Sustainable farming offers a boost to rural Bulgarian communities

Dimitar Stanchev and Ralitsa Kuneva, two young Bulgarian farmers, with their children [Dimitar Stanchev and Ralitsa Kuneva]

This article is part of our special report Sustainable farming ambitions: between the CAP and the Green Deal.

Family farming is no easy task, but one young Bulgarian couple has shown that sustainable farming can be a successful business venture, while also helping to revive one of the EU’s poorest regions. EURACTIV Bulgaria reports.

The young Bulgarian farmers, Dimitar Stanchev and Ralitsa Kuneva, have been tending to their beehives located in the Strandzha Mountains, south-east Bulgaria, for more than 12 years. 

The two young farmers produce and process 35-40 tonnes of organic honey annually, 18 tonnes of which is exported to the EU market.

As well as producing coveted products such as manna honey, registered as an EU protected geographical indication, and other novel honey products, the couple are also heavily invested in their local community. 

Alongside their honey production, they run their own processing factory and grow 30 hectares of organic vegetables which supply their restaurant, where guests can sample food coming directly from the farm.

“Almost everything sold in our restaurant comes from our farm,” Stanchev said, adding that what is not produced in-house is bought from local farms, which they work to promote.

“Every item on the menu has an indication of its origin and which farm it comes from. Thus, each of our guests gets to know more about the produce of the local farmers”, he said. 

Besides investing effort into their thriving business, the couple also invests in their local village, Indje Voivoda, paving its streets with their own money, building eco-trails and bike lanes, and also aiming to soon launch a festival to present the unique foods of the region.

In doing so, the couple exemplifies the key goals of the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, which aims to shorten agricultural supply chains and, in doing so, offer better incomes for farmers.

Bulgarian farmers fear Green Deal will lower their incomes

Bulgarian farmers forecast weaker yields, with lower quality, and hence lower incomes, as a result of the new green policies of the EU. At the heart of their concerns is the significant reduction in the use of pesticides and fertilizers by 2030, writes EURACTIV Bulgaria.

Likewise, the reform of the EU’s farming subsidy programme, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), aims to prioritise small and medium-sized farms and encourage young people to join the profession.

To this end, the CAP reform puts forth a number of measures, such as offering a higher level of support per hectare for small and medium-sized farms and setting aside a minimum of 2% of direct support payments allocated to each EU country for young farmers.

So far, the two young Bulgarian farmers have successfully applied for two EU projects under the CAP’s rural development programme.

The first project was successfully completed in 2015. A subsidy of €90,000 helped fund a project for professional honey extraction.

However, Stanchev points out that the support offered could be improved. 

Namely, he would like to see the rule that farmers should maintain machines subsidised by EU funds for five years abolished, due to the fast pace of technological change.

Highlighting that better machines come out every year and farms lose their competitive edge, he said that in only two to three years, the machines bought with this money have become “obsolete”. 

The farming couple is now looking to implement a new project with a total investment value of €350,000, supported via the same programme.

This funding will help to grow the business even further, including a factory and 1,300 new hives and machines for the production of bee fodder.

New food policy to triple amount of agricultural land farmed organically by 2030

The EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy has targeted 25% of agricultural land in the EU being organically farming by 2030, a three fold increase.

The path to organic farming

Another key aim of the Farm to Fork strategy is for at least 25% of EU farmland to be farmed organically by 2030. But while Stanchev and Kuneva are already working towards this goal, meeting the same target will be a great challenge for Bulgaria.

Latest Eurostat data from 2018 shows that the country is one of the lowest-ranked in the EU in terms of land used for organic farming, with only 2.4% of agricultural land farmed organically. 

However, even this represents a 230% increase since 2012, which has been put down in large part to the availability of additional EU subsidies for organic farming.

The hope now is that examples such as this one will demonstrate that such an approach could work elsewhere in the country, helping to safeguard natural resources while also reviving poor rural Bulgarian regions. 

[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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