How many times have you said or heard someone else say: “Greenhouse vegetables taste like plastic” or “Organic products are healthy, but they don’t look nice”? These are just some of the numerous stereotypes about both greenhouse and organic produce. But what many people don’t know and cannot make sense of is that organic vegetables can be grown in greenhouses and that it does not make it taste or look worse – quite the contrary.

Protection ensures more intensive production, the production of vegetables out of season, greater control against diseases and pests with the application of biological control, which also ensures healthier food. Peppers grown in the greenhouse of the Jovanović family from the village of Donji Striževac, near Babušnica are the proof of that.

“In our greenhouses, we grow pepper following all principles of organic production. We use local seeds, the soil has not been treated with chemicals and we do not use any pesticides“, Sladjana says about her products.

As she tells us, she started growing vegetables in a greenhouse twenty years ago and initially sold her products at farmers’ markets. Realising the growth potential, they bought two more greenhouses, one of which they secured through an EU project. Karolina Stamenković, who came up with an idea to establish the first women’s agricultural cooperative, tells how it all started:

“We received the first five greenhouses through an EU project in 2016, for unemployed women and women with disabilities to go into the production of organic produce. After 5-6 years it turned out to be truly successful and that we are on a great track.”

So far, around 30 greenhouses have been granted to farms in the municipalities of Babušnica and Dimitrovgrad, which has popularised vegetable farming in general, especially greenhouse vegetable farming. An additional incentive and the main motive for proucers of vegetables, who are mostly owners of small farms, is a guaranteed market placement since most of them are members of the local cooperative “Darovi Lužnice”.

“The cooperative was founded at the initiative of 15 women who are engaged in organic production with the goal of having a guaranteed market placement of vegetables that they will place on the market through processing,” explains Karolina.

The Jovanović household produces two tons of peppers every year, and, as Sladjana says, if there was no cooperative to buy the all of it, it would have been difficult for them to decide to expand production beyond their personal needs. The purchased products are collected by the women brought together in “Darovi Lužnice”, who mostly grow peppers and tomatoes, from the seeds of traditional varieties, and process the in-demand products such as ajvar, pindjur and ljutenica. Through incentives from the Government of the Republic of Serbia, they have received funds for the purchase of vegetables and fruits processing machinery, and the plant itself was certified for the processing of organic products. The farmers of the Lužnice region did not stop simply at the traditional products from pepper and tomato, but they expanded the production to the processing of forest fruits, and now they also produce squeezed juices from dogwoods, wild blackberries and wild strawberries. They say that there are always interested buyers but that sometimes it is difficult to meet the demand for high-quality organic produce.

Serbia’s position is characterised by a great diversity of species and ecosystems. In addition, Serbia is potentially one of the global centres of plant diversity in terms of the richness of flora. Considering the natural resources, favourable soil and climate, biodiversity and relatively healthy agroecosystems, there are favourable conditions for the development of organic production in Serbia. At the same time, there are great potentials for vegetable production in protected areas, which, due to relatively high initial investments, are not yet sufficiently developed. Those who have embarked on this business journey claim that funds and effort invested pay off because the demand for high-quality vegetables is great, processed products always sell well, and joining forces guarantees sufficient quantities, which increases the chances for successful marketing.

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