Welcome to the second instalment of our farmers’ trips in Europe. This time, we’re heading east with four French farmers. In Bulgaria, eco-friendly agriculture is attempting to carve itself a place amid highly intensive and concentrated production.
Snow as far as the eye can see. It is cold at the end of this January in northern Bulgaria and the farmland is concealed under centimetres of white powdery snow. This has not put off Daniel, Stéphane, Sébastien and Jean-Bernard, however, who fully intend to get the most out of their “FarmErasmus” with Greenpeace. “I don’t know this country at all”, confides Jean-Bernard, a farmer from the Eure. “I hope to find out about new techniques and another facet of European agriculture”. Jean-Bernard uses integrated agriculture practices on his land, which use the least possible amount of pesticides.
Stéphane, a pig farmer in Finistère, Brittany, Sébastien, who owns an organic farm in the Vendée region, and Daniel, who converted almost all of his land near Toulouse to organic farming, have come for similar reasons. For them, the French agricultural industry’s future lies in high-quality local practices, leading them to compare their vision with how it is done in Bulgaria.
A fact-finding mission on local practices
On the first morning, our farmers visited a dairy farm which is in the process of converting. Turai, the owner, keeps 180 cows and produces milk, cream and cheese: the famous “yellow” and “white” cheeses. All products are sold in local distribution circuits, in nearby shops and on markets. “It is interesting to see how this conversion is undertaken and how farmers here are also looking to make quality produce”, notes Daniel approvingly.
Our farmers then head to a sheep farm with 400 ewes, which is also in the process of obtaining the European organic label. Once again, the French farmers talk to their local counterparts and ask them how they work. “It’s amazing, they still milk their ewes by hand”, says Jean-Bernard, surprised. “This is where you can see the limit between our two types of agriculture. They still very much have a peasant farming approach. I want to have good produce but I’m not prepared to give up my comforts. The milking parlour is a good step forward”.
Over two days, the visits continue and by the end, they have seen vines, producers of honey, milk and ewes, as well as a miller, all of whom operate with organic farming or are in the process of converting. Each visit is peppered with local folklore, such as the blessing of vines on 1st February.
A meeting with a pioneer of organic farming
All these visits were organised by Albena Simeonova, farmer and pioneer of the organic movement in Bulgaria. This woman with infectious energy has been working in agriculture since 1999. Her farm boasts a total of 275 hectares of organic crops (cereals, vegetables and vines), of which: 70 ha of field crops, 30 ha of vines and 175 ha for chicken, pig and cow feed. Above all, she puts her heart and soul into developing organic farming in her country. “We are not entitled to any state assistance”, she explains, “and it is very difficult to make a living alongside major agricultural cooperatives. This is why it is very important to create contacts and networks, as we are doing with FarmErasmus”.
Today, organic farming is practiced by 7000 farms, accounting for 2% of the country’s agriculture. The sector is still very vulnerable and struggles to exist alongside huge farms for cereal crops, massively geared towards production for the export market, which have developed since the fall of the Soviet bloc. “I would say that our meeting with Albena was the most enlightening moment of the trip, says Sébastien. “Seeing the difficulties that she must overcome and despite this the energy she uses to champion eco-friendly agriculture is really promising and gives hope”.
The next step in our journey through European agriculture: back in France, with Bulgarian and Belgian farmers … Watch this space!