03/16/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated May 16, 2014

Going Organic in Slovenia

Ten years ago I visited Slovenia to do a report on organic farming for the Bay Area-based organization Food First. I was drawn to the former Yugoslav republic because it had recently joined with several neighboring Italian and Austrian provinces to create the world's first organic bioregion -- the Alpe-Adria. Organic farming made a lot of sense for Slovenia since its farms were relatively small and it was close to European markets that put a premium on organic produce. Slovenia, I thought, could show the way for other East European countries by leapfrogging from collectivized agriculture over industrial farming to the organic alternative.

I conducted a series of interviews in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. There I learned that the government's commitment to making the country the "garden of Europe" involved pouring resources into "integrated farming," which was an improvement over chemical-intensive agriculture but didn't qualify as sustainable. European Union subsidies were useful for preserving agricultural land, but the country wasn't exactly on the verge of becoming an organic poster child. Then I got on a bus heading south to Slovenia's tiny Adriatic coast to meet organic farmer Boris Fras.

His back bent from years of tending his vines, Fras showed me around his plots. He grew olives and grapes on land with spectacular views of the Adriatic. He grappled with the usual concerns of a farmer -- getting sufficient water, finding markets for his products, negotiating good prices. He also faced a potentially more serious threat -- developers who wanted to buy up land in the area to build a golf course and the tourism infrastructure to go with it.

Ten years later, I met Fras for a cup of coffee in the coastal town of Ankaran. The developers were still eyeing his land, and the golf course remained a live option. But the financial crisis had undercut some of the construction fervor, and Slovenia had passed laws in the meantime to protect fertile land. Fras was more worried about the water situation, since the region was suffering through a mini-drought.

He was still committed to organic farming and had begun growing vegetables as well to diversify what he could offer to consumers. But the share of organic farming has not increased very much in Slovenia, even though more and more people are buying organic. They're just not buying Slovenian organic produce. Nothing gets Fras more agitated than the tendency of Slovenians to buy imported food.

"It's a huge debate now -- not just in Slovenia but also at the EU level -- about how local food is better than imported food not just because of freshness but the waste of energy in transportation," he told me. "All Slovenians say, 'Yes, bravo!' But they are still buying cheap imported fruits and vegetables. When they do a public opinion poll, they all say, "Yes, we are for local food." But then you go to the markets and you see that they are buying the opposite."
One way for the Slovenian government to boost local organic agriculture would be to facilitate institutional purchases -- schools, hospitals, and so on. Italy adopted this approach and the organic sector is now 10 percent of its agriculture. Slovenia has yet to follow this path.

"Sodexho from France offers food to Slovenian schools for practically nothing," Fras complains." And I'm competing against this huge thing? It's impossible! You break the law if you speak directly with the school. It's crazy. In Italy, they don't have public food in school. It's private. The schools get money from the larger community, from the village, and from the parents. They can organize what they want, by themselves. There's no state law preventing that. Not that long ago organic was only 3 percent of the farming in Italy."

We talked about producing organic olive oil, EU farming subsidies, and why even fruits and vegetables need a "story" in order to lure consumers into buying them.

The Interview

When I was here nine years ago, the major issue for you was these golf courses that they were thinking of building here.

Yes, they wanted to build golf courses. And they still want to. But it's still not built yet. And it will be difficult to build them because a few laws were enacted here in the last few years to protect fertile agricultural land. Slovenia comes in last in Europe in terms of square hectares per capita. We have only 800 square meters of good fertile agricultural land per person on which to grow food. The rest is forest and pasture land. After some public discussion, we decided to protect such land. It will work maybe against the gold courses.

But in Slovenian law, the power of changing the scope of what to do with the land is at the community not at the state level. The state has the right approach to land protection, more or less. But at the community level -- and we have three communities here along the coast: Ankaran, Koper, Izola -- there are business interests behind creating an industrial zone, selling land for a mega shopping center, building a golf course, or building new houses. This is one of the easiest ways for the community to get money. They get it from the state, from a percentage of salary, and what they can sell. And they can sell land. That's the only thing left to sell here.

I don't remember how intensive the fight was nine years ago. The proposed golf course is 70 hectares. It's not big, but it's big for this area. What's important is the possibility to irrigate the field. You can see now with the weather. Up until the end of April, it rained each day -- there'd never been so much rain during the year. Then from that time, there's been no rain. We are in the middle of a dry season. With no water, everything is dying. Without irrigation you can't grow vegetables and maybe no fruit.

And golf courses take up a lot of water.

Yes. Okay, they presented some alternative ways of maintaining the golf course with less water and different kinds of grass. But in the end, it's the same. They would also change the countryside. It's flat in the proposed site. And golf needs some hills.

You don't have to convince people at the national level but there's still support for this course at the community level.

Not just at the community level. Tourist organizations and hotels support the golf course. Also these people who run bars and restaurants, and the association of construction companies. They all are pushing for golf. The airport in Portoroz also wants it. They calculate that some new tourists will come in to play golf in the wintertime. But there's a modern golf course near Trieste, in Italy, 15 kilometers from here. And still they don't fly there from Germany or Britain during the wintertime. The golf course there is empty.

These companies that want golf also want to build apartments, a whole tourist infrastructure. It's not just golf. But these are difficult times to sell things now, because of the crisis. No one is building new flats or houses, because there's no one to buy them. There are a lot of empty complexes. They expect that the Russians or the Italians will come here to buy. But the Italians go to the countryside in Istria or the Karst region and buy up the most beautiful properties. They don't want to buy anything here.

You talked before about all the pressure to sell agricultural land for development. Given the financial crisis, is there still the same pressure to sell?

Yes. Fewer and fewer people are doing agriculture. Each day we have fewer farmers but more public debate in the media about having a garden, building urban gardens, and unemployed doctors and lawyers becoming farmers. Yes, there are projects that have begun. But you know agriculture is difficult. You have to work from dawn to dusk. There's no big money in it. I'm speaking about traditional farmers. If you have 100 or 200 hectares, you're still a small farmer. You plow, you plant seeds, you harvest -- you do everything yourself.

You even have to sell your own produce. A small farmer is in a difficult position because 20 or 30 years before, there were logistic places where you went with your products to sell. It was a zadruga, a cooperative. Each village had a place where a small farmer could sell even as little as 20-30 kilos each day. The state sold these off during privatization, and now the farmer here must drive everything to a center in Koper. Some farmers don't have vans to drive the produce over there.

It's a huge debate now -- not just in Slovenia but also at the EU level -- about how local food is better than imported food not just because of freshness but the waste of energy in transportation. All Slovenians say, "Yes, bravo!" But they are still buying cheap imported fruits and vegetables. When they do a public opinion poll, they all say, "Yes, we are for local food." But then you go to the markets and you see that they are buying the opposite. Sometimes it's not even the price that matters. So, the only possibility for small farmers is the local marketplaces.

They're not even always local. I go to Ljubljana for instance. There are also some alternative ways of selling products. We organize our own places of distribution to connect with buyers. It takes a lot of time and energy. All day, you are driving and phoning, instead of being in the fields. This aspect of agriculture is very difficult. If you're supplying the big institutions, like shopping centers, it's also difficult. They say, "I want such and such tomorrow morning at 5 am," and then you have to do it. You also have to fill out forms before packing everything.

You are still growing olives, grapes, and...

And more and more vegetables. I got two hectares five years ago near the water. It's five kilometers from me. I have two possibilities of getting water. Last year it was a really dry season, and I had to buy 200 meters of pipe for irrigation and then dig it in. But I saved my produce. So, I'm happy that I have this possibility.

Do you also grow the vegetables organically?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.