Enjoying the fruits of her labour – how apples changed one woman’s life!

Violeta Prculovska used to be an accountant, travelling five days a week to the office at 9 and returning home at 5. But that was before apples changed her life.  Now, at the age of 53, she works around the clock with no days off—and her meetings no longer take place in offices but in fields and orchards, between irrigating and spraying the trees, preparing for market and making deliveries. And it suits her down to the ground.

In an environment that has a clear line of demarcation of the duties of man and woman, her dive into farming begins in an interesting and unusual way. We can even say accidentally.

Apple production became a way of life for Violeta and her husband Kire (59) when they inherited some agricultural land in the village of Carev Dvor in the Municipality of Resen from Kire’s great-grandfather who had emigrated to America.

“I am leaving all my gold to you,” Kire’s great-grandfather said when he divided the land among his grandsons and granddaughters.

“Later on we realized that our story is a bit like the one about the farmer and his lazy sons,” says Violeta, laughing, “the one where the  father tells his sons there’s treasure buried in the farmland and tells them to search for it and share it amongst themselves."

Like the sons in the story, Violeta and her husband set about digging each and every inch of their inherited field. They started with just 4 hectares, working from dawn to dusk with very little free time left for themselves and their two daughters, and before long they had increased the size of the orchard to 6 hectares.

But all this backbreaking work, together with the high costs of production, the low selling price of apples and difficulties with the quality ranking system for fruit began to take their toll on the couple’s enthusiasm. “We were about to give it all up,” says Violeta. “There were just too many challenges. Production costs were an especially big problem because of the out-dated equipment and farming methods we were using.”

Just when they were on the verge of giving up, though, chance came their way in the form of an opportunity for a grant.

“It was early in the morning, around 4 o’clock. It was harvest time and we’d hired people to help us collect our 150 tons of apples. Those days I’d get up before 4am to prepare breakfast and finish the housework. Anyway I was surfing the Internet waiting for a pie to bake in the oven when I came across a UNDP call for grant proposals. I called Kire immediately and showed him the news that the Swiss Embassy was working with UNDP to give agricultural grants worth 700,000 denars (12,800 USD). We looked at each other and we knew we were both thinking the same thing: there’s still hope!”

Violeta was soon telling all her relatives and friends about the opportunity, thinking they might be interested in applying too. She was surprised to find, though, that instead of the words of optimism and support she’d expected, all she heard was the same old disbelief and discouragement.

They decided to turn a deaf ear to the pessimism, however, and started working on the application. The process was not easy, they say, but they got help and support from the local UNDP office in Resen. “Once we’d finally completed the process, though, we had a new wave of doubts and fears,” says Violeta. “Our application looked like a wish list for equipment—an impossible dream. But we filed it off anyhow and prayed for the best.”

The requests they made were rational and based on serious analysis, however, and their application was duly approved.

Since then, Violeta’s orchard has spearheaded a revival of modern apple production in the Prespa region. Her apples are among the very best to be found in the country. And as one of the few women to branch out into the commercial production of organic apples, Violeta has established her place in Prespa’s history.

“Luck?  You get luck in the next world,” she says, smiling. “In this world you only get by with hard work, learning and persistence. But we couldn’t have achieved all this without the equipment and knowledge we received with the help of UNDP and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.”

Kire explains that they decided to most of use the grant money to purchase a combined inter-row rotary tiller. “The tiller alone costs around seven thousand dollars,” he says, “and there are only two of them in the whole country. By using the inter-row rotary tiller we no longer need to use poison for mice to protect the roots of the apple trees. We don’t use herbicides any more but ‘fertigation’ [an approach that delivers fertilizer mixed together with water for irrigation] instead. So each tree receives food and water through a highly-developed system.”

The couple also purchased several smaller pieces of equipment with the rest of the money, including an electrical cutter. “It saves so much time,” says Kire. “Now I can complete the process of cutting of all 4,000 trees in just two days. We used to produce 150 tons of apples per year, but now we expect 220-230 tons of apples.”

According to Violeta, the most valuable part of the application process was not the equipment but the knowledge they gained through the training components of the process. “The training programme implemented through UNDP taught us how to produce apples of the highest organic quality,” she says.

Many other farmers in the Prespa region can also attribute their recent successes in farming to their mentorship from UNDP as part of the programme sponsored by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Since 2014, UNDP has awarded a total of 77 grants for individual farmers, including twenty women, of whom Violeta Prculovska was the first to gain a grant.

Success hasn’t come easy for Violeta but her determination is now greater than ever. Her next step, she tells us, is to invest in rural tourism, building apartments in ethno style near the orchard, where the guests will be served organic fruits and vegetables in traditional dishes made by Violeta.

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