Economic crisis forces Bulgaria to smell the roses

Bulgaria is one of the largest suppliers of rose oil to the world's leading perfume makers.

roses 88 (photo credit: )
roses 88
(photo credit: )
In a field outside this quiet village, Rumen Rumenov tosses a huge plastic bag filled with pink rose blossoms over his shoulder and loads it on a horse cart. It's not work he's used to. For decades, Rumenov spent his days putting together AK-47 rifles in an arms factory - once one of Bulgaria's largest industries. But times are hard and the global financial downturn left him jobless. Like hundreds of his colleagues, he now spends his days picking flowers for the country's lucrative rose oil production. EU newcomer Bulgaria is one of the largest suppliers of rose oil to the world's leading perfume makers. The precious substance, extracted by distillation from tons of rose petals that have been cultivated in a verdant valley in central Bulgaria for centuries, is also used in creams, soaps and other cosmetics. In a setback in the 1990s following the transition to a market economy, many rose plantations were neglected or uprooted and production shrank significantly. It dropped from some 80 percent of the world's rose oil output during communist times to less than 30% in 1990. European Union funds and foreign investors have led to a revival of this traditional industry in the last decade. Of the 3,600 hectares (8,895 acres) planted with oil-bearing rose in Bulgaria, 2,500 hectares (6,177 acres) were planted after 2001. The plantations are located in the aptly named Rose Valley, an area squeezed between the Balkan Range to the north and the Sredna Gora Mountain to the south. The valley, which is about 128 kilometers long and about 48 km. wide, is also home to most of the country's arms factories. While part of the former Soviet bloc, Bulgaria developed a respected arms industry known for its small arms, assault rifles, antitank and antiaircraft rockets and artillery systems. At its height, arms trading earned the country $800 million a year and employed 100,000 people. But since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the defense industry has largely been idle, piling up debts as it lost its traditional markets in the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East. The Balkan country, which joined NATO in 2004, is trying to rebuild the sidelined arms industry by making weapons suitable for use by NATO, but orders are far from communist-era production levels. The global financial crisis is making matters worse, and arms factory workers left jobless by the production cuts are lining up for jobs as rose-petal pickers at the beginning of this year's harvest. The crisis has driven 61-year old Rumenov into the rose fields along with most of Rosovo's 1,800 residents. A few months ago, he still had a job at the Arsenal arms factory in Kazanlak, where for more than 30 years he was assembling rifles. Now, he has switched to a more tender approach, carefully picking the pink blossoms of roses that glisten with dew in the morning. "It's not the kind of work I am used to do, but you have at least a job," he says, adding that the €10 ($15) he earns a day for 30 kilograms of rose petals were an important contribution to his family budget. Bulgaria's rose oil production now provides a livelihood - at least seasonally - to some 40,000 people. While there are more than 5,000 varieties of roses, only a few have the fragrance prized by perfumers. The Bulgarian oil-bearing rose, or Rosa damascena, has 30 petals and is the richest in essential oil. It has been cultivated in this area in central Bulgaria for more than 300 years. "It takes approximately 4,000 kilograms of rose petals to produce one kilogram of pure rose oil," said Nedko Nedkov, director of the Institute of the Rose in Kazanlak, the center of Bulgaria's Rose Valley. Every morning from the end of May to mid-June, thousands of pickers work the fields when dawn breaks. Rose petals are ideally picked when the dew protects their perfume from evaporation; they must be processed through steam distillation within 24 hours to yield the best quality and quantity of oil. "Our rose oil, which is at the heart of fragrances in brands such as Chanel and Givenchy, is considered by many to be the best in the world and costs as much as €5,000 ($7,100) per kilogram," Nedkov said. Bulgaria is now one of the world's leading exporters of rose oil, producing more than half of the world's output. The biggest buyers are France, the United States, Germany and Japan. There are no exact figures for how much the rose industry is worth, since many private distilleries refuse to announce the exact price of the rose oil they are exporting, saying it is a trade secret. After last year's record production that exceeded three tons of rose oil, Nedkov complained that this year's production would likely drop - not due to the economic crisis, but rather because of the hot and dry weather at the start of the season. The Bulgarian branch of French company Biolandes, a leading producer of natural extracts for the perfumery industry, was set up in 1996 to become part of the industry's renewal. "We have planted a total of 250 acres of roses and are employing a workforce of 1,000 in the peak season for rose-picking," said Vesela Terzieva, manager of the branch based in the eastern village of Zimnitsa. As she presents the distilling facilities in the fully renovated old factory, trucks loaded with rose petals drive in. Biolandes exports 250 kg. of oil a year, making it one of Bulgaria's top rose oil exporters. "The economic crisis is not affecting us directly. On the contrary, we have now enough labor force," Terzieva said. "What worries us is the climate change that makes the weather unpredictable."