photojournalist Diana Savina
Farmers joining forces for better business
A traditional small-scale farmer in the Moldovan countryside owns only a hectare of land and is not able to compete with the big actors on the agricultural market. Buyers set the rules and small-scale farmers are forced to sell their produce at low prices for a limited period of time which makes it hard to maintain a profitable business.
But what if the small-scale farmers would create a farm cooperative where the members jointly can ensure higher volumes of produce all year around and invest in equipment ce the food safety standards to the level required by the EU market? This transformation is ongoing within the Moldovan agricultural sector, partly as a result of the Swedish support to the World bank’s ”Agricultural Competitiveness Project”.
Partly, the Swedish support aims at enhancing food safety management, ”from the farm to the fork”, as well as ensuring regulatory harmonization to the EU requirements. Also, in order to enhance the market access potential, Sweden contributes to market integration of Moldova’s high value agricultural products; particularly of the horticultural sector where Moldova has comparative advantages in the production of fruits and vegetables. The project expects to see an increased share of quality products that meet the safety and quality standards for target markets as a result which will in turn strengthen the agricultural sector’s relative competitiveness and its income generation potential.
”Now I sleep well at night”
Before teaming up, the farmers behind Legbiofruct Cooperative in Cimislia couldn’t ensure high volumes of produce on their own. Consequently, the big retailers weren’t interested in any cooperation. After forming a producer-cooperative things changed.
— Now we are in contract with two retail chains in Romania. We don’t sell only in September or October anymore and are able to ask a higher price. Depending on the demands of the market, we can produce different types of plums, for example. If they want them dried, we can use our four ovens. If they want plums with more moisture, we process them in this steamer, says one of the members.
Since Legbiofruct Cooperative started their producer group in 2014, their sales have increased ten times. The cooperative have been able to expand their assets and apply for support to acquire modern post-harvest technologies and invest in equipment and facilities to store the harvest. Washing, grading, packing, pre-cooling, cold storage, pre-processing, refrigerated transportation are all essential components in post-harvest processes that improves the quality and consistency of fruits and vegetables. The cooperative today have 40 persons employed permanently, and an additional 60 employees during the harvest season.
— One farmer cannot maintain all these workers, all year around. So we merged our businesses. Someone had a green house and that secured that we can produce during the winter. One member had late spring strawberries, another plums which ripen a bit later and a third grapes, ready for harvest in September. That was the idea of our group, to make it possible to grow and keep our workers employed and work with the same people all year around.
Before the cooperative built their new storage facilities, they were forced to sell everything in September or October. Once, there was a late frost at night and harvest worth 60 000 dollars was lost.
— Now I sleep well at night, because I don’t have to think about the weather conditions.
“As a group, we have more opportunities”
— We all have one or two hectare of land each, our contribution is almost the same and there is no monopolizing of power in our group, we decide everything together, says the administrator of Colibasi Cooperative, Gheorghe Olteanu.
The founders had been studying different opportunities for cooperation for half a year when they found the Agricultural Competitiveness Project. Seven farmers created the Colibasi producer group in 2014.
As a cooperative, the producers no longer depend to such a degree on the weather or immediate sales. Instead, they can work with a longer time perspective and wait to sell their produce for a better price.
— When we used to sell it directly from the field, one kilogram could cost 7 lei in September. Now we can sell one kilogram for 14 lei in February.
It is the first year of the cooperative’s activities and they say that until recently, it was difficult to sell their products as the cooperative.
— People didn’t know about this entity, they knew about us as individuals. But now we start to get phone calls and proposals to us as an entity, Olteanu says.
Through the cooperation they are also, like other cooperatives, can pool capital and scale up operations for post-harvest storage, handling compliance with food safety requirements, adherence to target markets standards, as well as jointly producing promotion and marketing. According to Olteanu, it is easier to find buyers in Russia, but that is not sustainable. The more the cooperative sells, the sooner they will be able to invest in the equipment needed to be able to sell to the EU in the future.
— We would like to express our gratitude to the Swedish government for their assistance, we have benefited a lot and we would love to bring our grapes to Sweden!
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Facts: Agriculture Competitiveness Project.
The project is implemented by the World Bank in Moldova and has the objective to enhance the competitiveness of the country’s agro-food sector by supporting the modernization of the food safety management system, facilitating market access for farmers, and mainstreaming agro-environmental and sustainable land management practices. The Swedish contribution is 20 MSEK for the period 2012-2016.
Photo and text: Diana Savina