Rhodope Mountains, the home of the first farm certified for organic meat

12 Feb

stado
Rhodope Short-horned cattle
The Bulgarian meat market is quite specific. It is almost impossible to find authentic veal on it. There is plenty of beef for sale but veal is almost nonexistent. This is the legacy of communism when Bulgaria chiefly staked on dairy cattle breeding. It allowed the country to export its celebrated yogurt and the white feta cheese that used to bring good revenues. Meat cattle breeding was neglected. This is what Blagovesta Vassileva-Betty says, She is the owner of the only farm in Bulgaria so far for certified organic meat. The farm is located in the village of Gorno Pole in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains.
This erroneous policy, according to her, has resulted in the extinction of local breeds for meat that are mostly suited to organic breeding. In the Vasilevs’ family farm called The Wild Farm the family raises some 500 heads of cattle from two local breeds – Rhodope gray and Rhodope shorthorn cattle. The farm produces certified organic meat for exports.“This farm is the largest in Bulgaria for breeding the Rhodope shorthorn cattle”, Betty specifies. “We can rightfully be recognized as the guardians of this traditional breed. It is threatened with extinction resulting from wrongful policies of the past. By laying the emphasis on the Bulgarian Black Pied Cattle for dairy production in the first place, we have neglected some traditional breeds and they have now become rare. The new black pied cattle live no longer than 3 to 4 years. To obtain a liter of milk some 450 L of blood should be pumped through the heart of the cattle. You can imagine what this means. So, that is why they live such short lives. By contrast, the shorthorn cattle that we rear live up to 28 years, believe it or not!”

Local traditional breeds are the fittest for economic organic farming. They do not need concentrated fodder that tends to be expensive and on top of that should come from certified organic pastures. These breeds do not need antibiotics as they boast strong immunity etc. In The Wild Farm cattle are bred by grazing freely and throughout the year – just like in ancient times.

“Even the Thracians bred cattle this way. A few artifacts attest to the existence of the Rhodope cattle 6 thousand years ago. The principle that we follow is to intervene as little as possible, so that cattle live natural lives.”

Local breeds are fitter in fighting off their natural enemies – the large predators, Blagovesta contends.

“These cattle are very clever. They gather their offspring in small groups and three or four cows take care of them throughout the day – just like in nursery school. In this way they take turns. In case of wolf attacks, cows and bulls form a line of resistance and make sure they protect the calves.”

For the protection of the cattle from wolf attacks, the Vassilevs are rearing a dozen dogs from the local breed of Karakachan. For centuries Karakachan dogs have tackled wolf attacks in the best possible way.

It is interesting to find out why The Wild Farm is the only farm in Bulgaria certified for the production of organic meat. The problems are many and easily slip into a vicious circle. In the first place, as a result of the controversial agrarian reform in post-communist Bulgaria, cattle farmers do not own land so that they could create bio certified pastures. To certify a pasture it should have been either the property of the farmer or leased by him for at least five years. Now the government has been trying to encourage local government to lease out mostly uncultivated lands to animal farmers. Another problem is the lack of slaughterhouses for certified organic meat. “So far there were no certified farms for organic meat, so slaughterhouses were not keen to invest in certificates and in building special facilities for organic raw materials”, explains Blagovesta’s husband Nikolay Vasilev. Thirdly there is no consistent central government policy to encourage animal farming, let alone organic animal farming. “Cattle breeders get close to nothing from the European financing earmarked for agriculture”, Betty comments. This might be corrected in the next EU program, notably 2014-2020.

In the meantime, The Wild Farm has no option but to export its animals abroad – in countries that have slaughterhouses for organic meat. Its best market is Italy where fresh organic meat is delivered to all kindergartens and schools. The same is true of Albania.

Given that the state creates incentives for the development of stockbreeding in Bulgaria, local farmers will be able to satisfy close to 40 percent of the market’s demand, Blagovesta Vasileva believes. Then fresh veal will be back on the menu of Bulgarians. Today the picture is different – 80 percent of the meat comes from Brazil, Argentina or other countries, mostly deeply frozen and predominantly beef.

Translated by Daniela Konstantinova

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