Good soil is our future

Galina Peycheva-Miteva’s family owns land in Bulgaria. When she decided to step into the busi­ness, she had no formal agri­cul­tural educa­tion – which is some­thing she used to her advan­tage. And she is convinced that regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is the way forward.

Today the fields get inspected. Galina Peycheva-Miteva drives from Plovdiv out into the Bulgarian coun­try­side towards the small town Malko Dryanovo, where most of the fields she manages are located. She goes to the office, checks the mail, the orders, deliv­eries, and harvest plans. There is quite a lot of admin­is­tra­tion required to prop­erly manage 1,200ha of land. Then she goes out to the field where she meets up with her two agron­o­mists. Together they survey the sunflowers and wheat fields and plan the impending harvest.

Mrs. Peycheva-Miteva has been running the farm for almost 15 years. She came to this posi­tion by chance – with hardly any formal agri­cul­tural training. “I helped out on our farm in the summer of 2008 and was preparing to apply for a job in finance – my big dream at that time. Then our oper­a­tions manager resigned, and we urgently needed a replace­ment. I was just filling in for the time being.”

Galina Peycheva Miteva, farmer and manager

I was just filling in for the time being.

Galina Peycheva-Miteva

This tempo­rary solu­tion turned into a career path: As well as working full-time on the farm, she is, among other things, also involved on the board of the Euro­pean Landowners’ Organ­i­sa­tion, lectures in Brus­sels and speaks about the oppor­tu­ni­ties regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture provides.

Regen­er­a­tive and successful

Mrs. Peycheva-Miteva also imple­ments a regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture approach on her farm, which stretches across 1,200ha. In Bulgaria there are many farms managing more than 2,000ha, so her enter­prise is a medium sized oper­a­tion. The crop port­folio is diverse: Annual and peren­nial crops, both conven­tional and organic. She grows the tradi­tional crops of the region: Wheat, barley, rape­seed, and sunflowers, but also alfalfa, coriander, milk thistle and grass mixtures.

The farm also has vine­yards, a rose garden, and lavender fields. She sells most of the crops region­ally after harvest; alfalfa and grass mixtures are used as animal feed for surrounding farms and the grapes from the 62ha vine­yard are processed by some of Bulgaria’s leading vine makers about 40km away. The cultivation of roses and lavender is also common for the region.

Galina Peycheva-Miteva grows her wheat following regen­er­a­tive farming prac­tices.

“Bulgaria is well known for its rose oil,” she explains. “However, it takes a lot of petals to produce even a small amount of essence, which makes natural rose oil expen­sive. That means it is mainly used in high-quality perfumes, there­fore demand fallen sharply,” she adds. However, that is not the case for the inhab­i­tants of the expan­sive rose fields on site: Approx­i­mately 700 surrounding beehives are still very happy about the flower supply. And so are the neigh­bouring beekeepers, who produce regional honey with the help of their bees.

The organ­i­cally grown high-value crops also include milk thistle. “Growing this­tles has a long tradi­tion in our region. The this­tles we grow are mainly used to produce a liver medi­cine but also for cold pressed oil, which is used for liver treat­ments as well. The oil is a powerful liver detox agent, and it is very popular ingre­dient not only in conven­tional medi­cine but also in home­opathy and alter­na­tive treat­ment medi­cine.”

Mrs. Peycheva-Miteva also grew cotton on the farm for several years, but this had to be aban­doned due to increas­ingly cold and wet springs, which caused many prob­lems for the crop.

Chal­lenging extremes of climate change

The farm is increas­ingly being confronted with constantly evolving chal­lenges, due to climate change. “This year it has been extremely hot and dry with almost 40⁰C in June,” she says. “In 2021, on the other hand, it was rainy and cold.” It is hard to deal with such rapidly changing condi­tions. Above all, she cannot rely on the weather patterns of recent years which makes yield plan­ning diffi­cult – a supposed formula for success can become obso­lete after just one year.

Galina Peycheva-Miteva together with one of her two agono­mists supporting her managing the 1,200ha farm.

She also employs 12 workers and oper­a­tors as well as many seasonal workers during harvest time.

With her John Deere trac­tors Galina Peycheva-Miteva feels ready for the next step: moving towards preci­sion farming.

The soil also suffers from the climatic condi­tions, and it was not partic­u­larly good when Galina Peycheva-Miteva started thinking about making changes. “From a depth of 15cm, the soil was like concrete – much too compacted and salty. The crops did not root well, and the soil was barely able to protect itself against erosion by wind and weather.”

To coun­teract this and increase the soil quality in the long term, Mrs. Peycheva-Miteva first intro­duced a multi-struc­tured crop rota­tion and different catch crops, as well as minimal tillage. This means the soil is covered throughout a longer period of the year, it can be better pene­trated by roots, harvest is spread over the year and the soil is less stressed.

We look at our most impor­tant produc­tion resource – in this case the soil and its health – from a long-term perspec­tive.

Galina Peycheva-Miteva

Bacteria instead of fertiliser

After harvest, straw is worked into the soil, preserving its organic matter, and protecting it from erosion. Addi­tion­ally, shallow tillage stim­u­lates weed germi­na­tion, making them easier to control. Mrs. Peycheva-Miteva also started adding different microor­gan­isms to the soil, which can bind nitrogen and phos­phorus. These increase produc­tivity and restore the natural soil prop­er­ties. She also used bacteria that can destroy disease pathogens. All of this, in turn, leads to signif­i­cantly less fertiliser being used – which bene­fits the soil in the long run.

Milk thistle seed are dried in the sun and turned by hand.

Mrs. Peycheva-Miteva exper­i­mented with the amount and type of addi­tives for a long time until she devel­oped a balanced system that worked. “It would be a lie to say that every­thing we tried worked the same or was a spec­tac­ular success,” she says. But it all paid off as in 2017, she was awarded the Land and Soil Manage­ment Award for her approach to promoting soil quality.

Adding different bacteria led to a visible improve­ment in soil quality: More worms, more oxygen, healthier root systems – and yields as high as before starting the new prac­tices. This is a complete success, not only as a farmer, but also as a busi­ness­woman. By saving on fertiliser, Miss Peycheva-Miteva can quickly recoup the addi­tive costs. “Regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is a complete economic success, with many posi­tive, sustain­able effects,” she says.

For me, regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is not only an ecolog­ical success, but an economic one as well.

Galina Peycheva-Miteva

Agri­cul­ture can be more precise

When switching to minimum tillage, the right machines also play a role. “Reli­able trac­tors are needed for this task – that’s why I decided on a John Deere,” she explains. This has laid the foun­da­tion for the future, in which she wants to focus on preci­sion agri­cul­ture, partic­u­larly as no two hectares of soil are alike. “The wealth of data we can collect thanks to preci­sion farming allows us to develop a customised approach. We also achieve huge savings and even better results this way.”

Galina Peycheva-Miteva was awarded the Land and Soil Manage­ment Award for her system to improve soil quality.

Miss Peycheva-Miteva is keen to share the expe­ri­ence she has gained over the years with soil bacteria and climate change, partic­u­larly in her region. “Most farmers don’t want to read long scien­tific reports, they just want to know what they can do on a day-to-day basis. We need to network more region­ally and person­ally.” As the climatic chal­lenges in the region are compa­rable, everyone can benefit from an open exchange here.

She looks at the bright yellow field full of sunflowers. “This is our land – whoever owns it has to take care of it. For me, there can only be long-term and sustain­able land manage­ment.”