BELGRADE, SERBIA – I was still dizzy from jet lag when I noticed the first bombed out building.
Sitting in the front seat of the car from the airport was Goran Djakovic, a respected Ag television journalist and now a communications specialist working in the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture. Goran was pointing out the modern athletic arenas and other notable hotspots in this city of 1.2 million located on the crossroads of Central and southeast Europe.
Still, there were those bombed buildings. Then I began to remember.
Only a few years ago this region was the battlezone of a bloody civil war that took the lives of 100,000 people in the most devastating conflict in Europe since the end of WWII. Yugoslavia had crumbled. Fueled by territorial, political and religious differences, the Bosnian War (1992-1995) displaced some 2 million people and put the Balkan region back hundreds of years in terms of economic development.
Since then fences have been mended. But only in the last few years have political leaders publicly declared their apologies for the miseries and crimes that occurred here. Serbia was transitioning to a market economy when war broke out.
This week, when war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic was arrested, it was a painful reminder of dark times past.
Could agriculture be this region's saving grace? That's what we were here to find out. Journalists from 18 countries joined the tour organized by Agropress, the Serbian agricultural journalists association, a member of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.
What did we learn? Agriculture makes up 13% of GDP in this nation. It is poor: Serbia's per capita income is $6,871 per year, and food eats up 42% of disposable income. Cattle production needs to be modernized. Small scale farms of 10 to 30 acres hamper efficiency. Wheat and corn yields are 11% lower than those in Europe. I saw 40-year-old tractors working the fields.
Trade and prosperity
Still, signs of hope are everywhere. Setting aside past differences and focusing on producing things people want is a promising start.
According to Minister of agriculture Dusan Petrovic (left), trade will help lift the country to a new level of prosperity. Serbia has a net trade balance of $953 million; no other country transitioning into the EU has such a good track record. Total Ag trade exports increased by 15% last year, and the first quarter of this year looks to set a record. Regional countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegnovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo) now have a trade pact, CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement).
Instead of firing weapons, people are competing with free trade.
"Serbia is very competitive," says Petrovic. "We advocate full relaxation of trade restrictions in the region. Export and imports from Serbia to CEFTA is growing each year."
Its deep, black soil is an asset. Large-scale dairies are getting licenses to export to Europe, and there's growing interest in their products.
"Miracles are not possible, but we have a number of problems we are beginning to solve, one by one," he says. "Serbia has a good foreign trade regime. We have a free trade agreement with Turkey and contacts with the European Union (EU) that connect us with a market of 500 million people. The Russian market is another opportunity. I'm expecting serious opportunities in meat exports."
Serbia needs a government that will create a safe and consistent environment for trade, regardless of politics. It needs the same atmosphere for investment. Its economy could launch like a rocket with the right level of confidence and a lot of capital.
Still, history hangs over the land. For now, foreign investors are sitting on their hands.
The Serbian people are well educated, warm hearted and hard working. The people we met – most of them young adults - see agriculture as a way to move the country forward. After many hours of talking to farmers and seeing the countryside, it was clear to me that there is great potential for this region of the world, if it can only overcome its past. Maybe it's time to tear down those bombed buildings and put up factories in their place.
I was here to learn about Serbia's promising agriculture sector. After six days, I had discovered so much more.
In the next week or so I'll share with you some of the stories of the Serbian people. They inspired me. I hope they inspire you as well.