Serbia: Do farming robots dream of blueberries?

Digitalization in agriculture, a partial revoking of the price caps, export control measures expected due to harvest yields, farmers anxious about sunflower subsidies and a shortage causing a black market of pellets to bloom - Our weekly briefing on  agriculture, food and nature news in Serbia.

A cover picture of a green field with the title "FlexiGroBots" over it.
Beeld: ©FlexiGroBots Project
The FlexiGroBots project is active in multiple countries. In Serbia, it is the BioSense Institute which, as a part of the project, is now working on a blueberry production management robot.

Government revokes price cap on certain foods

On September 30, the Serbian Government revoked the price limit for milk with 2.8% fat and determined a new maximum price for granulated sugar to be €0.94/kg, for fresh poultry €2.7/kg. The retail price of milk was limited to €1, sugar to €0.88, and poultry to €2.5.

The ban on the export of milk and dairy products was extended until October 31, and the ban on the export of diesel was revoked.

The Government prescribed that the margin on all types of milk be 10%. The prices of cooking oil, flour, and pork remain the same. In the Government statement, it was emphasized that the increase in the price of sugar and fresh poultry would not significantly affect the standard of living of the citizens and that at the moment, the shortage of these products would be a bigger problem.

As explained, the price of white granulated sugar was corrected due to a significant increase in the price of inputs and energy, which led to the cost price growing. “That is why it was necessary to limit the prices to a higher level so that the producers have space to prepare for the upcoming sowing and to avoid the scenario in which the sugar beet plantings do not cover domestic needs. Also, due to the increase in the price of animal feed, it was necessary to correct the price of fresh chicken carcass,” the statement reads.

Extending the ban on the export of milk and dairy products, as assessed, might help prevent possible damage to the economy and citizens, and will also prevent shortages due to increased exports. The Decision on the temporary reduction of excise duties on oil derivatives was also amended and its validity was extended until October 31.

BIOSENSE Institute develops robot for increasing blueberry yield

Biosense Institute, with the support of EU horizon funding and EU scientific funds, is working on developing a system for digital management for blueberry production, which includes a robot named Gary. The robot should  contribute to increasing the yield of this fruit. “We are about halfway through the project, the robot has been tested and is operational in the field. With the help of an algorithm, it can navigate through the rows of blueberries and is equipped with the latest technology for soil sampling, spraying plants, and eliminating weeds. In this way, the blueberries get all that they need for successful development,” Oskar Marko, Assistant Director for Innovation and Cooperation with the Economy at the BioSense Institute, stated for the press. Mr. Marko added that farmers would have the opportunity to earn more with the help of digital technologies.

The FlexiGroBots project is implemented in cooperation with 14 partners from Europe, including Wageningen University & Research (WUR), and the company Zeleni Hit, with the aim of automating the plant production process in Europe. The platform is currently being tested in three areas of a great economic importance: grapes (in Spain), oilseed rape (in Finland), and blueberries (in Serbia and Lithuania). As explained in the statement, the multi-robot platform, in addition to various robots on the ground, also includes unmanned aerial vehicles. The word “Gari” is the local slang for “buddy” in Novi Sad.

Free mobile App for improvement of nutrition and milk production of cows for farmers in central Serbia

As from this year, the Agricultural Advisory Service, Unit Kragujevac, has enabled cattle breeders in Šumadija, central Serbia, to use a free application related to the nutrition and improvement of milk production of cows.

"The project is intended for farmers. It is a software that will be easily reachable and available to farmers. They will be able to classify their agricultural production, namely field production that is intended for feeding of dairy cows in order to balance optimal rations to obtain milk quantities and quality that is satisfactory," says Suzana Nešković, Director of Agriculture Advisory Unit in Kragujevac. In addition to measuring the weight of cattle and information on the amount of feed used, this application also enables the production of high-quality concentrate from on-farm raw materials.

Statistics show drop in production of wheat and maize

The Serbian Statistics Office (RZS) stated that this year’s production of wheat, up to September 5, amounts to 3.113 thousand tons, which is 9.6 percent less than in 2021. Compared to 2021, production of sunflower is expected to increase by 5.9 percent while the production of sugar beet is expected to decrease by 21.4 percent and that of soya by 26.2 percent.

The production of raspberries increased by 4.0 percent and of sour cherries by 6.0 percent, said the RZS. Expected maize production amounts to 4.523 thousand tons, which is by 25 percent less than the production in 2021. Compared to the ten-year average (2012-2021), production of wheat increased by 15.9 percent, of sunflower by 13 percent.

On the other hand, the production of soy decreased by 25.4 percent, maize by 27.5 percent, and sugar beet by 36.3 percent. Compared with the production in the previous year, increased production is expected for plums (by 14.7 percent) and apple yields are also expected to drop (by 2.1 percent).

Relative to the ten-year average, production of plums is expected to increase by 6 percent and that of apples by 15.8 percent. The final data on the production of crops, fruit and grapes in 2022 will be published in March 2023.

Export control for corn and soybeans to be expected

Corn and soybean yields will be significantly lower this year than in 2021. According to the first estimates, total corn production will be around 4.5 million tons, so the state will have to introduce some measures, some kind of “export control”, agro-economic analyst Žarko Galetin said for daily Today.

Last spring, the measures limiting grain exports were introduced at a time when the war in Ukraine had already started, as he emphasized, and that was a reason for the state to react in such a way. Mr. Galetin noted, however, that these measures should have been lifted much earlier. State Secretary at the Ministry of Trade, Uroš Kandić, said that the harvest is not over yet and that it will be possible to evaluate the situation and decide upon certain measures only when the harvest is finished.

Farmers fear that they will not receive sunflower subsidies this year

Requests for the payment of subsidies for sunflowers, sold to oil mills, in the amount of up to €0.07 per kg, will be submitted from October 14 to November 14, and funds for the payment, as promised by the Government, will be provided from the current budget, explained the President of the Stig Association of Farmers, Nedeljko Savic.  

However, Mr. Savic warned that there is still doubt as to whether the Government will pay the subsidy this year, as promised, or whether the debt will be carried over to the next year. “When we protested two months ago, we asked the Government to provide a minimum, guaranteed price of sunflowers of €0.62 per kg. Since the oil mills agreed to pay about €0.55, the Government should have paid an additional €0.07, in order to reach the requested price [GKv2] ,” said Mr. Savic.

Mr. Savic also added that all oil mills do not pay the same price for sunflower and that the producers who sell it at a higher price than €0.55 will receive a smaller subsidy from the Government. He pointed out that the price of €0.62 allows the producers to cover the costs of production and the renewal of sunflower sowing. When asked why the purchase of sunflowers from farmers who harvested them later has slowed down, Mr. Savic said that the problem is probably the lack of money among the oil mills. Last year, according to him, the oil factories bought sunflower for €0.52 per kg, and this year they probably did not expect that they would have to pay more, he added.

Pellet shortage created black market for the commodity  

The price limit, export ban, and inspection control of producers and traders did not help in stabilizing the pellet and firewood market, RTS, the national broadcaster stated. There are still not enough pellets at warehouses, and citizens complain that the black market has also emerged and that they are being offered pellets for as much as €401 per ton, the public broadcaster reports.

The shortages began in June when the Government tried to ease the enormous price increase by limiting it to €325 per ton and banning exports, RTS reiterates. Professor of the Faculty of Forestry, Mr. Branko Glavonjic, says that at the moment the Government made a decision on limiting prices, producers decided to sell pellets themselves. “From that moment on, deliveries to warehouses have practically stopped and consumers have turned to factories where they can get pellets,” said Professor Glavonjic.

The professor explained that the producers want to make the most money in this way because the limited price in Serbia enables them to make a significantly lower profit than what they would achieve by exporting. “The price in Croatia is €574, and in Slovenia €581. In Italy, it is higher than €700,” he noted. Professor Glavonjic added that this is why importers of pellets do not have any incentive to engage in this activity because, for example, the factory price in Croatia is €450, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is a ban, thus there is no exporting to them. According to the professor, the public company in charge of Serbian forests had increased the raw material for the production of pellets, and the situation with the raw material had significantly improved compared to the first half of the year. However, he adds that due to the demand, even in factories that sell pellets now, waiting lists have been formed and customers have to wait two to three weeks.