Alexei decided to go organic. How People in Need is supporting organic agriculture in Moldova

Published: Oct 24, 2016 Reading time: 5 minutes
Alexei decided to go organic. How People in Need is supporting organic agriculture in Moldova
© Natalina Garbu

“172 Lei for one piece?! Aloisha, you must be crazy to have paid such a price for just a bag!”His elegant pose next to the giant white bags full of spelt and decisive voice directed to his son both resonate in a spacious old storehouse. Nikolaj is a former director of a kolkhoz and today a farmer of 321 hectares of arable land where he some of Moldova’s main crops like sunflower, wheat and barley.

After the fall of Soviet Union he was given a hectare and a half of land and also started renting more from his neighbors whose holding was too small to make a living or they were simply not interested in becoming farmers - a common land distribution model in Moldova. Nikolaj also keeps cows and a small field of tobacco - more out of nostalgia maybe - kept from times when Moldova used to be an important supplier of tobacco in the Soviet Union.

Nikolaj’s eyes, critical but wise with a light humoristic twist, now turn to the visitors lined up on the dim background of light blue storehouse walls.

“We have no experience growing it here,” he explains to them. “The yield is good now but conditions might be very different next year. Will we still harvest anything? And I don’t know who is going to eat this; people or animals?” asks Nikolaj. One of the visitors pipes up: “You can make bread from spelt flour. Nowadays many people in France started to prefer spelt to wheat products because they say it’s healthier.”

“Hm, hm, maybe,” he murmurs looking up, his eyes following couple of sparrows that entered the storage through the big wooden gate making a quick circle in the darkness of the roof before following a beam of light out again. “I just hope somebody is going to buy this experiment from us,” he adds.

Organic pioneers

Spelt is an ancient wheat variety whose demand has grown enormously in recent years in the EU mainly due to its health benefits. In Moldova, growing this crop and exporting it to Europe presents an interesting economic incentive for local farmers. It is starting to enter the fields especially with farmers who decided to “go organic”, in other words to choose for an alternative to high-input industrial way of farming. Nikolaj’s son, Alexei, is one of those. He recently took over about 279 hectares from his father and has committed to turn his share into certified organic land. One third of this surface is already in conversion – a transition period preceding full organic status – on which he harvested spelt, this year for the very first time.

Especially during the conversion period Moldovan organic pioneers – like Alexei - are in need of know-how about alternative growing technologies, seeds, equipment used in organic farming as well as access to the market to sell their products in the future. People in Need together with Czech Development Agency, Netherlands Enterprise Agency and newly also USAID, are assisting these farmers with this within the framework of three projects, committed to empower farmers to create a more sustainable future for Moldovan people and their environment.

“I am witnessing old but also young people around me getting sick; cancer became common in Moldova. I feel this trend has a connection to the use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture. I cannot prove this but I can at least choose how I will use my land. As a farmer I can make a change,” says Alexei.

Alexei was not meant to be a farmer. As a young student he was sent to study economics in the capital of Chisinau with the vision of finding a perspective job afterwards, one that would surely secure more income than farming which is considered a gamble by many in Moldova. Nevertheless, after studies and some years of well-paid consultancy jobs Alexei decided to support his ageing father on the farm.

The spelt of change

For Alexei’s father it is sometimes hard to understand that agriculture can be done differently - without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals – and still have a good yield and profit. For him, being a farmer also means responsibility for the people in the village. Change means risk. His farm employs many of them and this job is one of the little possibilities around here to make a living. Manypeople in rural areas already left – they migrated to Russia or southern Europe in search for work.

“I do understand that my father is careful. Some people say that farming is the best way to lose money, even quicker than casino. You know that it is a rainy period but you don’t know when the rain will come,” says Alexei laughing.

The father and the son are walking next to each other now towards the fields, one wearing a cap saying ‘Syngenta’ in the front – an agro-chemical giant - and the other a light white retro hat. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the generational change in attitude better than their different head covers. Yet they share the care for local people:

“Apart from promising financial opportunities from organic, the people here are my main motivation to continue because I realize that one day my father will not be here. It is both a huge challenge and a blessing. Farming in a good way gives me an enormous sense of purpose,” says Alexei while the group of visitors follows him onto the next organic field in the becoming.

The first full organic harvest of spelt and its export to the EU, including the Czech Republic is planned for summer 2018 and many different crops will follow. Possibilities for processing and marketing on the local market is also being investigated. The commercial link is made possible thanks to close collaboration with the private sector - Czech Probio and Moldovan Prograin Organic are key partners of People in Need in developing the organic sector in Moldova. People in Need has been implementing projects on organic agriculture in Moldova since 2011. Besides supporting farmers with trainings, small grants and export links, People in Need also aims to develop capacities of local networks and organizations involved in organic agriculture. Awareness raising is directed towards policy makers and general public.

Currently different donors are making these projects possible: Czech Development Agency, Netherlands Enterprise Agency and newly also USAID.


Author: Veronika Semelková

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