Hard Times Turn Albania’s Tobacco Farmers to Thyme

Feature 04 Sep 14

Centuries after Albania’s northern highlands started cultivating tobacco, farmers are struggling to make ends meet and are turning to growing herbs instead.

Fejzi Braushi
BIRN

Tirana

Bujar Kuka’s nephew Enes in the family tobacoo field in the region of Malsia e Madhe of Northern Albania

Sun-dried golden tobacco leaves cover almost every inch of Bujar Kukaj’s farmhouse in the Malesia e Madhe region of northern Albania.

Kukaj, a man of few words, is one of 300 farmers that still cultivate tobacco in this area, which stretches from the foot of the Albanian Alps to the shores of Lake Shkodra.

Tobacco cultivation has a long tradition here, going back to the times when Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire.

However, this year farmers are struggling to find buyers who are prepared to offer a decent price for their crop – and many have stopped cultivating tobacco in favour of medicinal plants.

Kukaj has two small warehouses on his farmstead. Tobacco farming in this corner of Albania, bordering Montenegro, is usually a family business and requires a lot of hard labour from young and old.

Kukaj and his extended family wake-up at 3.30am each day and only leave the fields when the sun sets.

“There are too many pains and too little profit in tobacco cultivation,” he laments. “This year we risk selling nothing,” he adds.

Little help from the state:

Tobacco hanging in a greenhouse to dry | Foto by : Fejzi Braushi

From his small office in the agriculture department for the region of Malesia e Madhe, housed in an old building in the outskirts of the town of Koplik, Agim Ramaj explains that tobacco cultivation has deep roots in the area, which is why many farmers are reluctant to give it up, despite the market upsets.

“The typology of the land and climate from the field of Postopoja to the shores of Lake Shkodra is suitable for growing tobacco,” he says.

Ramaj explains that many farmers abandoned tobacco farming for years, until it made a comeback in 2013, as prices for the crop rose.

Farmers responded by quadrupling the planted area but this year the price of tobacco nosedived again.

“The situation for the farmers is not good at all,” he notes. “Until two months ago, at least 2,000 tons of unsold tobacco was stacked in the warehouses.”

Ramaj explains that traders are offering prices that do not cover the costs of production, and the area’s small farms receive little help from the state to negotiate prices or find export markets.

In neighbouring Montenegro, he points out, the state offers farmers seeds, subsidies to build greenhouses and negotiates collective contracts with wholesalers.

According to Ramaj, another problem is that local wholesalers in Albania will only buy oriental type tobacco, a sun-cured, highly aromatic, small-leafed variety, also known as Turkish tobacco.

However, such a variety is not adapted to the local climate and the yields from the crops are low.

On average, local farmers manage to produce up to 800 kilograms per hectare, which they later sell for 200 to 300 lek (€1.5 to €2) per kilogram.

“They make just enough to get going again at it the next year,” Ramaj says.

Medicinal plants replace tobacco:

Tobacoo hanged on the walls to dry in Bujar Kuka’s farmhouse, near Koplik, Northern Albania | Foto by : Fejzi Braushi

Unlike tobacco farming, the cultivation of medicinal plants in the Malesia e Madhe region is a well-organized industry.

In Koplik alone, there are four collection and processing centres for medicinal and aromatic plants, which earn the town an estimated 6 million euro each year.

The majority of the herbs grown in Albania are targeted for export.

About 60 per cent of the plants are shipped to Germany and the US. Such exports accounts for more than half of the timber and non-timber forestry products exported from Albania and 25 per cent of all agricultural food exports.

The most important plant for the sector is sage, which accounts for about 50 per cent of all exports, with an estimated volume of 2,000 to 2,500 tons per year.

Other important products include oregano, thyme and winter savoury, making Albania a major international player in the market

These products are market leaders in some key export countries. More than 50 per cent of all sage imported by the US comes from Albania, as well as 70 per cent of all the wild thyme imported to Germany, the main European market for medicinal and aromatic plants.

The Malesia e Madhe region accounts for 70 per cent of Albania’s total export of medicinal and aromatic plants.

The mayor of Koplik, Ramadan Lika, who is also a major wholesaler in the medicinal and aromatic plants trade, says that depressed prices and lack of subsidies for tobacco farmers have made the crop less attractive.

By comparison, he notes, medicinal plants tend to have a secure market, because many traders contract the farmers in advance for the crop that they will plant.

“Tobacco is a traditional crop but it is losing ground,” Lika says. “Farmers here now understand the importance that medicinal plants have in the market,” he adds.

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