The Bulgarian Footprint on Vegetable-growing in Europe
We meet Dr Evelina Dragomirova and her daughter Maria Antonova over a glass of minty lemonade. Dr Dragomirova's family are supporters of Botanica Life Foundation’s educational and charitable work and regularly buy vegetables, produced in our gardens in the village of Nadarevo. Several times over this Summer, they have come to visit us and pick fresh vegetables. We have talked about agriculture in
Bulgaria and about what Bulgaria had given to Europe to develop this sector. We have also talked about the Bulgarian agricultural schools that had existed in many places before 1945, as well as about Botanica Life’s project for creating an organic garden and a training center for children and young people, initiated by Apostol Apostolov in the village of Nadarevo. Apostol Apostolov briefly tells the story of his inspirer, his great-grandfather, Krastyo Krastev, who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, worked as a gardener in Hungary, and was part of a wave of professional Bulgarian gardeners who contributed to spread vegetable-growing in Central Europe. We meet Dr. Dragomirova's family to learn more about the contribution of their father and grandfather to agriculture in Austria. Only a week earlier, a few boxes of Bulgarian tomatoes from Botanica's organic garden “drove away’’ to Graz, symbolically, where Dr. Dragomirova's father lived and worked during most of his lifetime.
* Dr Evelina Dragomirova, her daughters and her grandson with Apostol Apostolov.
At the beginning of XX century, Bulgaria was an agrarian country. In many regions of the country, agricultural schools were established to educate the population in various fields of agriculture: viticulture, vegetable production, fruit growing, and others. Students from these schools graduated with rich knowledge about land, plants, and irrigation systems, which they used to improve production. The agricultural schools of that time were oriented more towards practice than theory. Everything studied there was directly related to its practical application; each student was encouraged at school to touch seeds and crops with his hands, soil and vines, and to personally plant trees, and experiment with the crossing of new varieties. Everyone was able to use the equipment and would seek new practices to facilitate the production process.
In the 1930s, many Bulgarians who graduated an agricultural school went to work to other European countries where they developed vegetable gardens and constructed gravity-fed irrigation systems. There are reports of whole Bulgarian communities, working in Austria and Hungary, also of Bulgarian gardeners in today's Russia.
Gardening Association "Nadezhda” in Gorsko Novo Selo, Veliko Tarnovo (early 1940s).
The name of Dr Dragomirova's father is Dragomir Stanev. He was born in 1904 in Gorsko Novo Selo, in the mountainous region of Elena. He graduated the Agricultural School of Zlataritsa, specialising in viticulture. He was involved in the Gardening Association "Nadezhda” in his village. There, he experienced and learned about land cultivation, fruit and vegetable growing, irrigation systems and facilities, and many other subjects. He was only 26 years old when he went to Austria to "sell" his knowledge. His daughter tells us how difficult it was for her father to go abroad to earn some money to maintain his family, and leave his young wife (her mother), to whom he had been married only for a year. He settled in Graz - the second largest city in Austria. As a university center, Graz needs a lot of food for its large population, but in the 1930s it has a poorly developed agricultural practices. Mr Stanev and his brothers, supported financially by their father, hired land in Graz and began to cultivate it. It was the place where they could apply their knowledge and harvest their achievements. They departed for Austria early in the Spring of 1930 and began to cultivate the land. They bought all the necessary tools and animals for that purpose: a horse, a cart, a plow, grubbing hoes and shovels. They made seedlings from Bulgarian seeds, specially selected by their wives, prepared the vegetable beds and created a gravitational irrigation system. Step by step, day after day of hard work, under the burning sun and the whims of time, they managed to produce the first vegetables. They hired a place at Kaiser Josef Platz - the local market, famous throughout Austria, where they would sell their produce. The harvest was good, and so was the profit. The brothers were ambitious to continue. In one of the letters to his family, Mr. Stanev wrote on the back of a photograph:
"…Although we were exhausted with work, after we finished the harvest, we loaded the cart the day before the Monday market…”
In front of the cabin where he lived, with his three brothers.
At the market. Between 1933 and 1940 (third from the left).
Dr Dragomirova remembers that in early Spring, the gardeners from her family would depart for Graz and would come back to Bulgaria in late Autumn. After five years of collective work, in 1935, the brothers split up. Two of them returned to Bulgaria, where they invested the money they had earned. In 1945, on one of his returns from Austria, Dragomir Stanev was sent to a labour camp by the Communist Government for having a connection with a capitalist country. After a year, he managed to leave the camp, but received threats for his life from local authority representatives, so he decided to go to Austria forever, despite being nostalgic for home and family. With his savings, he managed to buy 12 000 m2 of land and to rent more. According to Dr Dragomirova, he built dwellings on his own land for his workers and for the Bulgarian students in Graz whom he supported in different ways in that time. He hired people not only from the mountainous region of Elena, and Bulgaria as whole, but also from other countries, sharing knowledge and experience with them.
Over time, the demand for Bulgarian vegetables was growing. The years of hard work and quality production paid off. The Bulgarian “brand” was often spoken about, becoming a symbol of quality and good taste. On the photographs, kindly provided by Mr Stanev’s family, we could see that he and his gardeners used to sell vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, peppers, courgettes, cabbage, onions, garlic, leeks, cauliflower, parsnips, beetroot, and Jerusalem artichoke. To keep their memories of home fresh, they grew a lot of flowers - gladiolus, chrysanthemums and many others plants, unjustly forgotten nowadays. Over the years they had experimented with different varieties of tomatoes, but the demand for the Bulgarian “Triumph” and “Ideal” had determined their mass production in Austrian gardens.
On the back of a photograph, sent to his family, Mr. Stanev wrote:
"Abroad, far away from home, in cold weather and hard labour, constantly working, but always cheerful to meet the next working day….Gardening is glorious but difficult ".
For the rest of his life, Mr. Stanev lived in Graz, updating his machinery – replacing the cart with wooden wheels for a cart with rubber tires, and later for a small truck. His production was sold on two other major markets in Graz - Lendplatz and Eggenberg, as well as in his own garden. He supplied vegetables for the canteen of the renowned shoe factory - Humanic. Until the last days of his life, he was growing and selling vegetables, surviving the storms of time and the harshness of life. He died in Graz, but his last wish was to be buried in his homeland – Bulgaria. In 1984, Dragomir Stanev “went back home” for the last time. In the memories of Dr. Dragomirova, her father “was a very strong man, always striving to develop himself and to help other people”. His purpose was to “provide a good education and security to his children and leave a good memory after himself”. His devoted wife has always stood by him, as a family pillar and a supporter of his deeds.
1933 Dragomir Stanev (with a hat on his head) in the company of gardeners, three of whom are his brothers. On the weekend they found time to go and take a picture.
Sharpening the tomato pegs. June 15 1937
In the seedling beds. August 22 1937
Among the ripening tomatoes (mainly from the “Ideal” and “Triumph” varieties) with seeds from Bulgaria.
Bulgarian gardeners, who were “selling knowledge’’ in other European countries, would often return to Bulgaria and undertake various investments. They used to build big and beautiful houses, opened guest houses and groceries, offering goods and services, typical of countries such as Austria and Hungary. Mr Stanev and other expatriates made substantial donations for the construction of the Asenevci Monument in Veliko Tarnovo and to support the development of local community centres (chitalishte) and libraries. They also helped send Bulgarian university students to study abroad.
The Bulgarian trail in the study and promotion of vegetable growing in Europe is still alive today. Mr Stanev and many other Bulgarian gardeners, working in different countries, have given their contribution to the establishment of this trail over the years. Motivated by the telling story of Bulgarian vegetable-growing, we, the team of Botanica Life Foundation, are trying to revive the interest of children and young people in land and gardening. The purpose of our training centre in the village of Nadarevo is to demonstrate, through practical experience, how to grow clean and healthy food on our Bulgarian land, so rich in natural resources. We want to motivate more people to turn to sustainable agricultural practices. And may the life and deeds of Mr Stanev serve as an inspiration to all of us!
Nevena Dobreva (wife of Dragomir Stanev) with one of the grandchildren in the tomato garden. She joined him in Austria from 1959 to 1976. Before that the Bulgarian authorities would not allow her to travel.
Dragomir Stanev, September 1939 on the market of Kaiser Josef Platz, in the city of Graz, Austria, near the opera. The market still exists.
On the market (between 1933 and 1940)
With the bicycles
* Dr Evelina Dragomirova and her youngest daughter - Nevena Antonova – live in the city of Sofia. Her eldest daughter - Maria Antonova – lives in Graz. The team of Botanica Life Foundation wishes to thank their whole family for sharing with us their memories and photographs to help with the production of this article.