A dream in progress

by Michael Bird | 08.12.2023

Does organic agriculture suit Romania’s small farm culture? We investigate start-ups across the country to find out

Romania should be an organic paradise. 

Virgin earth, some of the EU’s cheapest land, huge areas of space, strong farming traditions and a route to a free market are benefits for an entrepreneur looking to cash in on the continent’s appetite for healthier food.

Also, many, many people are working the land. We’re talking massive numbers. Over 25 percent of Romanian laborers work in agriculture, eclipsing every EU country.

The country’s agricultural make-up is polarized between some of the largest estates in the EU and millions of small farmers. 

The Eurostat census from 2016 showed that Romania possessed one third of the total number of farms in the EU, an incredible figure of 3.1 million. 

However, 92 percent of these farms have a surface of under five hectares. This phenomenon is due to a post-communist policy from the 1990s, where the state returned plots to rural smallholders. 

Today, Romania is a nation of micro-producers.

But this is not a pastoral idyll, where noble peasants in embroidered fleece, bronze necks and straw hats drag horses across raw earth, dig land with pitchforks, and nurture crops with ancient farming methods, free of artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. 

The statistics paint a more nuanced picture. The percentage of organic land in Romania is only 4.3 percent, less than half the European average.

Why is there no correlation between organic agriculture and micro-production?

“The reason is simple: certification costs,” says Ramona Duminicioiu, a member of the coordination committee of peasant farmers’ association, Ecoruralis. “The average producer in Romania is very small, and if they add certification costs, this would increase their production expenses a lot. So it is not cost-effective for a small producer to become ecologically certified.
“Conversely, most organically certified producers in Romania have big surface areas,” she adds, “and focus on large-scale crops, especially cereals, and produce for export.” 

Is organic agriculture in Romania a privilege of wealthy and extensive estates? We toured the country and spoke to start-ups in this sector, to discover the challenges they face.

Entrepreneurs from all ages and backgrounds are plowing an organic furrow, including generations of traditional farmers, businessmen with a side hustle, clerical workers, urban professionals, and foreigners building a business in Romania that would be impossible in their home country.

There are two points they all agree on:

One: a range of funds from the European Union are vital to their survival and future development.

Two: conventional agriculture is tough, risky and expensive, and organic agriculture is tougher, riskier and more expensive.

“Sea buckthorn is always bio, if it’s not bio, you can’t sell it, except at a low price,” Razvan Grigoriu, Ferma Biciclistilor (picture: Ovidiu Dunel-Stancu)

“I would not put money in this business without EU funds”

Ferma Biciclistilor

Products: Sea buckthorn, chickens
Location: Odobesti, Dambovita

Razvan Grigoriu spent his 20s and 30s climbing the career ladder through large corporations such as Air Liquide and Interbrew, before landing the position of global operations director for technology giant Honeywell.
“I could have walked into any multinational,” he says.
Just after the age of 40, he stepped back from the big league.
“I was looking for something I could do for a couple of months intensely and then have spare time,” he says. “I am 45, and I want to spend my next 50 years in a way I would like. That was the plan. This is not easy, but I am getting there.”
Grigoriu took up organic farming in Odobesti, Dambovita county, where he grows sea buckthorn and farms free-range chickens on ‘Ferma Biciclistilor’ (The Cyclists’ Farm), named after his passion for two-wheelers.

The crop is a tart orange fruit which clings so hard to its thorny branches that it needs industrial means to harvest. In Grigoriu’s facility, a freezer chills the branches for 15 hours at minus 40 degrees, then a separating machine vibrates the frozen branches, dislodging the berries.

Around 15 growers of sea buckthorn in Romania have formed a cooperative, as the country is one of the largest growers of the fruit. This structure is “essential”, says Grigoriu, to ensure producers receive a fair price for their yield. 

This is a premium fruit, due to its high vitamin C content, and oil from its seeds, which is used as an immunostimulant. On its own, the juice has an acidic kick, so requires mixing with softer ingredients such as honey or apples, or made into a wine. Germany has a history as a major grower, but cannot keep pace with demand, so imports the fruit from Romania and Hungary. Other export markets are rising, especially Scandinavia and South Korea.“Sea buckthorn is always bio, if it’s not bio, you can’t sell it, except at a low price,” says Grigoriu.

Despite its high status and export potential, the fruit’s industry still needs extra cash to prosper. “Without financing from the EU, we could not make it,” says Grigoriu. “I would not put money in this business without EU funds.”

In 2018, Grigoriu seized on the advantages available from the EU. As a start-up, he could gain 50 percent financing from EU funds, which were topped up by 20 percent as he was a farmer under the age of 40, and a further 20 percent for bio agriculture. He only had to bring 10 percent of the cash for the 700,000 Euro project.

But hardship in agriculture is never far away. The 2022 drought meant the fruits were small, and electricity prices doubled on the previous year. “Some growers who invest in plantations are trapped,” he says. “They need to harvest, but they don’t make money, or they make a little money. Organic is not a success story overall. There are only islands of success.”

Consumers in Romania are becoming more conscious about free-range animals, says Razvan Grigoriu, Ferma Biciclistilor

Grigoriu is branching out into free-range farming. First he tried 100 turkeys, which became sick, and he only recovered one fifth of the costs. “I am a finance guy,” he says. “I draw up scenarios, but in reality it’s not like in Excel. I have a hit like this and then bang!”

In 2021, he switched to chickens. Around 200 poultry swagger around his fields from April to October, before ending their lives in a mini-slaughterhouse.

“I was inspired by [American farming innovator] Joel Salatin, who had the idea of a portable chicken coop,” he says. “There is no capital investment in buildings, only shelters that can be extended. These cost only a couple of hundred euros, and I can scale up and scale down. I can put the shelters in the sea buckthorn plantation, and it will clean and fertilize the plantation with no cost. It’s a cycle.”  

 One ambition is to certify these as organic. “The conditions are pretty strict,” he says. “I have to keep the birds longer, and under specific conditions, and the price of the chicken will be double. I am not sure if there is a market yet for that.”

But there is a market for free-range products. “Consumers are getting more conscious,” he says. There are few local suppliers of meat outside the mega-farms, though there are a growing number of delicatessens and posh restaurants in Bucharest. “[The owners] are going insane,” says Grigoriu. “They have told me: ‘if you get certified for the slaughtering process, we will buy from you and help you to develop’.”

Another problem with organic is that a farmer can receive a sudden disqualification, which messes up their business plans.

“You can easily get bankrupt from doing this,” says Grigoriu. “I am a corporate guy and I thought I was used to difficult stuff, but agriculture is not easy and not for everyone.”

“I thought I could be certified organic if I had organic apples, but it's not enough,” Ioan Mărcuș, Mar de Rai

“Trade is profitable in Romania, not production”

Mar de Rai Farm

Products: Vinegar and cider
Location: Batoș, Mures County

Four years ago, banker Ioan Mărcuș took over a vinegar factory from the 1980s in the town of Batoș, in a hilly region of Transylvania with a tradition of apple-growing.

Inside the factory, the company presses the apples, ferments the mixture in tanks, and stores the vinegar in plastic barrels. Opening these lids, one is hit with heady fumes, coupled with radical ingredients: dandelion, rose, elderberry, thyme, mint, tarragon, hot pepper, ginger, roses, bay leaves and pine buds. 

“Someone who bought this said the number one vinegar in the world, Bragg from England, does not have the same quality,” says Mărcuș.

This is high-end vinegar, under the Mar de Rai brand, and Mărcuș knows it’s tough to convince the local market to spend money on a product many view as a lowly condiment.

“We are in quite a bad position, because we compete with those who make vinegar from other sources,” he says. “I asked one large producer: ‘What do you make it from?’ He said: ‘From acetic acid and other things’.”

Prices at retail level are also ‘ridiculously’ low. “We are on the edge of survival,” says Mărcuș. “The profit is a few pennies. For some products we sell below the cost price. For now, trade is profitable in Romania, not production.”

Mărcuș sells under his own label and through the healthfoods brand Solaris, but doesn’t have the capacity to serve big retail, even though their new line can produce around 60,000 bottles per year.

The apples are certified as organic, but not the factory, which requires a new installation to ensure there are no residues of non-organic material. “I thought I could be certified organic if I had organic apples, but it’s not enough,” he says. The certification costs can rise up to 4,000 Euro, but new tanks are in the 10,000s of Euros.

Mărcuș was born in Batoș and worked as a banker in Targu Mures before returning to his roots to build up a vinegar business.

I ask him if there are companies in the region who claim to be organic, but are lying. But Mărcuș says the opposite is true. There are organic companies who are “unofficial”, such as local producers of cheese, who cannot afford the authorization cost. This comes on top of all the other authorities probing the products and the facilities, from fire-fighters to health and veterinary check-ups, and consumer protection inspectors who verify the labels. 

Cider is where the company could see its future: this is a high-end product which can attract a premium price. The company is in the final phase of licensing the factory, so it can make 200,000 liters of organic cider per year. 

“Organic cider is easier to authorize than vinegar,” says Mărcuș. 

Wine has been produced for a thousand years in Bistrița’s Lechinta region

“When we started organic agriculture, everyone was against us”

Lechburg Farm

Products: Wine
Location: Lechința, Bistrița-Năsăud County

In 2008, Milanese brothers Cristiano and Ettore Gurato, and Romanian Cipriana Sasarman, started growing wine over 70 hectares in Bistrița county. At first, they had no cellar, and the vineyards needed three years to convert from conventional farming.

“We didn’t make wine,” says Sasarman. “We grew the grapes, harvested them and that was it.”

Inspectors who checked on their development believed they were suckers for trying to make an organic vineyard. ‘What organic agriculture?’ they mocked. ‘There is no such thing’. They criticized the winemakers for growing grass between the vines, and tease their techniques: ‘This is not what a vineyard looks like!’ 

“When we did bio here, everyone was against us,” adds Sasarman.

Fifteen years later they are selling the wine in the UK and Milan, and have picked up awards for their Fetească Neagră and Pinot Noir from German wine contest Mundus Vini.

Mostly, Lechburg produces whites, including a frizzante from Chardonnay and Muscat. Fetească Regală, Neagră and Alb have good potential, say the winemakers, and they offer a full-bodied variety from Austria, called Neuberger, which grows well in the cool climate of Lechința. These are gourmet wines, mostly destined to be shared with a meal.

In 2015, the family bought the buildings of a local winery from a bailiff, after the previous owner went bankrupt. This was constructed in 1962 by the agricultural enterprise IAS (Întreprindere Agricolă de Stat), but was left in ruins. “[Former Communist dictator] Nicolae Ceaușescu used to come here a lot,” says Sasarman. “He came to hunt for bears and tasted wines here.”

The wines also have a vegan certification. “From the plantation, to vinification, to bottling, no additives and nothing of animal origin are used,” says Cristiano. “We can’t use manure, which commonly nurtures organic viticulture.” Between the rows of vines, they grow and sow cruciferous vegetables and grasses in the ground. “This organic substance brings back micro elements necessary for the vine.” says Cristiano.

In western Europe, the ‘vegan’ status of the wine can sometimes be even more attractive to consumers than the organic status.

Lechburg sells to high-end horeca and delicatessens in Romania, which is a “growing trend” though in Romania quality is a greater selling point than organic or vegan.

The brand has a major market in the UK and in Milan, but the pandemic was a blow to non-retail sales, so the company shifted the product towards shops. “Retail also takes your soul from you, you give them [products] almost for free,” says Sasarman. “About 65 percent is their discount.”

“We have a subsidy per hectare for organic production, but this is less than half of the amount per hectare we would receive in Italy,” says Cristiano Gurato (center, with Ettore Gurato and Cipriana Sasarman)

Costs are high. On top of the certification expenses for organic and vegan products, is an additional analysis the EU requires to export products from Romania, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification. Total expenses for certificates and sales abroad add up to the tens of thousands of Euro.

The farm receives EU subsidies for producing organic, but on an international level this is not competitive. “There is support,” says Cristiano. “But it’s at a pretty low level. We have a subsidy per hectare for organic production, but this is less than half of the amount per hectare we would receive in Italy. It’s illogical. Because we have the same economic opportunities, costs and conditions.”

But where the winemakers need subsidy is not in production, or growth or distribution, but in marketing. 

“The most important thing for a manufacturer is to make the products known to the world,” says Cristiano, “because it’s very expensive to go out on the market and make yourself known. A single common policy to support organic producers, and give them visibility on the consumer market in the EU, would be ideal.”

Every summer, beekeepers from Miresme drive 400 boxes of thousands of bees hundreds of kilometers to remote locations in Romania to harvest organic nectar

“If we didn’t already have organic production, this would have been a risk”

Ferma Miresme

Products: Honey and wax
Location: Bistrița, Bistrița-Năsăud County

On an industrial site on the outskirts of Bistrița, the third generation of a Transylvanian family has transformed a tradition of beekeeping into the largest organic honey producer in Romania.

Before the revolution, Ioan Cămărăşan’s father-in-law started making honey as a hobby, which later grew to 400 hives. Since 2003, they have been certified as organic, and Ioan’s son-in-law Dan Pasca has taken over running the business. 

The bees gather nectar from raspberry, mountain flowers, and linden trees, and the honey trades under the Miresme brand, though the company also works with private labels. Export destinations include France, Germany, Hong Kong, and Sweden. 

In 2017, the firm accessed European Funds for equipment for processing and packaging for retail and horeca. The family came with the building and the land, and the EU financed around 90% of the equipment costs with 100,000 Euro to bottle and label honey, and make sachets for horeca. “If you don’t have the money you can’t do it,” says Dan Pasca. “If we didn’t already have organic production, it would have been a risk.”

The facility also makes beeswax foundation sheets for the industry. Pasca and Cămărăşan collect wax from beekeepers across Romania, melt and press these into new honeycomb sheets, which they sell back to the industry as bases for bees to build a hive.

In the Summer, the family drives 400 boxes to different locations in Romania, where the bees pick up raspberry, acacia and linden, in the Rodna mountains, and as far as Satu Mare. 

How can you make sure bees don’t go to non-bio flowers?

“There will be an analysis,” says Pasca. “The customer will always ask for an analysis, on top of the certification. The certification is just the start.”

“We don’t need much energy to spend, it is all natural,” says Ovidiu Oltean, owner of Bolloga trout farm

“Organic will take another 20 years to grow in Romania”

Bolloga Trout Farm

Products: Fresh and smoked trout
Location: Comuna Poieni, Cluj county

An hour’s drive from Cluj-Napoca, water from a river flows through one of Romania’s only organic trout farms. Fifteen round basins stand here, with ten tonnes of fish swimming in circles, fed on an Austrian organic mix, and treated with no more than salt to keep away parasites. The farm does not need much energy, as the river water comes from the forest, where it returns.

“We don’t need much energy to spend, it is all natural,” says Păstrăvăria Bolloga’s owner, Ovidiu Oltean. 

Expenses haven’t risen in the last year for organic farming at the same rate as intensive farming. A conventional fish farm requires a pump, a recycling system, oxygen, and a high quantity of electricity. There is also a greater risk of disease to spread among the fish. These are rising costs and threats which have intensified as energy prices boom. But an organic fish farm doesn’t have the same overheads. However, the price of the final fish is still at a premium.

“We want to work with the supermarkets, but the prices and conditions are standard for everyone,” says Oltean. “It’s not important that I am organic.”

The problem with trout is time. It takes 24 months from the incubation of the fish eggs to the moment they are fully grown. With one supermarket, Oltean signed a contract, but then told the client he could not supply anything for a year “because it takes two years to grow a fish.” The supermarket needed the product upfront.

Now he works with two shops in Cluj-Napoca and with direct distribution. “This is the only way I see,” he says.

How about abroad? “If you give me the market to export,” he says. “I will export.”

“We want to work with the supermarkets, but it’s not important that I am organic,” Ovidiu Oltean, Bolloga trout farm

On the site of the farm, Oltean is building a small shop with organic products from local producers, and a restaurant with tanks for the fish. This could be a magnet for ecotourism.

At a general level, he says people do not yet “have trust” in organic products 

“I say to people my fish is bio, and they ask: ‘what is bio?’” he adds.

When he sold his fish to one restaurant, they proudly put the organic trout on the menu, then stopped making any new purchases. However, they kept the name on the menu, stating they were serving local organic trout, when it was fish they’d picked up from a hypermarket.

Oltean is playing a long game. He believes it will take another 20 years for this market to grow in Romania.

In summer, organic raspberries are collected and packaged in one day, and delivered to big retailers the next

South Transylvania: a platform for berry growth

Transylvania Berry Farm

Products: Raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants
Location: Berivoi, Brașov county

Spread over nine flat hectares at the foot of the Făgăraș mountains, Transylvania Berry grows raspberries, blackcurrants and blueberries for the local market. In the warmer months, the workers come in from local villages to pick raspberries, box them and then send them off to Lidl.

“Today we collect them, tomorrow we deliver them,” says sales and marketing manager Anamaria Șuvăilă. 

The raspberries only last a few days, and the blueberries are more resistant. But raspberries grow over a longer season.

Opened since 2005, the company is looking to become utility-independent. The farm uses water from wells to irrigate the raspberries, and solar panels to power the office and warehouse. Caterpillar tunnels that house the plants protect from the elements, but can also act as panels to generate electricity, and keep in heat at night. There are similar plantations in this region of south Transylvania and the company is looking to expand.

Farms need few personnel, and the berry company has only one full time employee in sales and administration. The rest are day workers from the local area.

It’s quiet in the farm except for a slight, thumping sound, like a put-put, that explodes every few seconds.

“What is that?” I ask.

“A cannon for the birds,” says Șuvăilă. “They hear the sound and fly away.”

“When I started, There was no rain, and I thought: my God, what am I doing? It’s hard to trust in plants and in this weather to grow,” Katherina Hani, Biofarmland

“I feel very much the pulse of interest in organic”

Biofarmland Farm

Products: Spelt, tea, mustard, salt
Location: Firiteaz, Arad county

Organic agriculture firm Biofarmland manager Katherina Hani has seen an acceleration of interest in natural foods in Romania. In Firiteaz, Arad county, her farm’s main product is spelt and einkorn, an ancient wheat with a low gluten content.

“This is a very popular, natural food,” she says. “It was good for us before and is still good for us.”

At first, none of her customers knew about spelt, but soon they started asking her for more specific varieties. “People are informing themselves,” she says. Hani has been out at local markets, talking about the benefits of pioneer wheats and organic products. “I feel very much the pulse,” she says.

Huge stores of the sandy-colored grains of spelt are piled up on the farm site.

“That is like our gold,” she says. “There’s an animated film with the duck which has a lot of gold and makes a bath in gold.”

“Scrooge McDuck?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s like that [with the spelt]. But we think of this as gold for humanity.” 

Hani’s family started a farm in Firiteaz in 2004 on the site of an existing unit. This is not something they could have done in Switzerland. “There is no land for sale,” she says, “and if there was, maybe we could afford one hectare or two.”

After studying agricultural engineering, she joined her family in 2008, and has since set up an organic farm, and on-site milling and processing. Her online shop sells 40 products, including cereal bags of up to 20 kilos, tea, sea salt with herbs, and mustard. Despite Romania’s reputation as an agricultural powerhouse with virgin nature, she can’t find organic vinegar from Romanian apples, so has to import this from Germany.

People are informing themselves about ancient varieties of grain, such as spelt and einkorn, says Katherina Hani, Biofarmland

Although Biofarmland exports, Hani wants to establish ‘zero kilometers’— the practice of eating locally from what the countryside offers, which can depend on the season. “I would like to sell as many of the products as possible in Romania,” she says.

There are 400 houses in Firiteaz, and most people work in the local town of Arad. The farm employs around 20 full-time from the village, and also needs to hire security guards to protect the area.

“Unfortunately this is a cost, because there are so many…” at this point she says something that I can’t quite make out.

“Thieves?” I suggest, thinking this was the word she spoke.

“No,” she says. “Sheep.”

The local shepherds let their flock wander where they want, and they turn up in weird places munching whatever they can find. “This is very expensive, and we can’t fence everything,” she says, “so security guards keep the sheep out.”

Part of the farm is moving towards a bicyclic vegan system, where the plants are no longer fertilized with inputs of animal origin, like manure. This means using plants such as white clover, grown on the farm.

Hani has set up a tea garden with medicinal plants, including sage, Moroccan mint and peppermint. “When I started, I was putting seeds in big chunks of earth. There was no rain, and I thought: my God, what am I doing? It’s hard to trust in plants and in this weather to grow. Every step is a challenge from cultivation to packaging and selling and marketing. But because I love it so much, it was never a burden.”

In 2018, Hani started building an eco-village, to host educational events, and workshops, where people talk about food and explore nature. This includes small wooden capsules in a field —called shepherd’s beds—where people can sleep overnight. 

“This is still a dream in progress,” she says. 

Text: Michael Bird

Photos: Diego Ravier (unless specified)

Video: Ovidiu Dunel-Stancu

Graphics and layout: Razvan Zamfira