Doris Letina, apple farmer and Vice-President of CEJA
She is young, she is ambitious, she grew up on a farm and represents the second generation of women there, and she is very involved in organisations for young farmers in Europe. Women in Ag talked to Doris Letina, Slovenian apple farmer and Vice-President of CEJA, the European Council of Young Farmers.
Orchards in the low hills of Goričko Landscape Park
In an area where the Pannonian plain passes into a hilly world with an altitude of over 310 meters lies Doris’ farm. It is located entirely in the Goričko Landscape Park and a Natura 2000 protection area. “The ideal location with clean air and few foggy days in the year, confirming the favourable location for fruit production”, says Doris Letina, Vice President of CEJA and second generation of women on the family farm in Slovenia.
The main activity of the farm is fruit growing: “there is apple production, of course, but we also have plums, table grapes, walnuts and chestnuts. The farm is very diversified as it also has arable land, meadows, forest, a few chickens and a couple of pigs. It covers 20 hectares. Apples are grown in an integrated way, and walnuts and chestnuts in an organic way”, Doris explains.
The farm is mainly focused on apple production, which has become increasingly difficult in recent years due to bad weather. This is why Doris and her family place great emphasis on adapting to climate change, protecting the apple orchards with hail nets and establishing an irrigation system.
“In the case of newly planted trees, we more often opt for more resistant varieties.”
The farm constantly invests in nature-friendly technology and emphasises quality and the production of healthy and consumer-safe food. “Biodiversity also means a lot to us, so we are very proud to have a diverse range of animals living around our orchards.”
The story of Doris’ farm began 28 years ago, when her mother left a good job in the city to take over her father’s – Doris’ grandfather – farm after his passing. “The story of our farm is the story of female farmers. My mother went back home after her father passed, to take over a farm that was not intended to be taken over. There were small pieces of land, just few hectares, and a few cows and pigs… in a beautiful but not really urbanised or developed region.”
Doris’ mother decided to specialise in apple production, despite having to start from scratch and the resistance of the people around her: “everyone around her said that it was a crazy idea. Other farmers that lived nearby had even silently started to divide the land she had, because they believed so strongly that she would fail! Which is quite ironic, because now we are one of the really few farms in the village that continue farming and developing.”
Since the farm takeover came about through a web of unexpected circumstances, there was no real vision for the farm until 1992. When Doris’ mother returned to her homestead, she proceeded to a detailed analysis of the situation and based her plans for the development of the farm on that. She became self-employed in 1996 and learned everything there was to learn hands-on, through the work at the farm. “All of her farm knowledge in the fields of organisation, finance, commercial, planning and analysis and sector management, she learned by working on the farm.”
The farm development was divided into several phases. The first step was the replacement and purchase of land, the removal of uncultivated and overgrown areas, and the purchase of agricultural machinery. In 1994, the first hectare of (apple tree) orchard was planted. From 1992 to 2009, approximately 6.2 ha of land were purchased, most of which was uncultivated and overgrown.
“With appropriate machinery, including excavators and bulldozers, it was rehabilitated with my mother’s own funds and adapted for crops and apple orchards. A major obstacle was the small size and fragmentation of plots – in 2009 the entry in the land register of 54 plots with a total size of 2.6 ha was completed, most of which were less than 0.10 ha, some even less than 0.01 ha – but despite large expenditures of money and a lot of time needed, an exchange was arranged to merge those plots.”
A challenging but rewarding way of life
“Life on the farm has taught me that nothing should be taken for granted and that success requires a lot of effort and perseverance. Agriculture is an outdoor factory, so we are totally dependent on this very unpredictable, and lately relentless, weather.”
Of the many challenges Doris and her family face on the farm, she would especially like to point out the limited resources in time, labor and of course, money: “the prices we get for the food products we sell are low, which means it is really a challenge to cover the costs while still investing in sustainable development of the farm.”
Among the difficulties that come with working on a farm, she also mentions the rare moments of free time and the challenges that can come while living and working with family. “It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it also has its own benefits” she comments.
“This year, for example, we lost about 90 percent of our total production due to the spring frost, which means we are already waiting for next autumn hoping everything will be fine next year. Since this is our main business, you can imagine what loss of income means for us. We already have to turn over every euro several times, and now will have to be even more careful. Running a farm really requires a detailed knowledge of economic laws.”
For Doris, and many farmers with her, farming isn’t just a job: it’s a way of life. In spite of the difficulties and challenges, her greatest rewards are the gratitude and praise from satisfied customers. “It’s rewarding to hear customers recommending our products to other customers and to see that their friends come along with them! It is true that resources are still very limited, and managing a farm means that you have to make a lot of sacrifices, but the satisfaction you get out of it at the end of the day is worth a lot!”
Women in agriculture
“I repeat it often, but still: it is sad that we still need to shift prejudice from being ‘the farmer’s wife’ to being ‘the farmer’, Doris says about the perception of women in agriculture. “In the eyes of society and of some families, that is unfortunately still how women in our sector are perceived”, she explains, pointing out that this attitude still causes limited involvement in farming activities and lost opportunities for women.
“I know some female farmers who work and manage farms on an equal footing, or even sometimes in a higher position than their male counterparts, so it is unacceptable that their role is still under-recognized.”
“Agriculture is a challenging sector in itself. Too often, gender-related prejudices can be added to the already existing challenges faced by farmers. Such prejudices mean that as a female farmer, you have to do more to prove your value. You need a strong will, nerves of steel and support from friends and family to assert yourself as a women in a still largely male-dominant sector.”
For Doris, this is why it is crucial to empower female farmers and raise awareness about gender issues. “That implies that some people will have to shift their views to acknowledge that barriers – visible and invisible – still exist for women who want to develop their farming activity. We have to work together to eradicate gender-based discrimination in agriculture and bring change at the individual and collective levels.”
“There are a lot of amazing, innovative, successful managers leading farms and being women. In Slovenia, in Europe and also abroad. All these women who are farming, promoting and selling their products, fighting for their dream,… all while taking care of their families. I feel deep respect for each of them.”
To the young girls and women dreaming of a career in agriculture, Doris’s advice is this: “it takes perseverance, strong will and nerves of steel. But it’s worth it.”
“Every path is difficult, we face challenges, but we can overcome quite a few of them on our own and create opportunities for ourselves. It’s certainly not always easy, but satisfaction is the best confirmation. Above all, I would like to stress that in the end, all that matters is that we are happy.”
Doris Letina (28) grew up on her mother’s apple farm in the Goričko region (Slovenia), where she lives and works with her mother and brother. She studied Economics at the Ljubljana University and obtained a qualification in agriculture. In addition to her very busy workdays, Doris has been an active member of the Slovenian Rural Youth organisation for ten years and is also the Vice-President of CEJA, The European Council of Young Farmers.
On Doris’ farm, sustainability and biodiversity are very important. The farm invests in nature-friendly solutions and has various animals living around the orchards.
This article appeared in Women in Ag Magazine 2021-02. Click here to read the full article.