Šmarje pri Jelšah, 10 January, 2018 - Slovenia's most Innovative Young Farmer of 2017 Matic Vizjak has introduced the production of chilli-based products at his home farm in Šmarje pri Jelšah, the STA reports today. The stereotypical perception of farming as a messy, old-fashioned profession continues to persist in society even though "nowadays a farmer gets nowhere without a computer, Facebook and an on-line shop," he says.
Vizjak finished the Secondary School for Catering and Tourism in Celje to try out several jobs after that, including on a Singapore-based ship. He made a living at the Slovenian coast for a few years as a waiter, cook, lifeguard, receptionist and personal trainer, while he was also in Australia for a year. At 27, tired of everything, he decided to return to the family farm and turn over a new leaf.
Matic talks (in Slovene)
The Vizjak farm had traditionally focused on bee-keeping and cereals, while Matic's return ushered in a new direction. Chilli growing and processing became the farm's main activity and has been joined by wine-making as a result of a new product, chilli wine.
Vizjak had already developed a love of spicy food in his childhood, which he says is the fault of his father, an experienced chilli grower. "There was this rule when I was I child: Eat garlic, onion and chilli and you will be healthy. I learned to love spicy food and have retained this affection as I have travelled around the world."
The Vizjak farm currently boasts around 800 seedlings of 20 chilli varieties from around the world, which it grows in a special greenhouse. The chilli wine is the most popular product, but there is also a lot of demand for the entire Čili frik spicy line, which consists of seven sauces with different heat levels.
Vizjak is especially proud of the award the farm got last spring in New York for its chilli wine. In what is one of the most prestigious wine competitions in the world, which featured almost 4,000 wines by 650 wineries from around the world, the Vizjaks received two silvers and one gold medal.
Some of the sauces you can buy here, or in stores
Innovative Young Farmer 2017
Vizjak's efforts won him the title of Innovative Young Farmer last year. "The title is a reward for all of the work we have invested in farming and the development of new products. It is a sign that we are on the right path, that people acknowledge our effort, our work, and this provides the momentum, drive and energy to move forward," Vizjak said.
Vizjak has a presentation scheduled in Brussels this year. He will represent Slovenia, which makes him very proud. He wants to make a strong impression and hopes to collaborate with the Agriculture Ministry, possibly even with the country's president. "I hope the team will take the presentation in Brussels seriously so that we can put on a real show and help put Slovenian agriculture on the European map."
We need a mindset change
Vizjak feels that Slovenian agriculture has progressed by leaps and bounds. He says that the economic crisis, which has now been overcome, has opened niche markets and raised the quality of domestic agricultural products. "The government and state should be encouraging this so that we don't buy imported plastic when we have so many excellent products at home."
However, Vizjak added that a lot of work still remained to be done to change people's perception of what it means to be a farmer. The old stereotypes about farmers have been outdated for 50 years, he said.
Besides farming, modern farmers need to know consumers. They need to know about gastronomy and a little bit of psychology so they can understand where a niche can be filled and what it is that people want. They have to be versed in economics, sales and promotion, while IT knowledge is obligatory as well.
"Nowadays a farmer gets nowhere without a computer, Facebook and an online shop," Vizjak said. At 8 or 9 PM, when all the farm work is behind him, Vizjak responds to messages on Facebook, reads through his emails, and prepares parcels with products, which he hands over for delivery the next morning before he starts working at the farm again. "You work from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, the work is never done."
The European Union gives a lot to farmers
Vizjak says that the EU gives a lot to farmers, even if many claim the opposite. What he sees as problematic is that the calls for applications come with too much paperwork and therefore take too much valuable time. He also feels that the calls are not flexible enough.
Common agricultural policy with new reform after 55 years
The EU's common agricultural policy was launched in 1962 and has one of the longest traditions among EU policies. It helps farmers produce sufficient amounts of food for Europe, guarantees food safety, protects farmers against food price volatility and market crises, helps them modernise their farms, helps preserve sustainable rural communities, creates and preserves jobs in the food industry, protects the environment, and takes care of animal welfare.
"Europe's agricultural policy goes back 55 years, it has been a common policy and has kept the status of the most important common policy as far as the budget is concerned," Agriculture, Forestry and Food Ministry State Secretary Tanja Strniša explains.
Like all other EU policies, agricultural policy is based on the value of equality. It has undergone significant changes in recent decades in order to help farmers overcome new challenges and adapt to changing public perceptions. Reforms adopted in 2013 focused on a transition to environment-friendly farming, research and spreading of knowledge, a better support system for farmers and greater role of farmers in the food chain.
However, agriculture has since been faced with new challenges, such as market uncertainties, falling prices and new international commitments related to climate change and sustainable development.
This is why a new reform entered into force on 1 January. It simplifies agricultural policy, gives farmers greater power in negotiations with retailers and provides better tools for protection against market and production risks. It also comes with higher incentives for for young farmers.
Agriculture is one of the areas that, based on the agreement of member states, falls within shared competences of the EU and is funded accordingly. It is not individual members states that are responsible for agricultural policy and financial support to agriculture, the EU is.
The share of the EU budget spent on agriculture has been decreasing. While it almost reached 70% in the 1970s, it stands at around 38% today.
Slovenia had slightly over EUR 136m available for direct payments as part of the common agricultural policy in 2017. As part of the programme for rural development 2014-2020, for which funds are drawn between 2014 and 2023, Slovenia is entitled to almost EUR 838m. More than EUR 50m has been provided by the European Commission in 2017 from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.