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Innovation and Climate Risk Mitigation Protect Kosovo's Agricultural Sector Competitiveness

Combatting climate change with sustainable solutions in Kosovo’s agriculture sector

Published 12-11-20

Submitted by Tetra Tech

Tetra Tech’s Chief of Party, Mark Wood, and our Agricultural and Food Security team wrote this piece on working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to protect Kosovo’s agriculture sector.

This blog was originally published on AgriLinks.

The agricultural sectors in Kosovo and Europe are experiencing the effects of climate change, reflected in increasing climate variability and unpredictability. Climate change not only affects crop production; it affects the whole market system, impacting the livelihoods of Kosovar producers and their competitiveness in the markets they established since the country gained its independence.

During the summer, extreme climate events have increased with more flooding and dry spells during critical growing periods. In the winter, the variability of snowfall affects groundwater accumulation and freeze conditions, affecting fruit budding, the prevalence of pests and diseases, and sufficient water supplies. Finally, inconsistent spring temperatures are shifting Kosovo’s crop harvest period.

Kosovo historically has enjoyed a first-to-market advantage and corresponding high sales prices, particularly for blueberries and asparagus, because of their early harvest period. Changes in harvest timing reduce Kosovo’s competitive advantage in tightly integrated and highly competitive markets.

Besnik Lila, a young Kosovar who established Kosovo’s largest blueberry orchard, has witnessed these changes firsthand. During the 2018 blueberry harvest, warm spring temperatures in northern Europe shifted the harvest season two weeks earlier in large production areas such as the Netherlands, causing harvests to coincide with those in Kosovo and southern Europe—resulting in plummeting market prices, decreasing profitability of the whole value chain, and threatening Besnik’s operations and livelihood.

Kosovo’s farmers must adapt to a changing climate and growing environments to protect their livelihood and maintain agriculture as a viable business. USAID’s Agricultural and Rural Opportunities (AGRO) Activity, implemented by Tetra Tech, designed innovative technologies and activities, including modern irrigation and fertigation systems, state-of-the-art anti-hail systems, and new plant varieties. We partnered with the private sector to test and scale up these technologies and provide time-sensitive advice to enhance farmers’ adaptive capacity. These activities helped farmers maintain their competitiveness and build the capacity they need to be resilient and thrive in a changing climate and a dynamic market.

Improving water efficiency, accessibility, and plant health

Traditionally, farmers in Kosovo have irrigated with flood systems, which can result in water losses of up to 50 percent through soil percolation. The same field can be overirrigated in some places and underirrigated in others, leading to crop stress, which increases susceptibility to pests and diseases and reduces yield.

To address these challenges, AGRO supports farmers to develop modern efficient irrigation systems, including drip systems that maximize efficiency by delivering water and fertigation. These systems reduce waste, overapplication, and runoff. Precise and timely water metering, combined with careful crop nutrition monitoring, ensures that crop growth is optimized and increases plants’ ability to resist pest and disease pressures. For example, AGRO worked with farmers and collection centers in the sour cherry value chain and other fruit crops to strengthen plant health by adopting drip and fertigation systems, reducing crops’ susceptibility to an increasingly prevalent wood borer pest.

Drip irrigation requires relatively low pressure, thereby improving pumping energy efficiency and lowering withdrawal rates from both aquifers and surface water storage systems—a critical issue in western Kosovo. In raspberry production areas, drip irrigation systems have been transformative for primocane varieties, which bear fruit throughout the summer and are more vulnerable if only rainfed. Modern irrigation has boosted yields by more than 30 percent above regional averages. The remarkable results witnessed in AGRO-supported fields spurred commercial farmers to convert to drip systems in their orchards across several thousand hectares.

Trimor Hyseni, a young Kosovar from the Ferizaj Municipality, established four hectares of primocane raspberries and adopted drip irrigation and fertigation systems. Trimor’s raspberry yields doubled the regional average at 13 metric tons per hectare. Ismet Osmani, a minority Bosniak farmer in the Zhupa Valley of southern Kosovo, also applied a precision irrigation system. Ismet’s early, short season or floricane raspberry variety yielded 22 metric tons per hectare, again nearly double the regional average for this variety.

Vegetable farmers also are transitioning from traditional flood irrigation practices to drip irrigation and fertigation systems. As a result of AGRO-supported field demonstrations, training, and promotion, pepper farmers in the Podujevo municipality have fully adopted drip irrigation. In the Dukagjini Valley, farmers are adapting traditional production systems to meet increased export demand with strict supply requirements for consistency and quality. Aggregators embed technical services in their support to farmers, which include training in good agricultural practice, harvest management, and post-harvest management to ensure consistent quality.

AGRO’s climate-smart agriculture approach promotes modern irrigation techniques and technical services for stronger and more resilient crops. This approach ensures that farmers and agribusinesses across 400 hectares of greenhouses and 1,000 hectares of open-field production of gherkins, peppers, and tomatoes are better able to manage climate risks and climate change. As a result, these farmers are reliably able to meet domestic and international market demands, secure their incomes, and secure their livelihoods.

Innovating to confront weather extremes

Kosovo is experiencing less predictable temperature ranges with unseasonably high daytime and low nighttime temperatures. AGRO has developed partnerships to improve planting materials, develop innovative frost protection systems, protect crops from hail, and increase greenhouses’ resilience to climate change.

AGRO works in partnership with the private sector to screen and test new plant varieties for performance at multiple sites to determine suitability in a changing climate. Introducing new climate-adapted plant varieties, following commercial screening trials, is an effective way to mitigate the effects of extreme temperature variation. New planting materials diversify the production landscape, reducing farmers’ risk from extreme climate conditions, while also increasing their responsiveness to market requirements from European and other buyers.

Once materials are planted, erratic and unseasonal temperatures can still pose a serious threat to pome fruit (e.g., apples and pears) producers. Unusually high spring temperatures caused early flowering for two successive years for the EBE company, which grows high-quality apples in Mališevo. In 2017, the season’s crop was lost in a single night when the embryonic fruits were destroyed by an unseasonably late frost in May. To avoid similar outcomes, AGRO collaborated with the pome fruit sector to develop an anti-frost system suited to pome fruit orchards. Through AGRO’s Innovation and Incentive Fund, AGRO awarded a grant for an eight-hectare demonstration plot to test if the anti-frost system protects the crop if the temperature falls below freezing during the critical spring-flowering phase. As pome fruit is sensitive to internal temperatures below -1.5 degrees Celsius, the anti-frost system uses mist irrigation to protect the fruiting points by freezing water on the plant, insulating the flowers and fruit within from temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.

Heavy and damaging hail also is becoming a common occurrence in Kosovo, causing as much as €20,000 (USD $23,635) of damage per hectare for high-value crops such as blueberries. In response, AGRO supported the installation of anti-hail netting by apple producers, which offers additional benefits of reducing water loss from the field, regulating light intensity, and providing protection against frost, which forms on the net rather than on the plants.

Kosovo’s expanding greenhouse sector also is affected by increasingly unpredictable temperature fluctuations, especially from very low early season temperatures and unseasonably high late season temperatures. In response, AGRO worked with farmers to adapt “heating systems,” using double insulation “fleece” thermal layers and improving ventilation management protocols to counteract temperature variability and extend production through the shoulder seasons. Farmers have invested heavily in these systems to improve product quality and consistency, resulting in improved reliability for demanding export markets. In the Mamuša municipality, AGRO provided technical assistance to farmers to increase greenhouses’ resilience to climate change on more than 300 hectares. This investment attracted the notice and confidence of Austrian gherkin importers, who have recently doubled their vegetable produce orders from Kosovo, transforming the gherkin industry from purely import substitution to a European Union exporter.

Developing remote monitoring and early warning systems

Farmers need accurate forecast information on weather events, pests, and diseases to properly plan short-term risk management and long-term adaptation actions. AGRO collaborated with Kosovo’s IPKO Telecommunications to install a network of 19 climate monitoring stations across six production zones throughout the country, and employed two young graduates to manage the system. These stations feed into a central location, where IPKO employees analyze the data and formulate targeted agronomic advice about the potential for pest and disease outbreaks for 24 crops serving more than 1,000 farmers and input suppliers. IPKO disseminates the information to registered farmers and input suppliers by text messaging. Farmers also can improve their irrigation management and frost predictions through site-specific weather forecasting data from the system’s continuous monitoring of temperature, wind speed, and humidity.

Improving competitiveness and accelerating adaptation in Kosovo’s agricultural sector

AGRO supports Kosovo’s farmers to rapidly adapt to changing climate and growing environments through innovative technologies, new plant varieties, private sector engagement, and well-timed technical assistance to farmers. AGRO has improved farmers’ and service providers’ resilience in response to changing climate conditions, while responding to the high-quality standards from demanding European markets.

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