All across Europe, farmers seek ways to enhance their position. The SFERE group invests in related research and in the dialogue across researchers, farmers and stakeholders. Such dialogue also includes cross visits. Mid May, Belgian and Slovene experts meat each other in the framework of the European project COCOREADO and the bilateral Celsa project between KU Leuven and Ljubljana University. COCOREADO has appointed ambassadors all across Europe, a team of experts willing to learn and exchange ideas on enhancing the position of the farmer. Celsa focuses on the supportive environment of farmers.
From the 10th until the 13th of May, a group from KU Leuven visited Slovenia. The group consisted of two KU Leuven staff members, Mertijn Moeyersons and Marco Moretti; one of the COCOREADO ambassadors, Antoon Vanderstraeten; and Lisa and Steven Van Hyfte, innovative Flemish farmers. They spent two days on the road visiting several Slovene farmers and examples of rural development projects. The hosting group was led by professor Irma Potočnik Slavič, professor Barbara Lampič and PhD candidate Sara Mikolič from the Department of Geography of the University of Ljubljana.
During the first day, the group visited the farm of another COCOREADO ambassador, Domen Virant.
His farm is located in the small village of Volčji Potok, in the Upper Carniola Region. Here, with the majestic Eastern Alps as landscape, Domen focuses on the production of arable crop such corn, wheat, barley, pumpkins, potatoes, strawberries and on the production of hay milk from milking goats. A peculiarity of the village is that it is a strongly protected agricultural heritage, where modern houses are forbidden to be built.
The group also had the opportunity to hear about the experience of the Local Action Group “Heart of Slovenia”, part of the Community Led Local Development (CLLD). Their main activity is the sharing and dividing of EU LEADER funds and, from the 85 projects that received their support in the past, 70% is still ongoing today. Currently, they have 58 members.
The next stop was the Biotechnical Centre Naklo, an agricultural educational center focused on both secondary and higher education. Students are asked to work in the 24 hectares of agricultural land surrounding the school. They also produce the food served in the school canteen and the products sold in the school shop. The school is run by 130 staff members and has 850 secondary students, 200 higher education students and approximately 4.000 participants in shorter courses.
Then the group went to Tilen Soklic’s farm. In addition to asparagus cultivation, it is famous for the production of liquor, jam and wine from black and red currant. These were some of the most famous crops in the region, while nowadays only few farmers have them.
Tilen sells his products on the local farmer market twice a week, but in his plans he will reduce attendance to one day a week.
The last part of the trip was the Bled Castle (figure 1), one of the most picturesque places in Slovenia, and the spectacular Bled Lake. The group had a chance to talk with the mayor, who explained the history of the place to them and shared his ideas on how to develop the area.
The following day the group visited Toni Kukenberger’s dairy farm. After taking over the farm from his grandfather, he started with a new business model that involved hay milk production and organic farming. He produces various semi-hard cheeses, fresh cheese, grilled cheese, sweet and fresh cottage cheese, yogurt, sour and sweet cream, raw and melted butter and whey. He sells his products mostly in small shops and online.
Then the group visited Dobrote Dolenjska, or Dolenjska Delights, a collaborative brand that links more than 120 farmers from Dolenjska region and offer high quality traditional products. It has started in 2012 as an EU-funded project (LEADER/CLLD measure) for promoting the culinary heritage of the region. Now it is working as a social enterprise and is evolving to more service based strategies like workshops and catering. For the brand “Dolenjska Delights” they work with experts, like an ethnologist, and control every product on heritage, location of production and branding.
The next stop was Uhan’s orchard. This farm is managed by two generations (father, mother and their son) and was developed step by step in the last 30 years. They went from mixed farming (livestock and grains) to fruit farming. More precisely they have several varieties of apples but also pears, cherries, peaches, strawberries, plums and walnuts. Since the beginning they sell all their products directly to the consumers and in short supply chains, for example in their on-site store, or farmer markets or supplying public kitchens (as school and kindergartens). As supplementary activities they have a new fruit processing units, which is used to produce fruit juice from their own harvest and their neighboring farmer ones, and a bee house.
The last place of the trip was Colnar wine cellar. This is a large grape farm famous for his cviček (a local type of wine) and their rosé, which won the price for the best rosé in the world in 2019. The farm is run by Janez Colnar and his family. He has started modernizing the process of wine making and has succeed to double the production in the past few years, from 5 hectares to 10, and from one variety to 7.
There the group met Dr. Marko Koščak, from the Faculty of Tourism of the University of Maribor, with whom they discussed on how to develop the tourism experience in this region, which preserves a very important cultural and natural heritage.
The last day, before leaving for Belgium, the group visited the local market of Ljubljana, where they had the chance to talk with local producers and try typical products, while visiting the stunning city center.
These visits add value to ongoing research. They stimulate dialogue, not just between researchers, but also with the farmers. They show the diversity of Europe’s agricultural landscape and demonstrate the cultural value of Europe’s food system.
Marco Moretti – KU LEUVEN