Blessed with sunshine, virgin land and ample ground water, southern Bosnia is breaking into the olive oil market, winning medals and helping put the country on the map for “liquid gold“.
“When I started to plant olive trees, I was told: ‘You’re crazy’,” recalls Dragan Mikulic, 65, who runs a 50-hectare orchard in Ljubuski, in Bosnia’s southern Herzegovina region. After little over a decade, he has become one of the top olive growers in the Balkans.
Wedged between high mountains to the north and the Adriatic Sea to the south, the grove’s 7,000 trees stand in perfect rows beneath sunny skies.
“Look at this sun. It’s like this all the time. The water coming down from these mountains passes through here, on its way to the sea,” Mikulic says. “The soil consists of 30-percent sandy earth in which the trees breathe, and 70-percent stone, rich in minerals. It’s all here.”
But it wasn’t that easy at the start. Recalling the “madness” of the early days, he describes having to use “tons of explosives” to break up a rocky patch of scrubland and turn it into a flat surface where he could plant the trees.
“We chose the olive because it is, as we say here, the tree of God,” adds Mikulic, whose oil in recent years has won 32 gold medals in competitions in Italy, Croatia and Bosnia.
Other producers have now followed in his footsteps. Officially, 776 tons of olives were harvested in Bosnia last year, 27 percent more than the previous year.
The industry is still small compared to neighbouring Croatia, the regional leader. But “with a gracious climate, uncontaminated soil and water”, Herzegovina has “unimaginable possibilities for the development of olive growing”, says Miro Barbaric, an agriculture expert from the Bosnian Agro-Mediterranean Institute.
Access to underground water has only been possible over the last 15 years thanks to new drilling techniques. But it is key to the growth of this new crop in the region, once home mainly to tobacco.
Due to the lack of rain, the olive trees need between 150 and 200 litres (40 to 53 gallons) of water per day, according to Mikulic, who has drilled two boreholes in his olive grove and installed a drip irrigation system.
His neighbour Jure Susac, a 66-year-old winegrower who also has olive trees now, says he drilled a borehole nearly 300 metres (984 feet) deep. “I know that the olive loves a lot of water. I have plenty of it. The pump never stops working,” Susac says.
“And, voila,” he adds, pointing to the bunches of plump green olives on the trees “in excellent health” in his orchard, just a few days before the October harvest.
Susac has also won medals for his trees, the majority of which are bearing olives this year. Hailing the turnout as “exceptional”, he hopes to squeeze out more than 500 litres of oil from them.
In every competition he entered with his oil, he won the gold medal, Susac says. “We are now often ahead of the Croatians.”
(Main and featured image: Nazar Hrabovyi/ Unsplash)