“Venéts” is the Bulgarian word for a braided wreath, for example made of willow or flowers. We chose this name deliberately: firstly, because we want to practice a type of agriculture in which everything we cultivate and the natural flora and fauna are symbiotically interwoven. Second, because we want to create a network of mutually supportive, sustainable farms that together contribute to a local, resource-efficient circular economy. And thirdly, because we want to contribute to a new relationship between consumers and producers, between cities and rural areas, based on transparency, trust, shared risk and shared harvest.
We cultivate approximately 50 hectares of land in total, at two locations that are about an hour apart. Both are located in northern Bulgaria, between the Danube plain and the Balkan Mountains. The region is characterized by a picturesque landscape of gentle hills and deep gorges, framed by snow-capped mountains. The climate is continental: in summer it is hot and dry, with temperatures up to 40 degrees; in winter the temperatures can fall below - 20 degrees. Northern Bulgaria is not only one of the most beautiful, but also the poorest region in Europe. After the end of socialism, the state cooperatives were replaced by private entrepreneurs that cultivated ever larger areas industrially with monocultures. There are hardly any employment opportunities in rural areas. The young population has migrated to cities and other countries. The old agricultural traditions are dying out. Most fruit and vegetables are now imported in Bulgaria.
Before we started cultivating our land, in place of today's gardens there were plum orchards and vineyards. They had been privatized after the end of socialism and fell victim to decay. It has been years before we were able to locate the countless owners of the small parcels and their descendants in order to purchase or lease the land. I myself had only inherited a few small parcels. So I started from scratch, in the overgrown vineyard of the village named after my great-grandfather: Todorovo.
It all started when I was researching social and ecological changes taking place in rural regions of Eastern Europe for my political science degree. At that time the idea was born that one day I would start a farm that would continue the almost disappeared tradition of fruit and vegetable production in this region of Bulgaria and open up new perspectives for the village. Almost 20 years have passed since this idea until today.
While I was working in Rome and New York for the United Nations on sustainable agriculture and climate change, every free minute I had I was building a team in Bulgaria, taking permaculture courses, visiting farms - and planning my own farm.
For that, I worked with the Balkan Ecology Project, a permaculture association in Bulgaria. For a year we observed the land of the future farm, analyzed the climate conditions, examined the soil and researched the naturally occurring biodiversity. Based on this, we selected those crops and varieties that best suit the local conditions. That is a total of over 80 different types of fruit, vegetables and cereals. These include apples, cherries, plums, quinces, sour cherries, pears, mulberries, hazelnuts, sea buckthorn, medlars, currants, Japanese quince, aronia berries, einkorn, amaranth, sorghum, beans, cherry tomatoes and dozens of other vegetables. We also have 40 beehives from which we extract small amounts of delicious honey. All our farmed areas have been organically certified since 2021.
All of our gardens, with the exception of the cherry orchard, are polycultures. This means that - in contrast to monocultures - we grow different types of fruit and vegetables, flowers and herbs as well as grain and hay meadows in a mixed way. We make sure that the different cultures are mutually beneficial: some provide shade, others collect nitrogen, while others attract beneficial insects or drive away pests.
Promoting this diversity of naturally occurring and cultivated plants has earned us the second prize in an EU competition for the “Most Modern Farm in Bulgaria”. We have also been funded twice by the "European Institute for Innovation" in connection with projects that support innovation in the areas of climate protection and sustainable agriculture.
We attach great importance to the preservation of biodiversity and the resulting natural balance: For example, we have hung up dozens of nesting boxes for bluetits and other songbirds (which does not prevent them from nesting directly in our cherry trees); old, tall trees serve as landing pads for countless birds of prey that roam our gardens in search of mice. Heaps of stones and sticks provide a home for snakes and hedgehogs, which also hunt for mice. And throughout our gardens we have large areas, well over what is required by law, which we deliberately leave untouched in order to preserve the more than 60 wild plants - including wild orchids and "wild relatives" of ancient cereals - which we have identified with the help of the Bulgarian Foundation for Biodiversity.
We suppress unwanted weeds with mulch - a thick layer of straw or wool in which we bed our plants and trees. As a result, the weeds do not get any light and die. At the same time, this reduces water evaporation. Under the mulch layer it is always moist and not so hot in summer. And in the case of the wool, which we collect unwashed from sheep farms in the region, we also fertilize slowly and steadily: with every rain shower and watering, a bit of sheep manure dissolves and provides the plants with valuable nutrients.
We also fertilize with home-made compost, herbal compost teas, mushroom compost and vermicompost. The latter is produced for us by another young farmer on our land, using cow manure from an organic cattle farm in the neighboring village. This provides him with a steady buyer and us with a steady source of compost. The same young farmer has an organic plum orchard in our neighborhood and supplies us with some of the plums for our jams. The leftovers from the production of jams and juices are also turned into compost.
In fact, we almost do not have any waste on our farm: fruit that is not perfectly looking is processed into juice and jam; everything organic, such as tree cuttings, plant residues or juice pressings, is composted; non-organic waste such as hoses from the irrigation system that need to be replaced are creatively reused, for example to tie up cucumbers and beans. All of our packaging is plastic-free. When delivering our products, we coordinate with colleagues to save fuel. We try to operate in a closed and low-emission cycle as possible.
We also save water as much as possible: We rarely use groundwater. Instead, we collect rainwater and use a small river that borders our country. Climate change is making itself felt in our country by the fact that average temperatures have risen steadily in recent years and precipitation is becoming more and more irregular. That means weeks and months of periods without a drop of rain, punctuated by heavy downpours that cause flooding. In view of this development, it is even more important to regenerate the soil: to protect it from evaporation during dry periods; improve its water absorption capacity and thus prevent erosion; and enrich it with organic matter to improve its structure. We collect as much rainwater as possible in several large catchment basins with a total capacity of 2.5 million liters, from which we water using drip irrigation (a cherry tree, for example, needs around 3 liters of water per day in the summer months).
There are 15 women and 7 men working in our company on a permanent basis. We produce our own young plants, have our own small juice and jam factory and market all our products ourselves. This allows us to offer our employees year-round employment. About half of our employees are Roma. Many of them, especially among the women, never or hardly had the opportunity to attend school. We made it possible for them to catch up on their school education; to learn how to use computers; and to sign employment contracts for the first time in their lives with paid leave, fair wages, health insurance and the right to a pension.
We sell our products primarily directly to the final client through fruit and vegetable boxes, which we offer on a subscription base. Purchasing power in Bulgaria is very low. That is why we work with models such as solidarity agriculture. The model is relatively new in Bulgaria, but well received. We are currently working on a project through which we want to offer boxes with sustainable products, especially to the poorer rural population, at reduced prices. Our volunteers, who have been visiting us from all over Europe for a number of years for short and longer periods, are also involved in this and other projects. This year we will also try with a group of volunteers to support some young people from our region to develop their own sustainable idea for improving the living conditions in the village and to realize it with the help of the European Solidarity Corps.