DEZEVCI, Croatia - Reuters
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world will spend over $1 trillion on importing food in 2008, $215 billion more than the record sum paid in 2007. Land prices in parts of Europe are climbing amid mounting demand for space to grow crops.
But in Croatia - where for example annual tomato output at some 70,000 tones is a fraction of the 1.2 billion or so tones the FAO estimated Ukraine produced in 2005 - farmers are striving for a segment of niche markets as large swathes of land remain uncultivated and the government resists foreign land purchases.
Nenad Matic of the Peasant Party, which is part of the ruling coalition and has put forward a "Renaissance of the Countryside" program, said Croatia's opportunity lay in finding niches like wine or organic farming which should go well with its vibrant tourist industry.
"We cannot be a major exporter, we cannot compete with others in terms of quantity or price. We must look for particular market niches for our indigenous products, wine, cheese, and plum brandy. And to sell our home-grown food to tourists," Matic said.
BAN ON LAND SALE
Agriculture experts estimate that more than a third of Croatia's 150,000 farms may fold unless they merge and improve standards and output before the country joins the EU.
"The problems are small and fractured estates, old and uneducated population, dated technology, poorly developed market infrastructure. Unfortunately, Croatia has never had a farming strategy to address those issues," said Damir Kovacic, a professor at Zagreb's Faculty of Agriculture.
Half of Croatia's 2.6 million hectares of arable land is unused, most of it owned by small farmers with estates averaging less than three hectares. "They did not find it profitable to work the land and there were no punitive measures for keeping the land unused, so it just lay there," Kovacic said. Agriculture Minister Bozidar Pankretic said the unused land could be worth "at least 20 billion euros in a few years" and he is due to draft a strategy for its use by the end of this year.