Agricultural Innovation in the Balkans

Mountain Rose Herbs
September 19th 2019

By Jennifer Gerrity, COO of Mountain Rose Herbs

A new approach to farming has taken root alongside this centuries-old trade, creating new opportunities and ensuring high-quality herbs continue to thrive in this pristine land.

When it comes to biodiversity, Bulgaria is one of the richest countries in Europe, its abundant botanical offerings protected by a unique and strictly enforced government system (through its Ministry of Environment and Water) designed to ensure the survival of its habitats, flora, and fauna.

Many of its rural residents work within these regulations to make their living from this natural bounty, upholding the region’s longstanding wildcrafting and farming traditions. However, a new approach to agriculture is creating opportunities for human and plant communities across the Balkans.

Amidst the stunning foliage of golden autumn, our Chief Operations Officer, Jennifer, and United Plant Savers’ Executive Director, Susan, journeyed through Bulgaria’s agrarian villages situated in lush valleys and verdant mountains.

While they stopped at farm fields along the way, their destination was a unique cultivation center housing a state-of-the-art tissue culture propagation laboratory. Here, Margarita, a local botanical expert who works in the plant lab, applies the types of precision methods typically reserved for internationally prized botanicals like vanilla and cacao to her own regional plant communities. This new world science is helping to create a brighter future for local farmers and the region’s precious wild botanicals.

Agriculturalists have been propagating seeds and starts in sheltered environments for millennia. However, their time-honored processes leave considerable room for variability, and many species do not reproduce easily. By harnessing carefully controlled, pristine environments and modern tools, Margarita’s horticultural team generates plant seeds and starts with success levels that far exceed the possibilities of traditional methods.

New generation plant propagation techniques remove uncertainty factors, using sterile environments to protect against fungi and harmful microbes while isolated tissue cultures keep plant starts from being susceptible to cross-pollination from the surrounding environment. Plant parts are cut, sterilized, and placed on an agar medium blended with natural hormones to encourage cell growth in a completely controlled setting tailor-made for each species. From this precisely cultivated tissue, plants can reproduce and then be transitioned into a greenhouse then eventually nursery rows, where they gain the hardiness to weather the elements when transplanted into the field.

Such careful cultivation is beneficial to the local growers and allows Mountain Rose Herbs to continue to offer consistently high-quality botanicals in our shop. Now Bulgarian growers can create a surplus of quality plant material rapidly while simultaneously ensuring species consistency across all plants propagated.

Ultimately, the established botanicals will be dispersed to the facility’s regional farmer network for organic cultivation, empowering these growers to specialize in crops that could not previously flourish at scale. Farmers have recently begun to reap the financial benefits of tarragon, a crop notoriously difficult to propagate or germinate from seed.

Bulgaria’s human communities are not the only beneficiaries of this investment in agricultural innovation. With the assistance and support of nonprofit and longtime Mountain Rose Herbs collaborator, United Plant Savers, researchers are applying modern growing techniques to address botanical conservation challenges across the globe.

Gulka, an experienced wildcrafter, has been harvesting Bulgaria’s wild bounty with her family for many generations. Wild collecting communities like Gulka’s take great pride in their practice, and we’re fortunate to benefit from their exceptional skills in locating, identifying, and properly collecting the precious plant treasures of their region.

After leaving Margarita and her team, Jennifer and Susan passed an occasional horse-drawn wooden cart. This corner of the world feels like it has supported agriculture since the beginning of time, yet our travels demonstrate how gracefully it has also adapted to modern challenges, forging a way forward that promises to enrich its people and its ecosystems.

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Mountain Rose Herbs is a purveyor of sustainable organic ingredients. You can find out more about their large selection of high-quality herbs, spices, and DIY supplies here.

Author Jennifer Gerrity is the Chief Operations Officer at Mountain Rose Herbs and has played a key role in establishing the company’s botanical sourcing program over the last decade.