Bulgaria's COVID-hit farmers struggle under media negligence and insufficient state support

Use of greenhouses is an important aspect of agriculture in Bulgaria. Photo by Wikipedia user Biso, depicting Cveti Cvet greenhouse in Galabovtsi village, Bulgaria. CC BY-SA 4.0.

To many Bulgarians outside the agrarian sector, farming is seemingly a sector unaffected by COVID-19, and little efforts seem to shed light on what is happening there. Bulgarian media often report on the restaurant businesses and retail outlets being affected by the pandemic, but rarely explore the adverse effects on other industries like farming, and their interconnections. Therefore, having been left out of public debates or politicians’ and media's scope of interest for decades, farmers’ plights under the pandemic have rarely been noticed.

In a bid to alleviate the impact of the pandemic, the government did take a series of measures in order to support small and medium-sized enterprises and producers in agriculture. The aid, after approval by European Commission, was coming from allocated subsidies from the European Union (EU) funded Program for Rural Development 2014-2020.

Starting in May, COVID-related aid for agriculture will be offered for the second consecutive year, approving up to 7000 euros (about $8500) for each applicant.

What is problematic with the guidelines for the 2021 aid, however, is that those who received governmental support last year won't be eligible to benefit from this year's. This might leave agriculture entities still hit by the effects of COVID-19 without essential support. In addition, the aid is available only for those who applied in 2020 for financing by the EU's specialized funds.

The support for farmers, as well as small and medium enterprises affected by COVID-19 in 2020, also had its limitations. It hinged on specific conditions set by the Ministry of Agriculture, including a condition that applicants must have applied for subsidies in 2019 and 2020, unless they're beekeepers or beneficiaries of a valid contract under the Rural Development 2014-2020. According to critics, this condition was seen as an obstacle for new farmers who don't have history of applying for financing from EU funds.

Government officials dispersing these funds, who failed to respond to Bulgarian daily E-newspaper‘s inquiries, have yet to announce an official assessment of the impact of Covid-19 on Bulgarian agriculture. Farmers, on the other hand, were keen to share their neglected views, including their opinion on what possibly the aid so far lacks.

Aid is not enough

According to to Ivan Gyurov, who grows dessert grapes in vineyards in the village of Brestovitsa located near the city of Plovdiv in south-central Bulgaria, life has been tough under the pandemic. A member of an independent syndicate of agricultural producers, Ivan told Bulgaria's E-newspaper:

I can divide the difficulties into two. Initially, the lockdown in March 2020 led to labor-related difficulties, affecting transport of farmhands to the fields and making it harder to obtain supplies of plant protection products. The closure of restaurants and the subsequent decline in tourists during the summer season led to declined demand, lowering prices of farmers’ produce. On top of that, farmers from other EU member states, like Poland for instance, received much higher subsidies than those from Bulgaria, allowing them to sell in our market at extremely low prices.

Gyurov added that the main problem with the aid in 2020 was the regulation that allowed only farmers who have received subsidies during previous two years to apply for COVID-related aid packages.

Markets falter

In terms of impact, farmers were affected differently by the pandemic, depending on their product, and a set of changing variations throughout the year. In an April 2020 report, the US Department of Agriculture noted that at the start of the pandemic, retail chains reported an increase in sales of more durable and cheaper goods such as rice, flour and others. Consumers shopped cheaply and “conservatively” out of caution or lack of funds, the report said.

But with summer, it was reported that suppliers of fresh produce witnessed a steady drop in demand of more expensive seasonal products like strawberries and cherries, affected by decline of tourism and hotel and restaurant activity and consumers’ conservatism. Similarly, duck farmers and others catering to Western European market with more costly products have been severely affected, unlike growers of grains and other essential crops in general.  

Small family businesses who relied on European clients paid a hefty price, as the search for new markets is challenging. A saffron producer , who lost foreign clients and took to Facebook in search of new ones, wrote:

We grow saffron, which we sell in the foreign market, but at the moment, this situation is making it difficult for us and therefore we have a fair amount left.

‘Cumbersome bureaucracy’

Casey Angelova. Photo: screenshot from the film Culinary Crimes, director Alexandra Val, fair use.

Casey Angelova, an American running a small farm with her Bulgarian husband near Kyustendil, a mountainous border city in the West of Bulgaria, is trying to keep her family business afloat. She said:

In the last two years, we have been working to register a distillery. We were in the middle of the process when the pandemic started. After the March 2020 lockdown, certain government agencies could no longer operate at full capacity. Our goal was to create cherry brandy from Kyustendil cherries. However, as our facility could not be inspected due to restrictions, we were unable to obtain a license in time to harvest cherries in June-July.

Angelova and her husband lost a year of effort and investment to create the brandy product and brand, but had to pause their distillery project.

Now the family is trying to recoup its losses through other investments. They began growing truffles, produce soap and run related tourism activities. In October and November 2020, at times of relaxed lockdown measures, they started organizing truffle visits, allowing people to join in the search for truffles with dogs, followed by truffles tasting.

However, since truffles and soap are not considered “traditional” products, the business was not eligible for state COVID-19 support.

Humans and dogs look for truffles in Bulgaria. Photo by Casey Angelova, used with permission.

Accordingly, and despite government efforts, many farmers continue to struggle. As Nidal Shaban, an expert on greenhouse vegetables production at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and a university lecturer, noted:

“Many of these producers did not apply due to the cumbersome bureaucracy of the district offices. The main disadvantage of receiving these benefits is that it deprives young producers with less than three years of experience, when in fact they need more support during a pandemic”.

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