For many years raspberries were life savers for Serbian farmers with the berry’s profitable prices and large demand worldwide. Today it’s no longer worth its weight in gold pressuring the livelihood of the country’s farmers.
SERBIA: In the southwest of Serbia the landscape’s covered with wood filled mountains. From afar they look unapproachable to work on, let alone to live on. But taking on one hairpin bend after the other and going, what seems to be off road, on narrow sides of a mountain hoping the rocks that keep the earth beneath you steady won’t let you down, is where you’ll find the Milutihović family both working and living. They’re one of many Serbian families relying on the raspberries they grow on the steep mountain sides to help earn enough to get by.
Too low prices
“We don’t have the motivation to keep producing raspberries. I’ve cut down the amount I’m producing because I’m not making enough money off of it and I’m not the only one,” he says.
There’s no agreement on why the prices are going down and it’s an ongoing debate states Vladimir Pekic a journalist specialized in agri-food in Europe and Latin America:
“There’s constant talk of market dominance, market manipulation. There’s little trust left as even institutions have a credibility problem.”
Milutihović explains, the farmers believe the government’s keeping prices low so the trading companies that export the berries earn more. Companies that, according to Milutihović, are “friends” with people in government. A conflicting explanation in the debate, is that the traders work in a more competitive market than earlier and can’t get the same price for the berries as demand’s lowering.
The lack of money has left farmers frustrated, wanting the government to implement a minimum price of 1.3 euro per kilogram of raspberries to have a large enough profit to afford living. Something the Serbian government claims isn’t controlled by it but by market forces.
On top of Prince’s Hill, half an hour drive away from the southwest city Ivanjica, Milutihović visits his parents. Living in a small house his parents take care of the farm, the animals and crops. In the fields at the back of the land rows of raspberry plants are lined up, getting ready to carry the berries in June.
In a variety of articles Serbia was crowned the world’s largest raspberry producer in 2015, according to national statistics. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Serbia produced around six tons of raspberries outnumbered by Russia and Mexico, who produced respectively 8.4 ton and 17.8 ton of raspberries that year.
“It’s my personal view, based on information from different sources, that the official statistics on raspberry production in Serbia aren’t as reliable as one might hope for. They’ve been revised a few times in recent years. In fact, different stats released, and referred to by Serbian coldstores, Serbian raspberry growers’ groups and the official stats are often in collision,” states Vladimir Pekic, a journalist specialized in agri-food in Europe and Latin America.
He explains it’s “an open secret” that the official statistics in the past years might have been over-inflated because growers reported larger surfaces in the hope to get more subventions.
For this year’s season the family’s prepared an area on 3.500m2 a lot smaller than in the good times in the 00’s.
“In the top seasons we’d prepare 5.000m2, because the prices were better. Today, we wouldn’t get enough money considering the work we’d have to put into producing them,” Milutihović says.
It was for the money Milutihović’s parents started farming raspberries in 1984. Then, not many Serbs paid attention to the berry. That changed when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990’s.
“The economy suffered and many lost their jobs. A lot of them started growing raspberries, because they needed the money,” Milutihović explains.
Now, the raspberries don’t give Milutihović the same security as they once did. But there might be a way to make life a little better he says.
“I think the EU can help us but there needs to be made changes in Serbia first,” he says, pointing at the corruption taking place in Serbia. Something the EU in its Serbia 2018 report also told the Serbian government to improve for the country to become a member state.
Pekic can also see the potential benefits for Serbia in becoming a member of the EU.
“They’d get more power by being able to benefit from EU structures, experiences, funds, organizations, policies and learn from mistakes others committed,” he says.
Since the boom of raspberry farmers, the export has been declining, and there’s many reasons for that, explains journalist Vladimir Pekic:
“One of the main reasons for the original success of raspberry farming was the fact that it is an export-oriented crop that never had its price determined by central authorities, thus opening up a semi-direct route to foreign markets for small-scale, poorly connected growers in the Serbian heartlands,” he explains.
The growing of raspberries has stuck to many farms since the 1990’s and were back then something to be proud of, Milutihović says.
“We’re no longer proud raspberry farmers. The raspberries my parents started producing when I was a child gave me all I have today. I built my house of that money. But I might stop growing them,” he says.