Report by Rositsa Djambazova, our Bulgarian Newbie partner
The #newbieproject field visits of Slovenian innovative farms was one of the most wanted events of #newbieconference2020. The organization by the Department of Geography, University of Ljubljana was excellent. They prepared two itineraries for excursions. I was lucky to visit the South East of Slovenia, the Dolenjska region. Meanwhile enjoying the tidy villages and well cultivated fields alongside the road, Barbara Lampič explained us the Slovenian agriculture challenges. It was easy to notice the extreme land fragmentation, similar to Bulgarian case. The real risk of losing good arable land is selling it to investors for non-agricultural activities, such as large chain stores or logistics warehouses. The priority of Slovenian agricultural policy is the maintenance of landscape and dignity life in rural areas and the results are obvious, we could notice it even in a short visit.
The first farm Ostanek grows vegetables (link: https://kmetijaostanek.si/). Damjana is a young female successor, inherits land from her parents, and in 2015 she has begun with renovation of a 6 ha farm by growing various vegetables, many of them in greenhouses – lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, potatoes, peppers, etc. Her father used to grow peppers, Damjana followed him from the age of 6, and now she skillfully manages the farm, expanding it step by step, diversifying and adding value through vegetable processing. The greenhouses were built gradually, now they have 10. Whole family works on the farm: her parents, husband and two more seasonal employees. The irrigation is automatic, but there is still a lot of manual labor, often 10 hours a day.
They sell fresh early vegetables at local markets and local schools. According to Slovenian legislation, at least 20% of the food supplies to the schools should be bought from local farms. For early potatoes in February Damjana can have 2-3 € / kg, while the late potatoes are 0.30 € / kg. They have rented to cultivate additional 2 ha of land, but the subsidies go to the owners, not to the farm. The farm has received EU funding for 4 greenhouses and its own water source, but much more the family has invested their own savings. Summer temperatures reach 40 ° C and it is vital to irrigate daily. To add value and make the farm resilient Damjana has invested € 3000 in a processing building and equipment second hand, which is clean shining and well maintained. Damjana processes 70% of its vegetable production, around 40 tons per year, and 30% are sales of fresh vegetables. She does handmade ajvar, pickles, sauerkraut, pickled peppers, various pickle salads, tomato juice. We tasted some of the processed products, they are superb. Damjana plans to invest more in the next 5 years. She wants the vegetable washing and cutting to be automatized to reduce processing costs and her time. The recipes will yet be local, and the products will remain handmade / hand-cooked or marinated. There is a shelf for handmade local foods in the local store chain, but the prices of industrially produced “hand-made” are higher than those of farmers as Damjana. She considers exporting, but once she has more capacity. More profit could be made by growing eggplants and asparagus which are in future plans. We asked for a family photo. The family talks about their farm as a small one, however, it is a large-scale for Slovenia.
Next is the fruit farm Uhan (link: http://sadjarskakmetijauhan.com/) with a 11 ha of orchards with 20 varieties of apples, growing plums, peaches, cherries, pears, strawberries as well. The landscape is so beautiful and relaxing. Laying hens roam freely between the trees, and there are beehives almost on the hill, colorfully painted with biblical and life scenes with a sense of humor. Perhaps the bees need art, not only a lot of flowering fruit trees. Painting hives is a Slovenian tradition. The farm is a family run by the parents and now taken over by the son. They have started with 6 ha land but manage to buy more land and enlarge it to 11 ha. They sales 70% of fresh fruits and 30% are processed into juices, dried fruits, and jams. They also sell some quantity of honey and eggs and have a small shop for seeds and fertilizes. The model is mainly direct sales to schools and kindergartens, and to the local market. Of course, there are cheaper imports in large store chains, but the Slovenian policy is to encourage local agricultural production. The family is also trying to preserve some typical Slovenian varieties despite they are not as productive as the modern sorts. The farm is affected by climate changes, such as late spring frosts or droughts and hail in the summer which damaged seriously harvests for several years. They apply different technologies, for example drip irrigation and dispersion of moisture, plant different sorts of fruits which bloom later, install protective nets against hail. Customers constantly increase their expectations of the fruit and the farm is struggling to respond. They not only process their own production into juices, but do it for other farms as well. The processing plant is in a renovated former barn. The father is constantly repairing, maintaining and adjusting the equipment so that it can be used for the longest time, and his son is always drawing him to the new and more technological one. They have excellent partnerships with local vocational schools for internship and practice, and the farm is a demonstrative one because of the good equipment and technology they apply. Usually fruits without a good commercial appearance are cut and dried, yet their taste is great. Packaged dried local fruits are massively marketed and used in Slovenia, which is an excellent substitute for various chips and snacks. It is good both for health and the local agriculture. We tasted something like a cake with many different dried fruits and it is delicious. The farm does not insure against natural disasters, a costly and difficult endeavor, also meaningless, because of the small amount of compensation. However, they work very close with a competent local advisor who also was in the farm and answered many questions.
I am glad there was an opportunity to visit the shop of the social enterprise Dobrote Dolenjske (link: https://dobrote-dolenjske.si/). Very impressive business approach – they sell high quality local products under a regional brand, starting in 2014. They were an association 10 years ago, but now work and think as a genuine business. They have a strong certification process with high quality standards; have developed 50+ internal rules and regulations for different products. To select a local food product, in addition to the high quality and impressive packaging, it must consist a minimum of 70% local ingredients. They use qualified external experts. So far, 73 local manufacturers of handmade food and cosmetics have been involved, yet the process is ongoing. There is a great variety of local wines, liqueurs, honey, with various useful supplements, teas, juices, local pumpkin seed oil, jams with various local herbs, local Nutella with various delicious herbs as well as handicrafts. The products are special and the prices are quite high because they sell stories. Their customers are tourists, and for them there are small packages to fit in hand luggage, companies for corporate gifts on certain occasions, and for connoisseurs. In addition to shops, including in Ljubljana, they also sell on-line. The enterprise employs 11 people with different responsibilities, such as the very important marketing and sales. They also have their own kitchen, where they taste different recipes. They also hire people from vulnerable groups – with disabilities and minorities, such as Roma. They organize culinary tours and tell stories of products, of region, of people. And they tell them very well, so you can remember long the aromatic local grape yurka and the cviček – the region’s low alcohol typical wine, and why their honey is the best of the best.
A very interesting visit to so famous in the region vocational school, Center for biotechnics and tourism (link: https://www.grm-nm.si/) to see applied in practice the concept “from field to fork”. It is impressive – brings together and interacting with agriculture, food processing and tourism. The Principle proudly shows us his base and tells us about the practical education and training of about 1000 students who have solid knowledge and proven skills. We looked at the cow farm and the milking machine, the cows themselves go to it, and attracted by the ration they receive while milking. The cows cannot play tricks, the automatic machine recognizes that she is already milked and lets her go without the ration. In the next room, the milk is processed into local soft cheese for the local market. The center also raises horses and the students take care for them. We watch how young ladies care for the horses and equipment after riding. The school also breeds sheep. We also looked into the premises for the production of organic dried fruits. Dried persimmons are very tasty.
And the last spot of the day was the Colnar Wine Farm (link: https://www.colnar.si/). We sit down for a late farm lunch with sausages, black pudding, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut. And of course we start with cviček – the typical low alcohol wine of the region. The owner, a young keen farmer told us his story while he pours his wine into glasses. He is a successor of the family farm taken over of his father and uncle. Since he was very young he has worked with them and learned the intricacies of planting vineyards and making wines. They have gradually enlarged vineyards and now have about 100,000 vines. He talks with such a passion about growing up and development as a farmer and wine-maker. Dyslexia has not prevented taking the family business to a next level. He did internship for 1.5 years in a cellar in Luxembourg to study the craft by a successful winemaker. He knows so much about fermentation processes and how and when the highest quality is obtained. Finally, he earned the trust of the family and took over the farm on his own. It’s so fascinating to talk about the innovation of automated grape picking at night until early in the morning, then chilling out during the transportation to improve the quality of fermentation and wine. They have invested both their own money and EU funding in the farm. 80% of production is for the local market, and exports 20%. We tried aromatic rose wine, which I liked much more than cviček. We looked at the winery, even tried his not-ready-yet sparkling wine and some other wines. The farm also organizes wine tours, prepare food, but upon request. And he plans to have a permanent working restaurant on the top of the hill overlooking the mountains. And his answer to the question whether he wants his son to be a farmer – he will show him everything, will lead him to the night grapes harvesting and show a birth of wine, and maybe he also will fall in love in farming and wine-making.