Budding Growth Biljana Kostovska, one of the co-founders of consumer cooperative Good Earth. Photo "Good Earth"

Budding Growth

Organic farming is not a new method for Macedonian farmers. It dates back years to when every family owned their own land for crops and produced food for their personal needs. Commercial agriculture that uses chemical fertilisers has emerged in the last century and has overtaken the market, but trends seem to be changing. The country’s vast potential for organic production has been recognised by farmers as well as other “green” enthusiasts, a couple of whom have joined in the first consumer cooperative Nasa Dobra Zemja (Our Good Earth).

Goji eco plantation near Skopje. Photo Good Earth

“Yes indeed Macedonia does have a great potential for organic food production”, confirms Biljana Kostovska, one of the co-founders of Good Earth.

Although during the last two to three years steps have been taken by institutions and international organisations to build capacity, much more is needed in order for consumer cooperatives to feel significant progress being made in terms of the supply of fresh produce, the reliability of producers and organic certificates, a one-stop info/education point for new producers, etc.

“These are all factors that directly influence the trust of consumers and very strongly affect the demand”, explains Kostovska, stressing that support so far was mostly theoretical with no real decisions, interest or support for the sector.

A green agriculture haven

A green agriculture haven – this is the picture a local farmer would like to show when asked about his land, Macedonia, situated in the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. And the country has all the preconditions for such a haven – an agricultural tradition, diversity of forests, vast plains and plenty of natural bodies of water (springs, rivers, lakes) as well as plenty of sunshine throughout its 25,713 square kilometres. But since declaring independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia has struggled with the competitive regional market to achieve better sustainability in its agricultural production, an economic activity which accounts for 11% of the total GDP of the country.

Half of the territory of Macedonia is used for agricultural purposes, and 20% of the population is employed by the agricultural sector, a number that has unfortunately not improved for several years. What farmers are demanding from the government are big and specific investments such as road construction, purchase centres to market their products and protection via agreements for minimum purchase prices for all types of products. Farmers also argue that subsidies in agriculture should cause permanent positive consequences not just temporary effects. It is of particular importance to establish a monitoring system for controlling the effects of the expenditure of subsidies as well. Along with national institutional strategies, foreign foundations and donors have developed programs that are focused on efficient and sustainable methods of fertilisation, irrigation and spraying based on improved methods of soil control and a modern scientific approach.

Aleksandar Gjorgjievski,one of the founders of the association for sustainable social and economic development “Sunrise” – Skopje

A green economy is not just about the economy. It is also about social justice and long-term sustainability. A green agriculture, with its long-term evolution and ability to change the approach and functioning of agricultural production, should be referred to as agroecology.

“Agroecology is a complex matter”, says Aleksandar Gjorgjievski, one of the founders of the association for sustainable social and economic development “Sunrise” – Skopje.

Parts of agroecology are being implemented. But with the lack of theoretical background and education, there can be no good implementation in practise. Thus, agroecology in Macedonia was introduced academically only a few years ago. Still, there are farmers implementing agroecology. The practise itself has been adopted in Macedonia, but rarely, Gjorgjievski explains.

“As an organisation, we are member of a Community Supported Agriculture network including countries around the Mediterranean and Europe. The system considers a direct relationship between the farmer and the consumer in a legal and practical form.  No middle man that will make profit”, he adds.

The system is simple, though complex in theory. Organic farms apply agroecology with the goal of having little or minimum negative impact on the environment. With less chemical treatments and a higher variety of crops on the farm, we can set a good example of green agriculture. The EU is continuously increasing support for small farms and also supports growing a higher variety of crops on one farm. And these trends have taken root in our region, thus giving more support to organic farming as well. As Gjorgjievski says, despite the mainstream principle supporting large-scale production as the more feasible option, small farms are still worthwhile, and we must shift and change the system towards supporting sustainable small farming.

In the last decade we had many projects from EU, FAO and USAID aimed at educating farmers to replace conventional farming with more acceptable solutions in food production. Education, for example, in the Prespa region has resulted with a big success in the implementation of measures for the protection of an ecosystem that has already been violated by traditional chemical treatments used on local fruit plantations. Our system, both on a micro (farmers) and macro (the state) level, must be compatible with the EU, as this is the nearest market, the closest entity we work with.

“Although I prefer local production and sales, there are plenty of good EU practises we can adopt and learn from”, Gjorgjievski says.

Compatibility with the EU gives access to funds, educational projects and use of all resources available for moving forward. Currently, there is no concrete direction, and as long as the state gives subsidies per hectare instead of per kilogram, as Gjorgjievski explains, the effects will be at a minimum. The change should be towards increasing the quality of our products and increasing food safety.

Cooperatives are seen as an opportunity for the future success of Macedonian agriculture

Some farmers engage in organic production for personal health benefits. They also choose organic because subsidies are 40 percent higher for organic than for conventional producers. However, potential benefits for converting from conventional to organic production are high but not guaranteed. For example, the subsidies are higher than for conventional production but often come with a delay of one, two or even three years. In such a scenario, collaborating with a consumer cooperative that pays you on a weekly basis with higher prices is a godsend.

One thing that needs to be corrected is creating an environment and services for the formation and maintenance of cooperatives – the legislative possibilities available in the EU, where 97% of the farmers are in cooperatives. Apart from the legal obstacles to this in Macedonia, the education gap and the lack of confidence in the system to bring people together also create hurdles. Thus, currently, the number of cooperatives in Macedonia is relatively low.

Taken the fact that cooperatives are seen as an opportunity for future success of Macedonian agriculture, Good Earth is a real success story as the first consumer cooperative. Producers see a possibility to sell their produce to consumers who understand what they are selling, and they appreciate it not only monetarily but also due to the trust, moral support, and personal appreciation gained.

“We would be happier and more successful if more producers saw us as a trustworthy partner to collaborate with, rather than a simple buyer to navigate and “manipulate” orders and distribute pre-agreed quantities to other newly established buyers”, Kostovska explains.

Dedication vs profit

Organic corn and sunflower plantation in the Polog region. Photo Good Earth

The economic advantage of producing safe food is seen in larger sales with higher prices – on both domestic and foreign markets. As part of Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, in the Mediterranean group of countries, Macedonia can witness this relationship – the farmer produces for a certain number of families (consumers), and their relationship is direct. What is produced is directly supplied to families. It is a simple system close to the Macedonian mentality – we buy from someone we know on the small green markets because we know how it is produced.

Given the fact that 70 percent of the agricultural production in the world comes from small farms, small farms form the base for the future correction of the whole production system. A more direct link between producer and consumer will result in a decrease in the possible risk of loss to the farmers and an increase in the quality and safety of the food for the consumer. That way, production becomes more sustainable over the long run, and we get higher quality produce in the short run.

“I do not support exports because of pollution from transport and the large impact on the environment”, Gjorgjievski explains, opting for quality and safe local food production.

Willingness of farmers to go green depends on the conditions given to turn to more sustainable agriculture, and at the end of the day, it all comes down to the support offered by the state. Permanent support, both in measures and incentives, creates a favourable environment for opting to choose organic farming. To get solutions, options must be sought and offered – active participation is necessary instead of leaving the administration to solve the situation on its own. The farmers should be more involved in consultations, coordination and the proposing of legal solutions to the government institutions, making things more efficient and creating a functional system. This way, the farmers and their needs will be recognised by the legal system.

No middle man that will make profit

There are very basic and unsettled issues in the sector that need to be dealt with: free one-stop info centres for new producers, establishing and supporting the reliability of the organic certificate (people don’t naturally trust that it is truly organic) and educating consumers about a process that needs to be open and accessible.

“Local organic food production and consumption is for the benefit of all, period”, Kostovska stresses.

The “green” vision of Good Earth, a bit ambitious to achieve, would be to transform all public kitchens to offer organic food, with hospitals, schools and kindergartens having their own gardens as well! The idea of community gardens (urban gardens) coincides with another fact Macedonia struggles with – the problem of rural migration. Improvement of road infrastructure, water supply and sewage networks, health care in villages, ease of access. These are all much needed segments for the greener agricultural future envisioned to be achieved. So much of Macedonia’s arable area remains unused, while over a quarter of the country’s population of 2.06 million inhabits the country’s capital of Skopje.

As long as there is cheaper (imported) food, (and there always will be), people will not bother with the village life. They flee “difficult” rural living in exchange for the conveniences of urban life. They come to Skopje in order to not deal with food production, a “burden” they have had to deal with for most of their lives. Urban gardening is not for serious food production, although there are a few exceptions around the world. It is used rather for community building, improving sustainability in terms of skills and the awareness of local production and bringing people to closer the concept of food sovereignty. Organic food production diminishes its real natural (eco) and local (community) benefits if it is imported or exported.

“Organic food production makes sense only if it is local, produced and consumed within distances that are the shortest possible. That is the real way to sustainability in terms of food “, explains Kostovska.

Organic corn seeds in Good Earth store in Skopje. Photo Good Earth

On a positive note, there is also reverse migration – from cities (mostly the capital Skopje) to villages. And it is feasible for Macedonian organic agriculture to be a sustainable business generating a stable family income.

“We have the preconditions set. We lack the easiest and most difficult at the same time – attitude and dedication”, Kostovska adds.

The organic sector has an image of being “eco”, which along with all other similar “nature protection” movements lacks an attractive motive for the mainstream (aka profit).

“And that is OK. Because if that wasn’t the case, our job would have been finished, and we wouldn’t be needed. Humanity needs to work in all spheres to become closer to nature and to work with it not against it”, concludes Kostovska.

The green future of Macedonian agriculture has some serious weeds to pluck and seeds to plant in order to become competitive in the national, as well as the regional, economy. But as small as they seem, steps being made are definitely in the right direction.

 

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