The "Kosovo Peony" project - association and branding is a good opportunity for Serbian producers in Kosovo

Kosovski božuri
Source: Kosovo Online

"The Treasures of Kosovo and Metohija: From the Heart of Serbia to Your Table" is a project idea proposed by the Serbian Association of Agricultural Economists (DAES) to the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, aiming to facilitate the easier placement of gastronomic products from Kosovo into the markets across Serbia. The President of DAES, Tatjana Brankov, clarified what needs to be done for this idea to come to life, while we had the opportunity to experience firsthand what awaits us on the table by visiting families in Kosovo who, by nurturing tradition, produce high-quality products.

If this project takes off, everyone would benefit. It would provide a good opportunity and motivation for the survival of households in Kosovo, consumers throughout Serbia would be able to enjoy delicacies, and society as a whole would benefit from preserving indigenous varieties and breeds and traditional methods of production.

Tatjana Brankov explains to Kosovo Online that the project is in its initial phase, but they know well what the ultimate goal is, which is to provide a stable supply of agricultural and food products from Kosovo to the Serbian market under the collective trademark "Kosovo Peony".

"To realize this idea, active participation of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija, DAES, and agricultural producers from Kosovo is necessary. The Serbian Association of Agrarian Economists is more than willing to provide expert support to our agricultural producers, and I have no reason to doubt that the Office for Kosovo and Metohija will support every good idea as it has done so far," Brankov says.

She explains that at this stage, it is necessary for agricultural producers from Kosovo to actively engage, and in order to ensure a stable supply of products in the markets of central Serbia, and then Vojvodina, it is necessary for them to unite.

"The best form of association is cooperative association because it is a form of association recognized by our system and in this way, agricultural producers can be helped. The Office for Kosovo and Metohija announced a public call for incentives on February 12, which includes incentives for cooperatives. I would like producers in Kosovo, as well as in other parts of Serbia, to understand that cooperative association is not a relic of the past, but rather the present and future in developed countries around the world," she says.

Representatives of DAES recently visited agricultural households in Kosovo with Zoran Zdravkovic, the director of the purchasing house "Metohija," the dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Pristina with temporary headquarters in Kosovska Mitrovica, Tanja Vujovic, and assistant Maja Mladenovic. Also on the team was Prof. Marija Nikolic, president of the Board of Directors of DAES, who is one of the leading experts in the field of cooperatives in Serbia and is available to provide all kinds of expert support to farmers. During their visit, they realized that the greatest potential lies with fruit, vegetable, and processed food producers.

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"We noticed that there are several young fruit growers there who need special support because they have also started their families there. Honey is a product with higher demand than supply, Shart cheese is definitely a product of special quality that is sold even in the French cheese shop at Kalenic Market. So, there are numerous products, but I repeat, for the supply to be stable, agricultural producers must unite in some form of association, and all those interested in such endeavors are asked to contact us, visit the DAES website, and find the necessary information, and we will continue to provide support," our interviewee appeals.

She adds that as citizens, we all have the right to choose to buy any goods, including food, and that our choice should be conscious.

"I am always in favor of buying domestically produced and high-quality products. Our producers in Kosovo and other parts of Serbia, as well as in the Western Balkans, must understand that we live in the era of digital capitalism, that multinational companies are increasingly dominating the system, and that the only way to defend themselves against fierce competition is to unite and, in doing so, offer the market high-quality products," Brankov concludes.

The necessity of collaboration is also confirmed by Mirko Jovanovic from the village of Dren, who has been raising bees with his family for 15 years. He says that it is most difficult for smaller producers and that secured market access would be a real boost for them and an incentive for even greater work in apiaries.

"Here, among us, there are many people who do not have a large quantity of products and who have no way to market their goods. Such associations would certainly make a contribution, not only talking about honey but also about other agricultural products and crops that they could nicely market through such an association," Jovanovic says.

A decade and a half ago, he and his family started with five beehives, and today they can boast of having 250 hives and nuclei in four apiaries, with their hives located in four villages at different altitudes. Mirko Jovanovic inherited his love for bees from his grandfather.

"Probably the love for beekeeping unconsciously developed during those years when we had five or six hives, which is what my grandfather had at the time. We unconsciously fell in love with bees. We started in 2009 with just three hives, to try and see how it would go, and then we simply fell in love with it. Year after year, we invested more and more in beekeeping, and we reached a quantity of around 250 hives, along with nuclei," Jovanovic explains.

Over the years, their priority became the production of queen bees, followed by honey, royal jelly, propolis, and many other products.

For bees, Jovanovic emphasizes, it is most important that they are not closely related, so they have spread their hives across four villages for queen bee production.

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"We have four apiaries; one is in Jarinje, the second in Kostin Potok, the third in Koporice, and this fourth one here in the village of Dren. This is the main apiary, and here is our breeding station for queen bees. In all four apiaries, we actually keep bees of different bloodlines. These bees are not closely related," Jovanovic emphasizes.

Honey is specific depending on where the beehives are located and at what altitude, the beekeeper explains. Hence, the different types of honey.

"We get different types of honey from different terrains. In the village of Koporice, the altitude is 800 meters, and the type of honey from Koporic is completely different from what we have here and in Jarinje, where the honey is practically the same because it's the same altitude. Our main pasture is meadow honey, and we rarely manage to collect Black Locust honey, while once every three or four years, we get black forest honey. Such honeys are of excellent quality; the pastures are intensive. The last time the forest blossomed was in 2021, and we expect it again this year. If not this year, it will definitely be next year. They can give large quantities of forest honey in an exceptionally short time," says Jovanovic.

He notes that they mostly sell bee products from door to door, and the most important thing is the trust between the beekeeper and the customer.

"Here we have excellent beekeepers. We are a region known for beekeeping. We have fantastic nature, rivers all around, lots of untouched nature, not many factories... A clean environment, and I think our honey is famous far and wide. It's sold simply, on trust. The relationship between the beekeeper and the customer guarantees the sale of good honey, so somehow we all sell it in the same way, from door to door," Jovanovic adds.

One of the oldest indigenous cheeses in the Balkans is undoubtedly "sarski sir" (Sharr cheese). The Nikolic family from Popovac in the municipality of Strpce has been producing this cheese for decades.

"Currently, I have two cows, and it's been like this for the last thirty years because even if I wanted to, the barn's capacity is small, so I can't have more than that. We milk them twice a day, in the morning and the evening. The calves suckle for about two months, and after they start eating solid food, I use a milking machine, which is far better, more hygienic, and easier. One cow can produce up to 30 liters of milk per day, without any concentrates. The cheese we produce from it is one hundred percent organic," the host, Radovan Nikolic says.

He adds that all the milk they obtain is used to make cheese, which requires a lot of milk, so only one kilogram of cheese is produced from 10 liters of milk.

"It's specific in that it requires a lot of milk because only a small quantity of cheese is obtained during drying. The milk density needs to be satisfactory, and in my case, it's excellent because Simmental cows have dense milk. This cheese requires fat, so ten liters of milk are needed for one kilogram of 'Sharr cheese'," Radovan explains.

Radovan's wife Verica is responsible for cheese production, although she is a physics teacher by profession. After her duties at school, she dedicates her time to making cheese. She emphasizes that it takes about a month and a half to obtain the final product.

"We heat ten liters of milk to 40 degrees Celsius, then add about three tablespoons of rennet, mix it, and let it sit for an hour and a half to two hours to curdle. Once it's curdled, we mix it and put it in a strainer, drain it a bit, press it, and form a lump, which is then placed and covered with a stone, and it sits like that all day. The next day, we let it dry. In the summer, we have a shelf on the terrace fenced with wire to prevent flies from entering. The cheese stays there for two or three days, and then we put it in the refrigerator, which we use only for that purpose, and it stays there for another two weeks. After that, it's placed in brine," explains Verica.

Radovan notes that the demand for cheese exceeds what they can produce because it's a high-quality product.

"We sell a portion of it to regular customers who come to our home, people from the village and the surrounding area of Sirinicka Zupa. What we don't sell at home, we vacuum pack and take to markets. It sells within two or three days, which is a sign of its quality. The retail price of cheese is 12 euros per kilogram, and wholesale is 11 euros. Wholesale is considered to be one bucket containing from 10 to 15 kilograms," Radovan says.

He believes that a healthy environment, clean water, and a suitable breed of cows are crucial for obtaining the unique taste and quality of Sharr cheese.

"There are many factors. First, there are no chemicals; our environment is preserved and healthy. The water is of very high quality, then the hay, there are no fertilizers, only organic ones that I use. So, it's 100% organic. It also depends on the quality of the cows. The cow must have a lot of fat in the milk to produce this kind of cheese. Hygiene is also very important, from the actual curdling to the drying process, which takes a long time. Everything has to be done properly. When I talk to people who buy it, they find it expensive, but realistically, if my family lived in Germany, this cheese would probably sell for 40 euros because it meets the quality standards. However, our purchasing power is low, so everything seems expensive to us," Radovan says.

He adds that this cheese belongs to the premium category, and it must have a premium price because the production costs are high, so it's not worth lowering the price.