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Moldova's lavender flourishes after post-Soviet decline

A woman crosses a lavender field near the village of Valea-Trestieni, some 30 km east of Chisinau, Moldova. -- AFP
A woman crosses a lavender field near the village of Valea-Trestieni, some 30 km east of Chisinau, Moldova. -- AFP

Young couples and families pose for glamour shots as the sun lowers over Alexei Cazac's sprawling field of lavender outside the capital of Moldova.

"Once, in the first year the lavender was blooming, we came and the entire field was just filled with people," the 40-year-old farmer tells AFP on a recent visit.

"It's like the set of a photo shoot. We didn't plan it this way," he says.

Cazac, who planted his first bushels in 2015, is among a growing cohort of farmers in Moldova fuelling a resurgence in the aromatic herb, whose cultivation collapsed along with the Soviet Union.

The comeback in the small country bordering Romania has garnered attention not just from locals hungry for likes on social media, but also from global cosmetic firms headquartered in western Europe.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the industry was forgotten," says Alexandru Badarau, president of the Lavender Growers Association.

"It collapsed precisely because our connection was severed with Moscow, where most of the essential oils produced in Moldova were exported," he tells AFP.

"We're working hard to revive it."

Around five or six newcomers to the industry are planting rows of the herb every year, he says, a trend which saw Moldova's lavender oil production double in 2021 to 20 tonnes compared to twenty years ago.

But that is still a far cry from 1989, when the country produced 180 tonnes.

Badarau's association says members export 99 percent of their oil to the European Union, specifically Germany, and to two other well-known producers: France and Bulgaria.

The oil is widely used in cosmetics and its aromas are hailed for their relaxing and soothing qualities that some believe counteract anxiety and insomnia.

Producers in Moldova say Bulgaria, which was also under the Iron Curtain, has benefitted greatly from the European Union after it became a member in 2007.

But where Bulgaria excels in quantity, Moldova trumps it in quality, they say.

- Room for growth -

The local variety yields less oil, concedes Nicu Ulinici, who inherited his father's farm and harvested his first bushels in 2014.

"But it's higher quality," he says. Its aroma is "more pleasant, softer."

For Badarau, lavender has won over growers in Moldova owing to its success in dry climates. This, he believes, will help farmers mitigate "risks associated with climate change."

Indeed, multinational cosmetics firm Weleda, which began sourcing Moldovan lavender in 2005, has described the country as "perfect" for the herb.

French fragrance company Mane is another major brand in Moldova whose subsidiary works in cultivation and production of essential oils.

Still, recent experience shows the future isn't guaranteed to be rosy.

The United States Agency for International Development said in 2017 that Moldova was still exposed to climate risks, with likely "adverse effects" for growers.

It said the industry had fluctuating economic success in one of the poorest countries to emerge from the Soviet collapse, with Moldova's market share still trailing far behind essential oil majors like Turkey and China.

Pointing to climate threats, the United Nations Development Programme said Moldovan farmers last year harvested up to 50 percent fewer bushels than in 2019, resulting from tepid spring temperatures and a summer drought.

The report also noted that demand for essential oils dipped during the coronavirus pandemic.

But producers in Moldova aren't fazed.

Badarau says his association has registered the brand Essential Oils of Moldova to promote products abroad, and that it was aiming for certification from an international agricultural quality assurance group.

This "is of great concern to the end consumer," he says.

In the meantime, there's money to be made from visitors drawn to the picturesque fields.

Cazac, who has over 60 acres of lavender, says he charges visitors the equivalent of about $3 to meander through his purple bushels.

On the horizon, he sees plenty of room for expansion.

"Moldova is producing much less than it could," he says.

"But first we need to prove we're producing a quality product at international standards." — AFP

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