While the landscape in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is perfect for organic farming, “we have just started to use this great potential we have,” said Sejad Herceg, an organic farmer and chairman of an association gathering 75 fellow organic farmers across the BiH.
Organic crops are grown in an uncontaminated environment without using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Organic livestock are fed with organic fodder free of growth hormones and antibiotics.
“That definition is correct if you produce only for your family,” said Senad Omerovic, another die-hard local organic farmer.
“If you want to sell your produce as organic, you also need a certificate issued by an accredited body,” he said.
His farm in Konjevic Polje is a fertile piece of land between the river Jadar and the man-made lake on the Drina river, some 100 km north-east of the capital Sarajevo.
Two decades ago Omerovic started with conventional farming in greenhouses and out in open fields. Later he started Agrofood cooperation that now produces vegetables, fruit and seedlings on four hectares.
Five years ago he decided to turn Agrofood organic and started the conversion process autonomously. He then applied for a certificate from Organska kontrola – OK company (Organic Control – OK). Three years ago he became a certified organic farmer for the local and the European Union (EU) market.
“Organic farming is much more difficult,” he said. He treats his crops more often than when he was a conventional farmer. Only now he uses natural remedies based on garlic, stinging nettle, and similar plants, which do not kill pests but only repel them, costing more than pesticides.
Besides, weeds have to be eradicated manually, which is also more costly than herbicides. The harvest is not as plentiful as in conventional farming. On top of that, customers in BiH still have to get used to buying fruits and vegetables uneven in size and shape or with optical flaws, instead of grabbing pumped-up, same-size, and shiny-looking produce.
Despite all that, Omerovic didn’t even think about quitting the organic way of farming.
“Never. I would rather not farm at all when I just recall how much poison we sprayed on our food and land. We ate that and sold it to others to eat! I would never do it again, for my family’s sake and for the sake of my customers.”
He said that he still occasionally sells a portion of his produce on wholesale green markets at the same price as non-organic, and sometimes even cheaper.
“Most traders on wholesale green markets are still more interested in the price than the quality and the OK-certificate,” he said, adding he didn’t know better himself a decade ago.
Organic Control – OK is a company that started to certify organic products back in 2007, after earning credentials from the International Organic Accreditation Service (IOAS). The company has been also recognized by the European Commission in 2011, thus their certificate is recognized in the European Union (EU).
Mersida Musabegovic, who has been the company director since 2008, said organic food production is rather new in BiH and the quantities of certified and exported organic food are still modest, but rapidly growing.
According to the analytical office of BiH’s Foreign Trade Chamber, there is still no official data on organic food export since it still has not been awarded a separate export code and statistically it is quantified along with conventionally produced agricultural products.
According to the data gathered by the Organic Control – OK, the export of organic food in BiH grew from 4.3 million euros (5.05 million U.S. dollars) in 2016 to 7.6 million euros (8.93 million dollars) in 2019. Even this year when the world economy is dampened by the COVID-19 pandemic, BiH’s organic produce has good prospects, showing the industry’s resilience to market turbulence.
The numbers are modest compared to the total import of agriculture products worth 1.5 billion euros (1.76 billion dollars) and 409 million euros (480 million dollars) worth of exports.
“But Bosnians are slowly discovering that we can’t put a price tag on our health,” said Omerovic, adding that he finds it is worthwhile to pay for the certificate and he doesn’t mind being checked by the OK inspectors who conduct announced or unannounced controls and take samples of his soil and produce for testing purposes.