AHDB's East Anglia and North East England agriculture study tour to Bulgaria – July 2019

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

During this time of lockdown in the UK, it gives time to reflect and review. One area of reflection for me was to look back on our time on the AHDB farming study tour to Bulgaria with a group of farmers from across East Anglia and the North East of England last July.

Teresa Meadows

Knowledge Exchange Manager - Cereals and Oilseeds

Visiting a country like Bulgaria, which is known to have a different economy and rules and regulations yet grows arable crops in the same way that we do, there is always something to learn or a new perspective to gain.

During our time in Bulgaria, we visited three different farms: a co-operative, family farm and a 4,000 hectare farming company. We also attended a talk by Professor Atanassov of the Genomic Center at the University of Sofia. 

The main conversation with all of the farms was that they have the same requirements and challenges that we face: European regulations, decreasing availability of crop protection products, aiming to achieve higher yields, climate variations, seeking the best market for the product and reviewing labour, machinery and costs.

Facts about Bulgaria

Population:

  • 5 million
  • 2 million live in Sofia, the capital

Average salary:

  • €600 per month
  • €300 - €400 per month in agriculture
  • €800 – €900 per month in Sofia

Terrain:

  • 30% mountains
  • 30% hilly country (suitable for agriculture)
  • 40% valley/lowlands (suitable for agriculture)

Cropping:

  • Wheat
  • Maize
  • Sunflowers
  • Vineyards (two main types across five wine regions):
    • Mavrud
    • Melnik - Winston Churchill used to order half a tonne of Melnik wine per year!

Industry:

  • Agriculture is the third most imprtant industry in Bulgaria

National product:

  • Rose oil
    • Bulgaria is the most important place for this in the world
    • Certified by the state and only authorised growers are allowed to sell
    • It is known as “liquid gold” as 1mm of rose oil costs the same as 1mg of gold
    • Four tonnes of rose flowers are required to make one litre of rose oil, which costs about €8,000

However, there were some areas of difference and contrast between the three farms that we saw. Mr Petrov, Chair of the co-operative that we visited in Krushovitsa, was continuing the collaborative approach founded under communism through to today. A voluntary co-operative, the land and machinery belongs to private owners but are managed together for the benefit of all.

Mr Petrov proudly stated that no-one had left the co-operative for 1.5 years and that offered them a lot of security, but were they pushing themselves to be innovative, keep abreast of new technology and markets and make themselves fit for the future? It was apparent that the machinery and infrastructure required investment going forwards, but with the biggest dividend recently given by the co-operative at €5000 for a 50 hectare farm, was this going to be an option in times to come?

The 400 hectare family farm in Obnova, run by Mr Tsviatkov would reflect many family farms in the UK, with a changing rotation in a move away from vegetables due to difficulties sourcing labour, variable soil types, employing precision technology where it pays and growing wheat and barley as they are the most profitable crops. The rotation also includes a range of other crops “for balance”.  When asked about his biggest challenges, Mr Tsviatkov mentioned bureaucracy – the need to hire one person to do admin jobs and landlords wanting more rent….sound familiar?!

By contrast, the extremely impressive AJD Agro Ltd operation at Letnitsa, where we were hosted by Mr Koychev was a fantastic example of a business that had done its research and gone large-scale into a new area with investment, infrastructure and passion for what they were doing. The 4,000 hectare business has 1,600 hectares of owned land and the balance is made up of rented land with 1,300 landlords, ranging from 0.1 hectare to 13 hecatre!!

The company and team had travelled over the last few years and, recognising that there had been an overproduction of wheat from Ukraine/Russia, the decision was that “we don’t see a bright future for wheat production”. In this way, and given their location close to major ports along with their climate, soils and water availability, the business has invested and developed their alfalfa operation.

The business is now growing half of their hectarage with alfalfa which is producing 25-30,000 tonnes of the balance growing grain, a figure that is increasing each year. With markets in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and China, the business is producing a top-quality premium product to these markets, where this can be achieved, and pricing accordingly. With a huge €2 million investment into the alfalfa operation, attention to detail is given across all parts of the business, along with social responsibility for their 120 workers and the local community.

As we finished, Professor Atanassov reflected on the arrival of the fourth Agricultural Revolution, the future of bioagriculture, the need to look at the nutritional content of the food that we are producing and ways to use science and technology for the benefit of our society.

It was clear to see that with passion and attention to detail, along with their climate and location, Bulgaria has rich assets for its future in agriculture, if wise investment and decisions are made. As Professor Atanassov said: “If we don’t change, we don’t face a good future.

For more information on this study trip to Bulgaria, please watch the video at the top of this article.

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