3 May 2012Farmers today represent only about 3-4% of the total European active population. In the Balkans, a shift from collective or state-owned arable land to a small private and fragmented plowland, climate change and the financial crises have had a huge impact on agriculture production and on the number of farmers.
In Montenegro, families who have been farming for generations are leaving the fields for a new type of income.
Cveto Sisevic, 55, from the village of Bistrice, in the Zeta Valley, near Podgorica, is spending his first spring out of the field. The Sisevic family has been farming for decades.
In the 1960s and 1970s, they travelled throughout the former Yugoslavia selling tomatoes and peppers. Even in the 1990s, Siscevic and his family lived well, thanks to vegetables sold at Montenegrin markets.
But in the last few years, agriculture in Montenegro witnessed a tremendous decline: in production, profit and sale. The Sisevic family incurred more losses than profit. Last year, they could not manage to cover the basic costs of seeds, fertilizers and water, and decided not to farm any more.
"We had to throw away hundreds of kilos of vegetables because we couldn't sell them. This year we planted vegetables only for our personal use," Sisevic told SETimes. Most of his five hectares of land are empty now.
His story is far from an isolated case. Many farmers in Montenegro gave up farming, opting instead for jobs that are less time and money consuming.
According to data from 2011, plowlands in Montenegro cover about 40% of the country's total arable land. Of this, more than 30% of all plowlands remains uncultivated every year. As a result, in 2011, Montenegro imported more than 400m euros worth of food, and exported only 40m euros.
A similar trend is visible throughout the region. Until 1989, Romania was one of the most important exporters of agricultural products. The country, once known as "the bread basket of the Balkans", has an agricultural surface of 14.7 million hectares, of which 9.3 million hectares are arable. But as much as 1.3 million hectares of arable land is not used, according to official data.
Sead Jelec of the Agriculture Society of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) said there is less and less plowland in BiH. "The use of farmland is around 50%. Authorities haven't done anything to increase the use of arable lands, and they don't have any plan on how to use land resources," Jelec said earlier to BiH newspaper Nezavisne novine.
BiH farmlands have been in constant decline for seven years. In 2005, there were 719,000 hectares of tilled land; in 2009 that number decreased to 692,000 hectares.
With more than 4 million hectares of arable land (55% of all land), Serbia is considered the country with a huge potential for agriculture, but is next to last in Europe in agricultural produce export.
Back in Montenegro, Zoran Jovovic, professor at the University for Biotechnology in Podgorica, says there are several factors for such a low level of cultivation.
"The main characteristic of agriculture and farming in Montenegro and the region is land fragmentation, which significantly constrains this field for production and profit," Jovovic told SETimes.
Other reasons, Jovovic said, include poor technical equipment causing low productivity, unregulated agricultural products market, and climate changes.
In 2006 and 2007, a drought destroyed the crops. In 2010 there were huge floods, and this year, an unprecedented amount of snow and severe cold.
Besides crop losses, farmers suffered damage to their facilities and infrastructure, but not all damage was repaired or compensated.
"The economic crisis just worsened the situation. Many farmers have bank loans and no profit to repay the debts. What is really worrying is farmers' lack of will, desire, and motivation to continue the food production," Jovovic said.
Ranko Sisevic, Cveto's relative, is one of the few remaining farmers in the village. He too had losses late last year, but wants to give farming another try. "Our forefathers planted these fields. I cannot see them empty and full of weeds," Sisevic told SETimes.
According to Sisevic, the agriculture ministry should financially help the farmers. Yet, in most regional countries the agriculture budget is low. According to data from the Montenegrin Chamber of Commerce, the agro-budget for 2012 is 21m euros.
In BiH, the agriculture budget for last year was 39m euros, instead of the planned 57m euros. In Serbia, the 2012 allocation for agriculture amounted to 2.5% of the total budget.
One of the opportunities for famers is the EU IPA funds, but many farmers are still reserved towards this idea.
"We have started with the MIDAS project aimed to train farmers to apply for IPA funds. So far we had 780 applications -- 300 were approved. The value of these applications is around 20m euros. With this money, farmers can improve equipment and invest in their land," Montenegrin Minister of Agriculture Tarzan Milosevic told SETimes.
"We have land for cultivation, we have people who did this their whole life, and now we have the opportunity to get the money. It is up to us to look into the possibilities in agriculture," Milosevic said.
For many Zeta Valley farmers, however, it is already too late. Once fertile plowlands have been turned into residential areas where houses, not vegetables, are springing up.