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Despite the complicated epidemic situation, this year’s General Assembly of NARMS honored with its presence Mr. Simeon Karakolev, who is chairman of the Association for Breeding Dairy Sheep in Bulgaria. He was kind enough to take the time to tell us something about himself and the organizations he leads, as well as the many initiatives he has shared and the obstacles that come with them.

– Hello, please introduce yourself to our audience.

– My name is Simeon Karakolev and in addition to being chairman of NARMOB, I am co-chairman of the National Sheep and Goat Breeding Association – NOKA. I am 42 years old and I am from Veliko Tarnovo. I have been involved in sheep breeding since 2002. Before that I raised broiler chickens. I imported the Asaf sheep breed for the first time in Bulgaria, and I established the Association for Dairy Sheep Breeding in Bulgaria in 2006, as the existing breeding association at that time carried out practically no activity. It took me almost 10 years to impose the breed and make it preferred and recognizable in Bulgaria.

– What are the advantages of this breed and why, in your opinion, it took these ten years to impose it in our country? Does this provoke you to create a branch structure like NOCA?

– Asaf is probably the breed with the highest milk productivity in Europe. In the world it ranks third after the Friesian breed and Awasi.

Personally, as a farmer, I had my own views that things should happen differently. I established the National Sheep Breeding Association – NOA at the end of 2010. I was led by the belief that sheep breeders should be united. Subsequently, I held talks with a goat breeding association – the largest at the time, and they joined my initiative. Thus, the organization grew into NOCA – National Sheep and Goat Breeding Association.

Both then and now I can say that the big problem of Bulgaria in the livestock sector is the large number of non-functioning livestock organizations of any type. They do not lead to anything good for the Bulgarian breeder. They lead only to benefits for the chairmen and management boards at the expense of the working organizations and associations. I tell you this in my capacity as chairman of a breeding association!

– Is there a real activity or, like many other structures in Bulgaria, simply exist on the basis of documents in order to take advantage of the opportunities for absorption of funds?

– If we talk specifically about breeding associations, my personal opinion is that most of them, if they perform any activity at all, it does not meet in any way my criteria for such. Activity is simulated. My observation and great desire is for this to change during the new programming period. This financial incentive, which motivates them and makes them exist in their useless form, must be removed!

As for the branch organizations – at one point they literally started swarming. Absolutely unprincipled and without in any way serving their members, but only the specific financial interests of their leaderships. I know and it is a proven fact that most of them maintain an active membership of 10-15 members with a total of 100, for example. Like others outside this active mass, they are literally ignorant and in no way given the opportunity to participate in decisions that directly affect them.

These vicious practices must inevitably be stopped at some point and the actual organizations must be allowed to operate and be adequately supported for this purpose.

One of the proposals we had made, which was accepted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and enshrined in the Animal Husbandry Act, was that only nationally represented associations should join the Animal Husbandry Advisory Council. I’ve been a member of this council since its inception, and I’ve seen all sorts of outpourings of “presidents” who flaunt some association name but don’t really have a membership behind them! You cannot represent a sector with 8000 farms and have 15 members!

Most of the people on this Advisory Board aim to solve some of their personal problems and do not really represent the interests of the industry. I can talk a lot more about the gaps in the work of this type of organization.

– Do you think that these are omissions from neglect, which will be cleared over time, or are they quite purposefully left “doors” from which the unscrupulous can take advantage? Are the people who made such dubious organizations coincidental?

– Some of them are actually deliberately created in time to serve someone’s interests to those in power in those years. Others are admitted due to lack of activity from the respective class. In any case, we must move towards greater consolidation and unification of all breeders, first by sector and then more generally. However, people must first mature and realize that everything depends on them and can really change the conditions in which they exist. They must realize that it is up to us, personally and together, to change our future, but for this purpose the most important condition is to be united!

– Do you think that people will soon mature and realize their personal responsibility for positive change? Do you think that the Bulgarian as a mentality can take such a self-initiative at all and be united?

– This is really very difficult, but that is what they are hoping for. It is difficult for a disillusioned people to impute to them again the faith they have so painfully lost. However, I believe that with a lot of effort and perseverance such a change is possible! As far as breeders are concerned, they must now realize that they can only succeed if they are united, because very few of them can be sustainable on their own. They should take as an example the cooperatives in Europe, which have over 100 years of history. There were similar cooperatives in Bulgaria many years ago, but in a different form.

The problem is that for more than 30 years, people have been purposefully instilled with the idea that “the dogs ate the fellow’s work.” Which turned out to be the big stumbling block in the association in any form. I am happy that in our NOCA we are already able to overcome these imposed attitudes. We already have over 400 farmers who are united in a producer organization, we have protected projects for dairies and those under measure 9. We are currently working on other projects. I am sure that the model we are developing at some point will be applicable throughout the country and for all sectors.

– Are you ready to share your experience with other associations if they ask you for help?

– It is with great pleasure that it is important for people to have an example, which I hope we will be. Things will happen much easier if you build on the results already achieved. What brought our members together was that they believed in something, not someone. Something that already gives them a common cause and real benefits.

– Did the transition for animal husbandry in Bulgaria happen for you? Did those great hopes for a bright future come true after the fall of socialism?

– In 1989 I was still a child. Subsequently, when I started to hold meetings with similar professional organizations, it was very difficult for me to answer the question “How did 11 million sheep in Bulgaria become 1 million?”. I was asked if any disease was the reason for this and it was very difficult for me to explain that the disease in Bulgaria is called management. This is one of the greatest crimes that statesmen have committed against their people – to liquidate agriculture in such a reckless way. The main culprits for this disgrace are the so-called liquidation councils, which by law liquidated everything achieved so far, all traditions and laid foundations for 30-40 years. I do not see how soon we can restore even a third of what was deliberately destroyed!

– In recent years, new laws and regulations have been adopted very dynamically and dubiously. Do they manage to channel the activity constructively? Our farmers often doubt that those who create the regulations and those who then check for their implementation have ever seen a cow, for example.

– No. They failed, but change will inevitably come. To this end, the people who create the laws and regulations in question must be visionaries. They need to have strategic thinking and anticipate the next few steps forward, not act piecemeal.

Regarding the literacy of the administration – it is the same as the whole industry. Mutual literacy is needed, both in terms of the practices introduced and in terms of their implementation and control. There are no trained staff and everything is learned on the go. Some understanding must also be shown to the administration, as it does not have the necessary experience.

However, the challenges facing the new programming period are enormous, and incompetence is pervasive and high.

– Do you think that this is becoming the new normality, ie. this incompetence is already accepted as normal and we have become tolerant of it? We survive nonetheless.

– This tolerance has a historical explanation, but it is high time to end it. I already see signals in this direction. I think that the awakening, although timid, is already a fact in all walks of life. At the moment, every change we achieve is very difficult, but it still happens.

There are 2 significant changes in animal husbandry that will radically change the sector. One is in connection with Article 137. For him, I can say that everything as a plan is very good, but some regulations must be introduced that correspond to the capabilities and attitudes of the people. For example, in the sheep sector, which is in short supply across Europe, regulation is created before it is encouraged and supported. It was very difficult to explain to our MPs that there is no way to limit one sector and force farmers to register if you do not ease the law so that they can develop sufficiently and be subject to regulation.

The other is related to the proposals we have made to the National Assembly regarding the Law on Management and Use of Agricultural Land in the part for pastures.

– What motivates you to fight so many battles that are not yours personally?

– That’s how I feel – as my own.

– You certainly have the opportunity to exist and develop successfully without burdening yourself with the responsibility of change. Why are you doing this?

– For me, the actions speak for themselves. I have accepted it as a vocation and a personal responsibility.

– Are there moments when it is very difficult for you to witness what you are witnessing in the country, despite the efforts you are making?

– Yes, mostly in the last 10 years.

– Don’t you think that an unfortunate decade will not become a series of such?

– I believe in change. It will be very difficult, but still, if we wake up, a change can take place in one or two years. Everything depends on us.

– There is a theory that the reluctance of the Bulgarians to be united is due to the fact that we have not experienced any serious cataclysm that would unite us as a nation and teach us to cope together. Do you think that this pandemic, as scary as it is right now, can teach us to fight together and appreciate the important things?

– This pandemic, no matter how bad in every aspect, has a very good effect on the relationship between the government and others. Many things became visible and tolerance ran out. On a human level, the situation at the moment has made people turn to their loved ones again and appreciate their home and family. Mutual assistance, collegial relations and forgotten moral norms are on the agenda. Unfortunately, something bad has to happen for us to change for the better. All evil is for good, and I hope that this pandemic will play a key role and create a new world with different morals, values ​​and ambitions.

– Hopefully! Let’s go back to the positive practices. We as an association think about the production of unique Bulgarian dairy products with patented technology of cultivation and production following the example of the French and Comté cheese, for example. Have you considered such steps?

– Right now we are developing industry standards in this spirit, ie. in order to produce something of quality and to guarantee its origin, you have to standardize the whole process. These standards should cover milk production, processing and even the sale of products. I think this is quite possible and there is already a demand for such products. In Bulgaria we have all the prerequisites for this to happen. This is one of the keys to a better perspective for breeders who decide to take the road to producing their own dairy products. It is here that producer organizations play a significant role, giving small farms a chance to sell their own products.

– Do you think that this will help to distinguish those who want and try to produce something of quality from others, whose sole purpose is to receive a subsidy?

– The subsidy is an element that is significant regardless of the reason for keeping the animals. Those who are looking for quality also do not give it up. The issue here is a bit more complex and concerns the criteria by which this subsidy is distributed. There are many questions. Do some not get more unjustifiably at the expense of others? Why the sectors that are most sensitive are literally miserable.

For me, this is one of the topics that is most important to defend as chairman of an organization in the working group for the strategic plan for the new programming period. Even at the previous meeting, I raised again the issue of the need for a more balanced support and lower ceilings for support programs. It turns out that only 10 percent of the farms that applied for an investment measure were approved. The reports then report that half of the approved projects are unfeasible and it turns out that, in general, livestock farms remain highly uncompetitive. Especially in the sheep and goat sector.

– Doesn’t the current practice of helping to concentrate a huge financial resource in a small number of farms that already have one?

– Yes, the fact that during each programming period the regular participants in the programs are 500-600 farms in the presence of over 20,000 in the country is indicative enough. Why not take action? What is being done for the others? The only explanation is that the rules are made so that most give up.

– Has the state provided an understandable and accessible source of information both regarding the various support measures and for all other issues concerning livestock farmers?

– Continuing the previous question – most of the breeders can not cope with the application and give up at the initial stage. Application administration should be kept to a minimum – filling out an application in case no complex construction activities are carried out. But even if there are, it can happen at a later stage. It is not necessary for the farmer to commit a lot of unbearable resources, to struggle with incomprehensible documentation and only to apply. Without any clear assurance that it will be approved if it meets the necessary requirements. Such risky investments, and only when applying, can and often lead to bankruptcies.

The projects must be able to be prepared for the most part by the farmers themselves. Each of the measures must involve a minimum of bureaucracy. The farmer must produce quality products and be competitive, and not struggle with incomprehensible administrative requirements. For this reason, people simply give up – raise their hands and give up. Maybe that’s exactly the goal. On the other hand, I think that the reason for these absurdities is rather ignorance and incompetence, because in order to do it purposefully, strategic thinking is needed, which most of the rulers do not have.

There is a lack of continuity and strategy. Each minister does something different for his 4 years with no connection to what has been achieved or no vision for what is to come. Nobody knows what the goals are in animal husbandry and what is expected of it. How to develop something without a goal !?

– In conclusion – what is your goal?

– To change something for the better!

– Have you succeeded in anything so far?

– A lot of things from what I had set as a goal in the beginning. However, many goals remain unattainable and many new ones have emerged. Everything achieved is not my personal merit. I have a large team of people behind me, united by a cause, and each of them has made an effort and helped change.

– To challenge the sense of futility and helplessness that has imposed on us in recent years, I will ask you to contact our members and explain to them why each of them is important!

– Your members must believe as soon as possible that they can work together! The change lies in each of us, but only if we are united in a common cause! Be healthy!