To counter the pressure on margins, one Bulgarian family has opted for a multi-livestock enterprise, making products for sale directly to the consumer.
Staying afloat financially milking cows in rural Bulgaria is a real challenge, made even more difficult by being caught in the trap of low milk prices and increasing production costs.
Many farmers there are forced to venture into a number of different enterprises in their farm businesses just to make ends meet, spreading the risk so to speak.
Agora Kulov works closely alongside her father Nikola on the family dairy farm in the southern half of Bulgaria, near Plovdiv.
Their goal is to keep the farm alive preserving the traditions of their ancestors which involves keeping and milking sheep as well.
“Our family farm is located in Vassil Levski village at Karlovo in the Plovdiv area,” says Agora. “My father is Karakachanian and he is preserving the culture of his ancestors, the Karakachani, who for many generations make their living by raising Karakachan sheep.”
The Kulov farm is a mixed enterprise unit milking sheep, cows, buffalo and goats to produce milk and cheese as well as yoghurts and other dairy products.
All the milking and processing is carried out by the family themselves and products are sold direct to consumers.
“Today we keep around 500 Karakachan sheep which is a certified, local rare breed,” Agora says.
“As well as that we have about 200 Assaf sheep, 200 Bulgarian white milk goats and 30 milking cows of various dairy cross-breeds. “We also run 170 Bulgarian Grey and Bulgarian Brown beef cows which are all certified.
“Back In 2000 my family decided to enter into keeping buffalo and now we have about 150 buffaloes which we also milk to produce cheese,” she said.
The Kulov farm extends to 200 hectares of mountain pasture up on Stara Planina mountain, which is in the National Park called Central Balkan. They also farm 300 hectares of lower pasture land and crops.
In order to increase their income and add value to their milk, the family embarked on a programme which enabled thed and studying for a law degree, she also plays a very important role on the family farm.
She says: “In 2015 we opened the first demo-centre for processing milk from rare local breeds in Bulgaria. Our brand is Pod Balkana, which translated, means ‘At the foot of the Balkan Mountain’.
“This initiative was supported by the Bulgarian and Swiss co-operation program and Foundation Bioselena.
“I am very much involved on the farm processing the milk and meat for sale. Also, I look after the packaging and labelling of the products and support our websites and social media.
“This project supplied us with a special refrigerated trailer which we take around the area to sell our products at farmers markets and a number of local fairs directly to the customers.
“Our goal was to completely manage the entire circle of production and retail of the food we produce. With processing our own milk and meat we sell directly to the consumer and can control all of the various stages of the production cycle,” she adds.
“Our buffaloes yield seven to eight litres each per day. Buffalo milk has lower cholesterol but more fat compared to cow’s milk and is extremely rich in calcium. It is a good source of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.
“Now we produce dairy products from cow’s milk and goat milk as well. We produce the dairy drinks Kefir and Matenitsa and butters Kashkaval and Izvara.
“At the end of 2018 we set up our own on-farm processing centre for meat from buffalo, sheep, lamb, goat, kid, cow and calf meat. That is also very popular with the local customers.
“We milk about 30 cows, twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, and receive an average of 20 litres per cow per day at around 3.6% butterfat.
“Both the cows and buffalo are milked in our small five aside milking parlour. All the livestock are kept outdoors on free pasture land where they can roam around.
“With milk prices in Bulgaria set at about 30 euro cents per litre, we knew something had to be done to increase our income. This was achieved by processing the milk ourselves, cutting out the middle man, and taking control of all the stages to retail.
“Our products are very popular with consumers and we continue to add to the range we offer,” she says. “One of the main goals for us in the future is to increase our use of technology on the farm and that is something we strive to do when we have saved sufficient for the investment.”