Serbia seeks investment, support for profitable blueberry farming
October 6, 2014

Blueberry farming, a developing agricultural branch in Serbia, is bringing good income to farmers who decided to satisfy the growing need of the global market for this healthy, delicious fruit.blues11

At a small experimental blueberry farm in Belanovica, director of "Prima-Blueberry", the largest farming cooperative that exports Serbian blueberry, Ivan Djuknic, 63, complained that heavy rains decreased this year's yield by 20 percent.

However, he expressed hope that next year his organization will have 100 tons of the fruit to offer to international buyers.

Here in front of his house some 100 km south of Belgrade, he tested some dozen types of blueberry bushes, mostly American ones, imported from the Netherlands.

Growing northern high bush blueberries intensified in past ten years in Serbia when Djuknic was one of the five blueberry growers that got donation from the Dutch government in form of blueberry bushes and watering systems.

Encouraged by the donation he formed a cooperative whose members went through a training organized by the United States Agency for International Development, and participated in international agricultural fairs in Berlin and Tokyo, which proved the best way to find buyers, according to Djuknic.

He said that farmers formed the cooperative in order to offer bigger quantities of fruit for export. Thanks to implementation of "Global G.A.P." standard that controls the production process in 2009 the cooperative became the first exporter of packed blueberry to the EU, namely the Netherlands and Britain.

According to Djuknic, a two-year old blueberry bush of American types such as Duke, Bluecrop, Spartan or new American varieties such as Draper, Liberty and Huron costs 2.5 euros per plant in Netherlands and the cooperative obtains them for its members. When bushes reach full growth after seven years they can give 5 to 7 kg of fruit for decades or even a century -- which is an income of some 30 euros per plant.

Blueberry farm of one hectare can give 12 to 15 tons of fruit which farmers can sell for around 50,000 to 60,000 euros to resellers. Good profit is secured by the popularity blueberry has on European market where it costs around 9 euro per kg.

Although it sounds like a dream job, many of Serbian farmers are driven away from the idea by the initial high price of the investment -- some 19,000 euro per hectare for certified American seedlings of mentioned types imported from Netherlands, watering system and fertilizing of the soil, as well as optional 13,000 euro for the anti-hail net that both serves as protection against falling ice and shield against excessive sun.

Due to high investment, according to Djuknic, most of those growing blueberry in Serbia are not primarily farmers, but entrepreneurs that invest money from their previous businesses or their life savings among which are returnees from abroad or even doctors and engineers.

Djuknic said that Dutch and American experts that trained blueberry growers on seminars and toured the farms said that there are extraordinary conditions in Serbia for growing blueberries, while time has shown fruits are of premium quality.

"Blueberry needs acidic soil, but soil can be also repaired by using an amendment such as the one we developed with our own technology that is based on Lithuanian turf," Djuknic said, adding that moist soil or excess water are not suitable.

However, blueberries have their delicate side -- they are picked solely by hands so that they could retain premium quality. Right after picking, they must be stored in refrigerators where they wait for buyers at the temperature from 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. This is why farmers have to hire and train dozens of workers from neighboring villages at picking time, while cooperative rents refrigerators to store the fruits, which raises production costs.

In Serbia, main harvests start in mid-June, before many European farms, but farms on higher elevation have later harvests and above 1000 meters they can take place as late as September.

Serbian blueberry farmers said that the business presents to them a great profit and it cannot be compared with conventional agriculture.

Miloljub Smiljanic, 74, a retired Belgrade university professor of microelectronics from Slavkovica, a village near the town of Ljig, said last year he planted his farm of some 400 square meters using the domestic amendment.

He said he started the farm in his birthplace in order to give a positive example and boost development of neighboring villages.

"My daughter brought the entrepreneur spirit from America and wanted for our family to have some kind of product. We also have an orchard. Our village decays as well as other villages and we wish to give an example," Smiljanic explains, adding that he expects profit bigger than his pension in the fourth year.

Miroljub Matijevic, 52, was a carpenter and had a private business while his wife Draga Matijevic worked in state company that went bankrupt. They live in Nova Varos of southwest Serbia and last eight years they live with their two children solely from some 400 square meter blueberry farm at Mt Zlatar above the city.

They started the business inspired with an agricultural TV show where Ivan Djuknic explained advantages of growing blueberries in Serbia, so they contacted him.

Eight years later in August their farm at an elevation of 1,050 meters is ripe for picking, and all investments are covered enabling them to expand. Some two tons of large blueberries, Duke, Patriot, Brigitte and Bluecrop, each more than 1 cm in diameter, swing while hanging on the bushes under protective nets. Half of the farm is in full capacity while half was planted just two years ago.

"It is not hard to maintain a blueberry farm; however it is one of the biggest investments in agriculture," said Mr Matijevic. "We choose to plant up here because I was born here, and our tactics are to have blueberries after the season ends elsewhere -- so we can achieve the best price."

Matijevic couple explain that in a matter of days they will pick the farm with 15 workers in five consecutive harvests each lasting for two days.

Because of their late harvest they are not members of any cooperative, and they sell their fruits directly at a price of around 4 euro per kg to local buyers that resell to the Russian market.

"Our son also chose this business. He is with us and he will take care of Goji berries we are also starting to grow," Mrs. Matijevic said.

Back in Belanovica, Ivan Djuknic stressed that his cooperative wishes to develop further. It prepared projects for developing their production with new refrigerator, factory for packaging, production of dried blueberries and is in process of looking for investors and applying for donations from the European Union.

"State should subsidize blueberry growing as it is a great product for export, we have great conditions to grow it," he concludes.