Sheep breeding is one of the many sectors facing problems right now.
Easter is drawing near, and shepherds are preparing all sorts of lamb and mutton products for the occasion. This year, too, the supply is quite generous. Apart from lambs from traditional Romanian breeds, raised just as they were hundreds of years ago, consumers may now go for organic lamb as well.
Romania ranks third in the European Union, after the UK and Spain, in terms of the number of heads of sheep, according to Eurostat, the EU statistics office. Romanian authorities say that the country is able to export nearly 4.5 million heads of sheep, given that Romanians are not regular consumers of lamb and mutton. Traditionally, sheep meat products are found on Romanians’ tables only once a year, on Easter.
The members of the EcoMiorita Association in the village of Vurpar, Sibiu County, in central Romania, have been for years specialising in organic sheep husbandry, in order to be able to sell lambs and sheep’s milk to processors in the area that market green products. Apart from that, around 8,000 lambs per year are exported to Spain and Italy. Florin Dragomir, head of EcoMiorita Association, tells us how organic lambs are raised:
“Our intention was to sell healthy, organic products to people who want to know exactly where their food comes from. The association is made up of roughly 40 sheep farmers, with a total 14,000 heads of sheep, and everything, from animals to pastures, is certified as environmentally friendly. The flocks graze on pasture land where chemical fertilisers and pesticides have not been used for decades. The maintenance of these pastures is ensured by moving sheds every three days, so that not too much nitrogen gets collected in the soil. They use natural fertilisers, such as manure, pastures are mowed manually or using mowers, and the hay is organic, natural. We also comply with a standard in terms of the maximum number of animals per hectare, we don’t keep more than 13 sheep per hectare.”
The amount of products obtained in this environmentally-friendly system is a lot lower, because farmers do not use chemicals to increase the output. A ewe gives 70 litres of milk per year, and the total amount in 2016 was 500,000 litres of milk. Florin Dragomir, the head of EcoMiorita Association, hopes to open a dairy factory in order to process organic milk. Unfortunately, most Romanians are not interested in organic products, and the price is also a problem. The costs incurred for rearing organic lambs are a lot higher than in the regular system, Florin Dragomir explains:
“In Romania, people cannot distinguish between a regular product and an organic one. If the price is a little higher, the product doesn’t sell. We never had much demand for sheep raised in this environmentally-friendly system, for instance people coming to buy all our lambs and giving us a better price because they are certified. We have occasionally sold some of our animals to locals from the Sibiu area who know about the system we use. For example, there was an Italian businessman who offered to buy all our lambs, and for several years now we’ve been selling her most of our lambs. They know we have high-quality products, but they don’t care about the organic certification, they pay the same price irrespective of this.”
Daniela Demian lives in Bihor County, north-western Romania, and for several years she and her husband have had a sheep farm. Things went well for a while, but just as it happened with most sheep farms in Romania, several years ago problems started to appear:
“When we started out, we invested in pasture land as well, that is, we bought pastures and farming land, at a time when no one else was buying, in order to secure the fodder for our animals. We now own a bigger farm, in a former agricultural cooperative, and we used to have around 1,500 heads of sheep, but these past two years the number has gone down to 600 and we are thinking about giving up. For the last 3 or 4 years we’ve been spending our personal funds in order to cover the expenses with the farm. Smaller farms are also on the verge of bankruptcy, for several reasons. The first problem was the embargo on foodstuffs to former USSR countries. This is where it all began. The market was flooded with a lot of very cheap products, and people will buy whatever is cheaper. Our sales plummeted. The demand for lamb, on the other hand, is very low and by no means encouraging. And this is because of the legislation, first of all. People have nowhere to slaughter the lambs. Secondly, the legislation on the marketing of dairy products is a problem. That is, judging by the sanitary and veterinary rules, all sheep’s cheese product sales in marketplaces are illegal. Those who sell them have to have all sorts of certificates and permits, so the situation is very complicated. It is not profitable for farmers to do this, the costs are really high. Then, the price of sheep has fallen. In the past, at this time of the year ewes would be sold and purchased for milk, the price was around 4-500 lei per animal, whereas nowadays it hardly reaches 100 lei. So without legislation to protect the Romanian market and Romanian producers, there is no way farmers can survive. All our dairy factories have been acquired by multinationals, and there’s no telling what ingredients they use for their products. We are glad that this Greek company based in Brasov, called Olimpus, is still in the market, because they buy sheep’s and goat’s milk from Romanian farmers and make traditional products.”
Daniela Demian has exported to Belgium lambs of a local breed called Turcana, and got a good price for them. She currently exports to the Balkan area (Bosnia, Croatia, Greece) and to Arab countries, and expects to resume exports to Israel as well.
This year, lamb prices in Romanian marketplaces are around 2 euros per kilo live weight and around 4 euros per kilo for the meat. In order to meet the market demand, in several parts of the country shepherds are rearing crossbreds, combining Romanian breeds with French or German ones. These crossbreds weigh twice as much as the local Merino breed, and their meat is low-fat, cholesterol-free and much tenderer. (Translated by A.M. Popescu)