The rich alluvial soil of the Strumica River basin, farmed for centuries by generations of hard-working local families, has made this region the country’s leading agricultural centre, producing over 180,000 tonnes of high-quality fruit and vegetables each year.
Farmers here are well aware of the many benefits they have reaped from the River Strumica, whose water not only feeds and fertilises the soil but irrigates their crops. And they are well aware, too, that the quality of the water and the soil have been declining over recent decades.
“We’ve been growing plums here for longer than anyone remembers,” says Dejanco Velkov from the town of Radovish. “But now every harvest my father shakes his head and complains that things aren’t what they used to be. For a while I thought he was just being nostalgic, but then I saw that each year we were having to add more fertiliser and more pesticides to achieve the same yields. Something was wrong, but we didn’t guess we were the ones who were making the problem worse. We just kept on adding more chemicals and using more water.”
Farmers in Strumica have traditionally relied on chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost production. But over the years these chemicals have seeped into the groundwater, causing pollution and an overall decline in the quality of the water. Combined with over-use of water and other unsustainable agricultural practices, the impact on the ecology of the river basin has been devastating, making the region especially vulnerable to climate change.
“We knew there was something wrong and we heard the reports about soil pollution,” says Dejanco. “But until very recently we didn’t know that we were part of the problem.”
To tackle the problem of unsustainable farming, Switzerland and the United Nations Development Programme have launched a comprehensive programme to modernize agriculture and train local farmers to grow different crops, plan crop rotations and irrigate and fertilize more efficiently.
Participants in the training programme are provided with expert advice on soil quality and essential information about the impact of chemicals on the environment.
After volunteering for an intensive four-month on-the job training course with the support of top agricultural experts, Dejanco has learned how to improve soil quality by doing soil tests, employing the right dosage of fertilizers, checking soil moisture and avoiding overuse of water. He is one of the first 30 farmers to have received a EUR 5,000 grant to introduce beneficial agro-ecological practices in the Strumica River Basin.
With the money from the grant, he has already procured a drip irrigation system. “It’s become a bit of an obsession now,” he says, “working out how to make the soil healthier to produce higher and healthier yields.
Another beneficiary of the programme is Ilcho Mitev, a tomato producer from the village of Dabile. He says the training has given him a much deeper understanding of how to produce stronger tomato plants. “There’s a saying that we know more about what’s happening at the bottom of the ocean than we do about the soils in our own backyards,” says Ilcho. “And now I’ve learned that there’s a lot of truth in that saying.”
More than 200 farmers have developed knowledge and expertise in plant and soil interaction over the past year by attending educational seminars supported by Switzerland. It is expected that this will not only benefit the environment but also help increase the farmers’ yields and incomes by as much as 30-40%.
Restoration of the Strumica River Basin is a project of UNDP made possible with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. It supports the implementation of selected restoration measures defined in the River Strumica Restoration Plan, which in the end will lead to improved living conditions of the population.