Going Organic

Posted February 16, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Food, Uncategorized

Ten years ago I visited Slovenia to do a report on organic farming for the Bay Area-based organization Food First. I was drawn to the former Yugoslav republic because it had recently joined with several neighboring Italian and Austrian provinces to create the world’s first organic bioregion – the Alpe-Adria. Organic farming made a lot of sense for Slovenia since its farms were relatively small and it was close to European markets that put a premium on organic produce. Slovenia, I thought, could show the way for other East European countries by leapfrogging from collectivized agriculture over industrial farming to the organic alternative.

I conducted a series of interviews in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. There I learned that the government’s commitment to making the country the “garden of Europe” involved pouring resources into “integrated farming,” which was an improvement over chemical-intensive agriculture but didn’t qualify as sustainable. European Union subsidies were useful for preserving agricultural land, but the country wasn’t exactly on the verge of becoming an organic poster child. Then I got on a bus heading south to Slovenia’s tiny Adriatic coast to meet organic farmer Boris Fras.

His back bent from years of tending his vines, Fras showed me around his plots. He grew olives and grapes on land with spectacular views of the Adriatic. He grappled with the usual concerns of a farmer – getting sufficient water, finding markets for his products, negotiating good prices. He also faced a potentially more serious threat – developers who wanted to buy up land in the area to build a golf course and the tourism infrastructure to go with it.

Ten years later, I met Fras for a cup of coffee in the coastal town of Ankaran. The developers were still eyeing his land, and the golf course remained a live option. But the financial crisis had undercut some of the construction fervor, and Slovenia had passed laws in the meantime to protect fertile land. Fras was more worried about the water situation, since the region was suffering through a mini-drought.

He was still committed to organic farming and had begun growing vegetables as well to diversify what he could offer to consumers. But the share of organic farming has not increased very much in Slovenia, even though more and more people are buying organic. They’re just not buying Slovenian organic produce. Nothing gets Fras more agitated than the tendency of Slovenians to buy imported food.

“It’s a huge debate now — not just in Slovenia but also at the EU level – about how local food is better than imported food not just because of freshness but the waste of energy in transportation,” he told me. “All Slovenians say, ‘Yes, bravo!’ But they are still buying cheap imported fruits and vegetables. When they do a public opinion poll, they all say, “Yes, we are for local food.” But then you go to the markets and you see that they are buying the opposite.”

One way for the Slovenian government to boost local organic agriculture would be to facilitate institutional purchases – schools, hospitals, and so on. Italy adopted this approach and the organic sector is now 10 percent of its agriculture. Slovenia has yet to follow this path.

“Sodexho from France offers food to Slovenian schools for practically nothing,” Fras complains.” And I’m competing against this huge thing? It’s impossible! You break the law if you speak directly with the school. It’s crazy. In Italy, they don’t have public food in school. It’s private. The schools get money from the larger community, from the village, and from the parents. They can organize what they want, by themselves. There’s no state law preventing that. Not that long ago organic was only 3 percent of the farming in Italy.”

We talked about producing organic olive oil, EU farming subsidies, and why even fruits and vegetables need a “story” in order to lure consumers into buying them.


The Interview


When I was here nine years ago, the major issue for you was these golf courses that they were thinking of building here.


Yes, they wanted to build golf courses. And they still want to. But it’s still not built yet. And it will be difficult to build them because a few laws were enacted here in the last few years to protect fertile agricultural land. Slovenia comes in last in Europe in terms of square hectares per capita. We have only 800 square meters of good fertile agricultural land per person on which to grow food. The rest is forest and pasture land. After some public discussion, we decided to protect such land. It will work maybe against the gold courses.

But in Slovenian law, the power of changing the scope of what to do with the land is at the community not at the state level. The state has the right approach to land protection, more or less. But at the community level – and we have three communities here along the coast: Ankaran, Koper, Izola — there are business interests behind creating an industrial zone, selling land for a mega shopping center, building a golf course, or building new houses. This is one of the easiest ways for the community to get money. They get it from the state, from a percentage of salary, and what they can sell. And they can sell land. That’s the only thing left to sell here.

I don’t remember how intensive the fight was nine years ago. The proposed golf course is 70 hectares. It’s not big, but it’s big for this area. What’s important is the possibility to irrigate the field. You can see now with the weather. Up until the end of April, it rained each day – there’d never been so much rain during the year. Then from that time, there’s been no rain. We are in the middle of a dry season. With no water, everything is dying. Without irrigation you can’t grow vegetables and maybe no fruit.


And golf courses take up a lot of water.


Yes. Okay, they presented some alternative ways of maintaining the golf course with less water and different kinds of grass. But in the end, it’s the same. They would also change the countryside. It’s flat in the proposed site. And golf needs some hills.


You don’t have to convince people at the national level but there’s still support for this course at the community level.


Not just at the community level. Tourist organizations and hotels support the golf course. Also these people who run bars and restaurants, and the association of construction companies. They all are pushing for golf. The airport in Portoroz also wants it. They calculate that some new tourists will come in to play golf in the wintertime. But there’s a modern golf course near Trieste, in Italy, 15 kilometers from here. And still they don’t fly there from Germany or Britain during the wintertime. The golf course there is empty.

These companies that want golf also want to build apartments, a whole tourist infrastructure. It’s not just golf. But these are difficult times to sell things now, because of the crisis. No one is building new flats or houses, because there’s no one to buy them. There are a lot of empty complexes. They expect that the Russians or the Italians will come here to buy. But the Italians go to the countryside in Istria or the Karst region and buy up the most beautiful properties. They don’t want to buy anything here.


You talked before about all the pressure to sell agricultural land for development. Given the financial crisis, is there still the same pressure to sell?


Yes. Fewer and fewer people are doing agriculture. Each day we have fewer farmers but more public debate in the media about having a garden, building urban gardens, and unemployed doctors and lawyers becoming farmers. Yes, there are projects that have begun. But you know agriculture is difficult. You have to work from dawn to dusk. There’s no big money in it. I’m speaking about traditional farmers. If you have 100 or 200 hectares, you’re still a small farmer. You plow, you plant seeds, you harvest — you do everything yourself.

You even have to sell your own produce. A small farmer is in a difficult position because 20 or 30 years before, there were logistic places where you went with your products to sell. It was a zadruga, a cooperative. Each village had a place where a small farmer could sell even as little as 20-30 kilos each day. The state sold these off during privatization, and now the farmer here must drive everything to a center in Koper. Some farmers don’t have vans to drive the produce over there.

It’s a huge debate now — not just in Slovenia but also at the EU level – about how local food is better than imported food not just because of freshness but the waste of energy in transportation. All Slovenians say, “Yes, bravo!” But they are still buying cheap imported fruits and vegetables. When they do a public opinion poll, they all say, “Yes, we are for local food.” But then you go to the markets and you see that they are buying the opposite. Sometimes it’s not even the price that matters. So, the only possibility for small farmers is the local marketplaces.

They’re not even always local. I go to Ljubljana for instance. There are also some alternative ways of selling products. We organize our own places of distribution to connect with buyers. It takes a lot of time and energy. All day, you are driving and phoning, instead of being in the fields. This aspect of agriculture is very difficult. If you’re supplying the big institutions, like shopping centers, it’s also difficult. They say, “I want such and such tomorrow morning at 5 am,” and then you have to do it. You also have to fill out forms before packing everything.


You are still growing olives, grapes, and…


And more and more vegetables. I got two hectares five years ago near the water. It’s five kilometers from me. I have two possibilities of getting water. Last year it was a really dry season, and I had to buy 200 meters of pipe for irrigation and then dig it in. But I saved my produce. So, I’m happy that I have this possibility.


Do you also grow the vegetables organically?


Yes. Growing vegetables is new for me. Each year I discover something new, and that makes it more interesting. Growing the grapes and olives can be boring. Also, it makes my position in the market more interesting. Because on my table is also tomatoes and other vegetables. More people come, and I sell more.


You are pressing your own olive oil?


No. To press quality olive oil requires machines that cost a minimum half a million euros. The technology of pressing has advanced. Now you have these closed systems of pressing and separation to prevent oxidation, and the product is of a very good quality. Our olive oil is now at top world quality. We have people who get international medals for their oil. We have here a geographic origin for Slovenian olive oil. First, it means that it must be organic, which is controlled. Then it has to be collected within two days for pressing. We must collect in small boxes, not large boxes. Then it must be pressed under 27 degrees — cold pressed — and someone has to be there to verify that. You must store the olive oil between 16 and 20 degrees in particular boxes. The result is quality olive oil. I’m also in this system. There are only eight places around here where you can press olive of that quality.


You supply all your olives to one of those?


Yes, at one of them, all at the same time.


When we talked before, you were proud of your olive trees. Non-organic olive trees last 20-30 years, but you thought yours would last for 100 years.


I hope so! They’re doing well.


How are the grapes doing?


I became more and more bored with these grapes. I have four hectares. It’s not enough to produce a lot of wine. For that you need at least 8-10 hectares. And you need to be in an area of wine consumers. You must also use special descriptions for the wine. I don’t see myself with this kind of people. For me, up to 7,000 liters I sell very easily. But the rest, no. For selling 10,000 liters or more, you have to work hard on marketing and distribution. I don’t have the time or the energy to do that. I have now four vineyards, and three are quite new. One is more than 35 years old, and it’s quite finished. Maybe if I have energy or money, I’ll grow some fruit. But there’s no water. So, if I try to plant 8,000 different fruit trees in these weather conditions, the young trees will just die.


Is the drought this year unusual? Or has this been a problem for the last few years?


It’s cyclical. But you don’t know when the cycle will come. Last year was a problem. This year is a problem. Three years before it was not a problem. If I planted fruit trees in November or December and then it rained until May, it would be good. But three months without rain is very difficult.


Are you still the head of the organic farming association here in Slovenia?


Yes. There’s nothing dramatic going on with this. During all these years, we took some positions, and now we protect this position. We are only the sector that is successful. More or less, what we produce we sell for a sufficiently good price to survive, though not to be rich. It’s commonly believed that everybody wants organic products and that there’s more demand than supply. It’s not true, but that’s what people think.

And now the ministry did a stupid thing. They made the subsidy for pasture land the same as the subsidies for agricultural land. We told the minister that it takes two or three people to work a hectare of agricultural land but on pasture land there’s a cow and hardly any work to do at all. Then he offered double subsidies to those who begin the conversion process to organic. Now we are like hyenas. The people who were against organic agriculture have now entered the business.


Because of the double subsidy.


Yes. We already had a problem with people cheating. You can’t just buy an organic conscience or environmental protection. The standards for the welfare of animals in organic agriculture are quite high. But you can see people who sell these organic goods but treat animals very poorly. We are afraid that this ruins it for everyone. The consumers will see a problem, and they won’t know who is reputable.

Our organic association, over the last five to six years, we did intensive research into creating a different selling basis for our farmers. We work a lot with partnership agriculture, what you call community-supported agriculture (CSA). This works quite well in Slovenia. I thought that we’d follow the French system of CSAs, because there’s a social dimension to it. The small farmers and the group of consumers work together. They make a plan together. The consumers go to help the farmer. They understand that farmers have a difficult life, that there might too much rain or not enough. So, they support the farmers even when they don’t produce food. Then the next year the farmers pay them back with products. There is a direct connection between the consumers and the farmers. There are no coordinators.

But in Slovenia there is a huge number of coordinators. They are basically doing nothing! In the end if there’s someone in the middle who buys from farmers and then sells, this is just normal selling. It’s not partnership agriculture. But still there are a lot of groups doing this. Farmers are happy that it works. I have 12 or 15 boxes here in Koper and about 30 in Ljubljana. I have a full van to drive to Ljubljana, 100 kilometers away. The consumers say the price and quality are okay. There are more than 30-40 groups, and this has the potential to develop more.

We also work a lot on how to get into schools and kindergartens. They have public kitchens, which means that they have to use public bids. The lower price always wins in this competitive bidding. And we small farmers always lose. Some schools negotiate with a farmer but only for a small quantity. I’ve contacted the bigger food companies, but they’re just selling a little bit of organic, all imported.


Do you have an idea of how much organic food is imported compared to how much is grown here?


Twenty times more is imported. It’s not just food. That also includes food supplements and cosmetics. Slovenians cry that they have no money, but they buy huge new cars, not organic food. Slovenia spends the second least amount in the EU per capita on food. It’s something like 11 percent of income. Italians, Germans spend more like 14 or 15 percent.


More than 10 percent of Italy’s farming is organic now.


Yes. And the biggest opportunity for that was organic food in schools and kindergartens. But Sodexho from France offers food to Slovenian schools for practically nothing. And I’m competing against this huge thing? It’s impossible! You break the law if you speak directly with the school. It’s crazy. In Italy, they don’t have public food in school. It’s private. The schools get money from the larger community, from the village, and from the parents. They can organize what they want, by themselves. There’s no state law preventing that. Not that long ago organic was only 3 percent of the farming in Italy.

In the public school system, the school lunches are nearly 100 percent organic — only the fish from the sea is not organic. That means the organic food is at normal prices. It’s mostly produced at the local level – the schools in Rome source from around Rome, not from Milan. So, it’s easy to distribute. It’s great for the farmer. He speaks directly to the school, and they say that they need in June 1,000 watermelons. So, it’s easy to calculate. But if you’re only producing for the market it’s very difficult. You always make some mistakes. Last year, it was celeriac. I planted a lot of this last year, and it was impossible to sell. Then, this year, everybody asked me, “Where is your celeriac?”


Is it possible to get any subsidies from the EU for organic farming?


All farmers get subsides, organic and non-organic. If you establish a new plot you can get EU subsidies. But it’s very complicated. You have to pay up front. Nobody gives you credit. You must do it quickly. And you must do everything as an enterprise. Before you worked with your son, your family, your neighbors. Now, you have to have a bill, which you put inside. It’s too complicated even for me.


Do you think Slovenia’s entry into the EU is a minus or a plus?


A minus. But it’s not just because of entering the EU. After our “liberation,” as people say, when we separated from Yugoslavia, people had a vision of a very easy life: no more work, just trading. We are talented at trading.


For the organic farming organization, what are your goals for the next couple years? Any specific legislation?


With legislation we can have some influence on some pragmatic issues. But still, political power is on the side of conventional farming. Organic farmers currently have a good image in our society. We must work on how to maintain that image, how to improve it, and be careful not to destroy this image. We are something like a brand. People know us everywhere you go. We have 20-30 well-known organic farmers who are national personalities. They are always in the media. People want to hear what they think. So, we have a good position from the point of view of consumers. Even professionals a few years ago finally accepted us. But with this economic crisis, now the situation has changed and people are looking for cheap food.

For organic farmers the biggest challenge comes from the local food movement. People think, “Ah, it’s local, that’s great! Maybe it’s even better than organic!” We provide some exclusive products like strawberries and cherries to schools and kindergarten. And they say, “Well, local is good enough for us.”

In the future, for me it’s quite important to find out which products in which regions are leading products. For example, here olive oil is a leading product. If enough organic farmers start to produce such a champion product, it will be good for our recognition. For the next five years, it will be fine. Growth will be gradual and stable. We still have a few regions where there are not a lot of organic farmers. Here, there were 10 organic farmers in the Koper region. Now there are 300. That’s because the existing olive growers went organic. Now it’s difficult to sell regular olive oil.

It’s important to create stories. About five years ago, I created a story about “golden apples” — persimmons – and the story was great for promotion. Almost all the persimmon growers became organic. It’s good because schools and kindergartens buy them. We were growing 50 hectares of persimmons. For us, that’s big. We must create these stories all the time to keep up public interest in our activities.


You’ve done a lot of things since 1989 and 1990 and since independence. What do you think about the changes overall that have taken place in the last 23 years?


There have been a lot of problems here in Slovenia over the last year. We ate much more than we produced. And then the bill came! People don’t want to work any more. It’s really crazy. The web doesn’t do everything. People live better, work less. But I think that they don’t enjoy this more passive life.


Have you changed your worldview over the last 23 years?


I’m more conservative. But this is probably normal. I’m more careful. I think that rights come from work: you’re not born with them.


When you say you’ve become more conservative, how would you describe that?


Not just politically but also in terms of values. Farmers have always been something the political system hasn’t been able to capture. Okay, the Church and some Right parties have tried, but they haven’t succeeded. A little conservatism here helps us survive. In such a small and fragile countryside, change could be a disaster for our heritage. On this issue, I side with conventional farmers. So, for instance, we have to be careful with this technology in farming. My consumers don’t want things from greenhouses. They recognize what’s grown in a greenhouse and what isn’t. They trust me. I’m honest with them. I say to consumers, I don’t have it, but I can offer you it from my colleague who has a greenhouse. But nobody buys it.

We have another problem now with the chemical industry, which smells organic as a good business. Now they produce something new for organic farmers. For instance, we need good compost, so we make a few teas from plants that provide protection. It’s very simple. But if you don’t have enough time, you can buy Nimazal.

I no longer want to be president of the organic farmers association. It’s time to go. If I see someone who is okay, I’ll immediately resign. There’s one guy, but he doesn’t want to take the position. Others are not good enough in comparison with him. So I put pressure on him. Maybe one day he will.


When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed in Slovenia from then until now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?




Same time period, same scale: your own personal life?




Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Slovenia on a scale of 1 to 10?


Also 7.


Ankaran, August 5, 2013



Grapes, not Golf


July 30, 2004


Boris Fras is the Jose Bove of Slovenia. He hasn’t attacked any McDonalds with sledgehammers. Nor has he made it into the headlines for destroying genetically modified crops. But in his vineyards and among his olive trees along the Adriatic Coast, Boris Fras is waging the same battle as his farming comrade-in-arms in France.

Fras once lived in Yugoslavia but now he is officially a European. On May 1, Slovenia became the first ex-Yugoslav state to enter the European Union (EU). It is a small country of only 2 million people with a reputation for tolerance — though the government’s disenfranchisement of 18,000 non-Slovene residents in the 1990s and the lack of public outrage when this problem of the “erased” surfaced in 2002 suggest that the country’s relative ethnic homogeneity goes hand in hand with deep-seated intolerance.

Nevertheless, Slovenia weathered the Balkan wars of the 1990s with relatively little damage and is now widely considered the best-prepared of the ten latest additions to the EU. When it comes to agriculture, though, the country doesn’t have much in the way of exports — some wine, some chicken. It sees its niche as a garden of Europe, a place where Germans and English can hike in the countryside, admire the splendid mountains and caves, and even pass a few nights on an organic farm.

As an organic farmer, Boris Fras is integral to this plan. He doesn’t live in a farmhouse, just an ordinary suburban ranch not far from Slovenia’s port city of Koper, and he drives his truck to his plots to tend the vines and trees. He doesn’t have much land and it is divided into several plots. But the land he farms is idyllic.

One plot of grape vines stretches down to the sparkling waters of the Adriatic. Red poppies interspersed among young olive trees brighten another stretch of land. Everything Fras grows and produces is organic, including his wine and his olive oil. He sells locally and also at the organic market in Slovenia=92s capital city of Ljubljana. He was not born to this work, but came to it gradually. “I started farming against the advice of all the people who said I was crazy,” he says.

Fras is also the head of the Union of Slovenian Organic Farmers Associations (USOFA). Slovenia, he says, doesn’t have a choice but to go organic. Its geography makes corporate-style agriculture unprofitable. With their small holdings, Slovenian farmers struggle to make their conventional produce competitive against cheaper imports.

Last year, USOFA teamed up with its counterparts in Austria and Italy and persuaded the governments of Slovenia, the Austrian province of Carinthia, and the northeastern Italian province of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to create the world’s first organic bioregion — the Alpe-Adria.

The area will not only be free of all genetically modified organisms, but committed as well to encouraging the spread of organic farming. The number of organic farms in Slovenia stood at 41 in 1998 and grew to over a thousand four years later. While this still accounts for only a little over 3 percent of agricultural land, organic farming advocates hope to push this much higher in coming years.

It sounds like a grand plan. But there are no quick profits in organic farming. Organic farmers need subsidies from both Slovenia and now the EU.  Some of these subsidies fall under the “agri-environmental” heading that rewards farmers for such initiatives as reducing the density of herds or enriching the soil through cover crops.

Still, organic farming does not exactly resonate with go-go capitalism. Land is extremely expensive here, more expensive than in the center of the capital, Fras explains. Other interests are eying the property.

Istrabenz, based in the port city of Koper, is Slovenia’s largest energy company. It has teamed up with the Austrian company OMV to operate filling stations across the region (over 100 in Slovenia, 70 in Italy). Istrabenz also has invested in banking operations, Bosnian hydroelectric plants, and grand tourism projects on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.

And Istrabenz wants to turn some of the prime real estate along Slovenia’s tiny Adriatic coast into golf courses. In areas where vineyards grow and where there were once salt panning operations stretching back to Roman times, Istrabenz wants to build tourist facilities.

The golf courses, designed to attract a higher class of clientele, will consume precious water that farmers need. Local politicians see development, and so do powerful political interests in the capital, like the informal clique of politicians and businessmen in Forum 21 led by former president Milan Kucan.

“The local politicians expect a return to the Golden Age of tourism of the 1970s and 1980s,” Fras said, when rich tourists came and sprinkled their foreign currency like fairy dust. He is assembling a team to defeat the golf courses — an architect-activist, someone who can work the legislative angle, a former insider in the golf industry. “We have to activate people in the capital. It’s where the decisions are made,” Fras strategizes.

The Slovenian government, despite its commitment on paper to bold projects such as the Alpe-Adria bioregion, often does not put farmers or the environment first. In 2004, it overcame civic resistance to site a wind power plant on the Volovja Reber ridge, an environmentally protected area. One could argue that in this case, at least, Slovenes confronted two different versions of sustainable development.

The golf course plan, however, is the antithesis of environment-friendly policies — like the bioregion — and activist-farmers like Boris Fras rightly see it as a structural not merely an ad hoc threat. His anti-golf course activism has already resulted in what he calls “harassment” from the authorities. The inspectors descended recently on his wine-bottling operation and identified a series of changes that he will have to make, at considerable expense.

Boris Fras is waging a fundamental battle over the heart of Europe. Will multinational operations gobble up the land for dubious development or will organic farmers, environmentalists, and sensible government officials work together on plans for sustainable development? Boris Fras, Jose Bove, and thousands of farmers across the new Europe are holding their ground.


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