Small farms tackle big problems in Bulgaria and Romania
“Balkan countries share common food traditions and similar socio-economic conditions. Therefore, common and timely transnational efforts are needed to safeguard their rural heritage”, said Dessislava Dimitrova, Event Coordinator.
Shepherds tending flocks in mountain meadows and picturesque orchards full of organic fruit are still a common sight in the Balkans. But sustainable farming, which has depended on low-input farming practices, may not exist for much longer as changing rural economies are putting pressure on traditional practices.
High nature value farming
Yulia Grigorova, Nature and Prosperity Coordinator at the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, who is looking after the WWF tent at the event, explains that many farmers in Bulgaria and Romania are much more than food producers.
“Through their work, small-scale farmers also produce and care for rich landscapes and nature which provide valuable benefits to people, including water management, erosion control, carbon sequestration, not to mention biological diversity.”
Typical for the Balkans, high nature value farming is a low-intensity farming system which has a lower impact on the environment compared to more resource-intensive forms of production. High nature value farming plays a key role in maintaining biodiversity and represents the backbone of rural societies in many remote regions. Although a European policy priority, many high nature value farming systems are under increasing threat, either from intensification of farming practices or from the abandonment of farming altogether.
“Nearly 30% of grasslands in Bulgaria are high nature value farmland”, Grigorova says. “At WWF we are working hard to make high nature value farming a familiar and comfortable concept, so that farmers in rural areas, the government and society at large can unite around this concept to promote truly sustainable development”.
Her efforts focus on policy work, as well as on practical implementation through working with farmers and other local stakeholders to find ways to develop local economies that preserve nature while providing a fair income for farmers.
Among the people she has helped over the years are Sabina and Boyan. Their buffalo farm in Tsar Kaloyan, northern Bulgaria, has close to 60 buffalos. The couple cannot afford to buy their own land and this poses a problem. Currently their buffaloes graze on 300,000 ha of municipal land along with 2,000 other animals.
“This leads to overgrazing and this is a huge problem for us, because we need to ensure the good ecological status of our land in order to get crucial EU aid”, Boyan says.
“In the past people knew how to take care of the land because they got everything from it. This has changed and today most people are just looking to make money fast.”
Joining the EU
To become part of the EU, Bulgaria and Romania had to integrate into the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). But this policy tends to support intensive, large-scale farming - exactly the opposite of what was practised in many candidate countries.
“We want a reform to ensure the environment is placed at the heart of the policy”, Grigorova says. “A key principle should be to reward farmers and other land managers for the provision of “ecosystem services”, such as farmland biodiversity, conservation of genetic resources, watershed functionality, attractive agricultural landscapes, carbon storage, resilience to wildfire and other natural hazards.”
“The fact that in May we launched a four-year project which will teach us how to reward land managers who ensure that we continue to get benefits from their land, is very encouraging”, says Maya Todorova, Project Manager of the Payments for Ecosystem Services project in Bulgaria and Romania, who is attending the Terra Madre Balkans fair in Sofia. “This project is a landmark project in many ways and will be used to show communities around the world how to evaluate ecosystem services and reward land managers”.
A 2009 survey conducted by Eurobarometer at the request of the European Commission, showed that an overwhelming majority of respondents (85%) are supportive of the new objectives for agriculture and rural development, which include preservation of the countryside (93%) and linking the financial support farmers get with the compliance to certain rules regarding environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare (87%).
In search of new markets
According to the same survey, the main priority for CAP should be ensuring agricultural products that are of good quality, healthy and safe (59%).
Judging by the products on offer at Terra Madre Balkans, small-scale farmers are producing exceptionally delicious and healthy food, for example artisan cheeses, organic meat and honey.
“The quality of the milk is superior when the sheep graze freely”, says Nikolay whose family looks after 50 sheep in the village of Pisanets in the heart of Rusensky Lom Nature Park in northern Bulgaria.
In 2008, the milk collection point in his village closed down. The reason given by the dairy was that it was easier to work with imported powder milk than to operate collection points and process the raw milk.
Compliance with European legislation poses a big problem for small producers in both Bulgaria and Romania. Requirements are very harsh and often discourage small farmers.
“Agriculture has become significantly less profitable and in many cases farmers have chosen to abandon their business”, says Raluca Dan from the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme in Romania. “The consequences are tragic. Landscapes which are rich in biodiversity and culture, and have a long history of sustaining local communities, are being lost to scrub or to new land uses.”
In Maramures in northern Romania - the biggest protected landscape area in the country after the Danube Delta, WWF is in the process of establishing working examples of economic mechanisms for nature conservation and rural development.
“One of our tasks in Maramures is to establish a market for local food products specific to high nature value farming”, Raluca Dan says. “At present we are developing a delivery scheme for high nature value products to the kindergartens in the region’s capital Baia Mare”.
But things are not so straightforward in Bulgaria. The current legislation does not allow small-scale farmers direct access to markets and consumers. A new regulation, expected to be passed this autumn, will allow farmers to sell directly to consumers. This legislation will ensure a shorter chain that cuts out the middle man.
“I believe that until we have direct access to markets, we are of no significance”, says Nikolay. “Once we can sell directly, people will begin to recognize our products. By choosing good, clean food, consumers will stimulate small producers to preserve and even increase the quality of products.”
Yulia Grigorova, Nature and Prosperity Coordinator, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, firstname.lastname@example.org, +359 885 086 670
About Slow Food
Slow Food was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. Terra Madre is the world meeting of food communities launched by Slow Food in 2004. Today both Slow Food and the Terra Madre network are well rooted in the Balkan region and form a vast group of actors counting more than 500 Slow Food members, 9 Slow Food Presidia, 47 Terra Madre food communities, 8 food and taste education programmes in schools, and 20 chefs.