiting to be transported to the store for future use.

Nowadays of course, the previously manual harvest has changed with the use of different types of machine. Mechanisation makes a more effective cutting and processing of the reed possible, but on the other hand, these machines cannot be used in certain tricky areas and so there, the harvesting and collection can be only carried out in the traditional manner. Before the harvested reed is ready for storing, the important step of expertly classifying the reed spears by their quality and diameter. This phase is almost exclusively done by an external team nowadays. This often takes place at Balmazújváros situated next to the grassland of Hortobágy where Roma workers come from to carry out the sorting which requires great physical strength and professional expertise as well.

The highest quality of reed is exported primarily to Western Europe, where the best price is paid for them. The next level is used for thatching, and the other categories are used for reed plates and fences. The classification procedure is often also called reed-pulling because the finer blades are chosen and pulled out from the sheaves one after the other. Having finished with picking these out, the leftover material is cleaned up to remove dirt and foreign bodies and forms the 4th class of reed which is used separately from the others. Reed panels are environmentally friendly building materials with excellent physical qualities. They are prepared by pressing the spears between parallel lines of pairs of wires. Their most important quality is a good thermal insulation capacity and a low weight. They can be used for the insulating attic spaces and fixed to the walls and rendered. The panels are made 5 centimetres deep, usually 1 x 2 metres in size. In conjunction with 2 centimetres of plaster they are considered to be a ‘hardly flammable material’. The densely woven reed texture contains 120-160 spears in a metre. The rolls are 6 metres long and they are 100-200 centimetres wide. They are used as panels against sun, wind and for privacy.

The Technique of Thatching with Reed

There is a big difference in thatching when compared to other roof covering techniques in that its depth of 30 centimetres is enough to provide all the requirements of a roof covering: it provides thermal insulation at the same time as water protection and due to the pitch of the roof – the transportation of rain away from the building. It also stands up well against forces arising from wind or snow. From real-life experience we know that only the top one third works effectively against the forces of nature, while the rest only functions as a reserve. In the case of thermal insulation, the full depth is naturally relevant in both summer heat and winter freezes. The owner has ensure the regular refurbishment of the roof, which mainly requires the partial exchange of the upper 10 centimetres. The roof is more resistant if the work is carried out expertly: by making sure that the sheaves are properly distributed and fixed and afterwards that the compression and repeated compression are done in a professional way.

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