Even though every house in Serbia used to have a fruit tree, most often an apple, pear, or plum tree, the history of fruit growing is tied to monasteries where high-quality fruit varieties were first grown. Between two world wars, there were several attempts to improve fruit growing, but the real momentum came following World War 2.

Today, fruit growing is one of the most profitable branches of agriculture, with fruit imports and exports accounting for a high share of Serbia’s foreign trade. The conditions are extremely favourable for fruit growing, despite the potential damage from freezing temperatures, droughts, pests, and disease.

In Serbia, orchards cover an area of 191,000 hectares, which accounts for more than 5% of arable land in use. This area, however, could be substantially higher. Despite the conditions for fruit growing being the most favourable in mountainous regions, where apple, raspberry, plum, and sour cherry are traditionally grown, Vojvodina accounts for 11% of the total fruit-growing area. Even the largest apricot plantation is located in north of the country. It was started 15 years ago in Bačka Palanka.

“I started growing apricots because fruit growing is the most profitable branch of agriculture; it is the quickest to give back the investment,” Petar explains.

Fruit growing makes up for 11% of the total production in agriculture. Over the past decade, thanks to scientific achievements and producers who were ready to work on their offering, fruit growing has seen a number of technological improvements. Simultaneously, there was also work on changing the assortment, all of which contributed to Serbia’s high rank in the global market of fruits and fruit products.

“We buy two- or three-year apricot seedlings which start bearing fruit in the fifth year. That means that only a couple years later, we can earn some of that money we invested,” says Petar. Asked if he was happy with what he had achieved so far, Petar responds that one can always try to make the next achievement bigger than the last.

Like any other economic activity, fruit growing requires continuous investment to maintain high quality and high yields, and then market those products in Serbia and abroad. Investments in new varieties, seedling protection, and machinery do cost a lot of money, but they all pay off later. Luckily, both the government and the European Union offer various incentives to fruit growers, with the main ones offering support for the purchase of new machinery. Also, in order to export fruit products, it is necessary to meet a series of quality standards, which cannot be met without up-to-date technology. Apricots tend to go bad fairly quickly after picking, so it is good to know what happens to them afterwards; are they being sold or processed? And this is the answer to why Petar produces rakija. He opened a distillery last year.

“When a year is good, and we have around seven to eight hundred tons of overripe apricots falling from the trees, we don’t want to throw them away. So, we started producing rakija. Apricots are the best fruit, and apricot rakija is the finest,” Petar pointed out.

Certain that any businessperson has a vision of how their business will develop in the future, Petar constantly works to improve his. So, ten years ago he had secured cold storage space for 1.500 tons of apricot. Now, he is building another one, so that apricots can be stored in larger quantities and prepped for processing into juices and other fruit products in the same facility.

“We will then have the storage capacity of 5,000 tons,” says Petar. “But we won’t keep it all, we will sell, too, and have enough space for the entire region of north Bačka.”

A message to anyone thinking about engaging in the challenging, but also profitable, fruit growing business, and a message to individual producers, too, is partner up. The benefits of working together include having joint storage space, as well as to process and market the products together with other producers, making everyone involved in every stage of the production chain.

Since 2000, the European Union has donated 230 million euros for agriculture and food safety in Serbia. Raising competitiveness, food safety and public health standards, respect for animal welfare, and environmental standards are the main areas of EU assistance to this sector. IPARD (Instrument for pre-accession assistance for rural development) is the leading programme in this area, within which Serbia has been allocated with 175 million euros for the period 2014-2020, with additional 55 million euros of national co-funding, and it is intended for agricultural producers.