An afternoon in Ohrid

Monday, April 19, 2010

Working with the Sheepbreeders part 1

Hopefully this will work - I just see a bunch of computer stuff where pictures should be! Anyway, just finished my favorite breakfast, scrambled eggs made with yogurt, cirenje - a salty, soft white cheese - and hot peppers - yum. I've written about the adventures I've had, but not work, so I'll tell you a little about work.
I work with the Sheepbreeders Association of Western Macedonia - Shoqata e Kultivuesve te dhenves ne Maqedonist Perandimore - but it's a bit of a misnomer. Besides promoting the products of the local sheepherders, my counterpart (and the only person actually running the association) also does work in rural development. As I've mentioned before, Macedonia is a candidate country to join the EU, and to do that it has to change its entire agricultural sector.
Macedonians have farmed the same way for centuries - small family farms. The land has been in families for generations and there is a strong tie, but that way of life is dying. For me, it's great, food is plentiful, fresh, and cheap, but it's getting increasingly impossible for farmers to make a living and the farms don't meet EU standards for hygiene or environmental protection, and the processing infrastructure is weak. The average age of farmers is rising as young people are leaving the farms for the larger cities and towns. Whole villages are dying. I was in Lipcove the other day, a municipality up north on the border with Kosovo (and incidentally one that saw a lot of the fighting during the hostilities here 10 years ago) and got a copy of the strategic plan. Several of small mountain villages had population decreases anywhere from 90 to 100 per cent - from a village of 750 to 6, for example. So things have to change, but as with every change, much will be lost with the changes. Part of the task is to figure out how to balance this change preserving a way of life that many love and that provides all of us who are localvores with fresh, healthy food.

One sector that has had some success is organic farming, but that so far is small and still faces some of the challenges that traditional farming faces. Another sector that everyone wants to do is mountain/rural tourism, but there is much infrastructure work that needs to be done. Given that Macedonia is 70-80% mountains, there is lots of opportunity for mountain activities that can be combined with visiting rural villages and towns and to give people a taste of traditional life and handicrafts. A third area is the wine road. Macedonia is a big wine producer. Up until very recently, it mostly produced bulk wines that it sold to Germany to mix in with their wines, but Macedonia is now developing its own brands with regional grapes. The Pupova Kula winery I visited by Negotino is an example - that trip really was research! My idea is to package a wine and cheese tour. Tours would come into Skopje, travel around and visit some of the mountain villages around Gostivar, Mavrovo/Rostushe area for the cheese, farm traditions and mountain beauty, spend a day or two in Ohrid (another research trip I've had to take) then swing over to Negotino and up to visit the wineries. For anyone who visits I'll try to set that up for you! Anyway, so far I've met with people from the tourism board and Luli and I have written a grant for a traditional agricultural museum as part of that. We'd love to get a living museum a la Hovander park going.

So a lot of what I've done so far is meet with committees from some of the Municipalities while they're working of their strategic plans with Luli, educate myself about some of the issues and challenges, and meet people. You can see how spif I look in traditional dress above. You can also see how much farming is done. While some farmers have tractors, much is still done by hand or with horses. On the street by my apartment there are always farmers with their horses and wagons waiting to be hired for the day to help move things. You see the farmers coming down the street competing for space with cars, buses and trucks, standing upright on their wagons as they guide their horses. The attachment to the land will also be a challenge - how could you sell land that's been in the family for centuries so that there can be bigger farms that can afford the modern equipment and methods?

Luli and I will be working on several things this spring and summer. One will be to reconfigure the mission and board of the Sheepbreeders Association to make it broader in scope, but the fun things will be arranging festivals for tourists to publicize sheep products. Luli is one of the main organizers of the wine and cheese festival that happens in Ohrid sometime in early August, and in Sept. we're going to do a 10K race that starts in one of the villages and ends in Gostivar where we'll be having a sheep festival - booths with sheep cheeses and dried meat, village handcrafts, especially made with wool, shearing and milking contests, etc. The race will coincide with the farmers bringing the sheep down from the high pastures. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

I hope that at least gives you an idea of the challenges Macedonia faces in the agricultural sector and my very small part in it. Mostly I've been learning, learning, learning. It's a real privilege to be doing this, and I often have to pinch myself to remind myself that it's real. I feel like I'm getting to experience Macedonia as it's been for centuries, and very soon that way of life will be irrevocably changed. How lucky can I be?


  1. i didn't know about any of this, thanks for the post.

    do you think that the country is so mountainous (and that transport is sometimes difficult or indirect) will impact how this develops? i find it hard to imagine a place like debar, for example, being able to develop a major agricultural industry of any kind, simply because of how the land is laid out. There are some larger or connected plots of farmland when you get out of town headed towards albania, but for the most part the land is spread throughout the town in small family plots.

  2. Yep, I would say you are lucky. Just to figure out how to fill out the Peace Corp applications. We would have never believed this was to come when we were playing with little lambs so long ago. Joe just keeps saying " who is going to milk sheep" yikes. Very interesting Candy, a step back in time and to see such history is really neat. I am happy to be able to find this an education for myself reading your posts. Warm days are here! I can see everything growing, cherry blossom time . b