Say Cheese, Sjenica!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019
The lab at Sjenica Regional Center for Agricultural and Rural Development uses 37 accredited testing methods and can process a thousand samples of milk and meat a day. It provides services to approximately 10,000 dairy farms and 14 dairies in this region.
USAID Serbia

Pester plateau, in south-west Serbia, can be described as a page out of a fairy-tale.  It is a vast space of seemingly endless flowing pastures, populated with flocks of sheep, cows and horses, surrounded by seven mountains. In recent years Pester plateau has become a popular tourist attraction, offering new, unexplored landscapes and untouched natural beauty. Pester plateau, the largest plateau in the Balkans, covers an area of approximately 23 square miles at an altitude of 3,600 feet, with most of its territory belonging to the municipality of Sjenica, whose name comes from the archaic phrase meaning, “land of hay.” Protected by several international conventions and treaties as an area of international importance for plants, wetlands, butterflies and birds, this “land of hay” is also the home of Sjenica cheese, a traditional soft, white, full-fat cow or sheep cheese, whose aroma and taste comes from the rare plants growing on the Pester highlands.

You will find Sjenica cheese being made in every household in the Pester highlands, and you will hear many theories why their cheese is the best or the tastiest.  You will hear about simplicity: raw, unprocessed milk, salt and rennet. You will hear how the cheese must be left to ripen for 60 days and how it is best kept in a traditional round wooden vessel under a lid to provide pressure.

The quality of Sjenica cheese is well known to consumers not only in Serbia, but also to the Western Balkans and beyond. However, nowadays the rules and standards for processing, selling and exporting milk and dairy are very strict. The fact that the Sjenica cheese is made of unprocessed milk is something that could raise concerns if hygienic and other standards are not properly met.

People in Sjenica and Serbia believe that Sjenica cheese could spur local, economic development and become a major exporting brand from Serbia. To help local farmers in reach the highest international standards, in 2011, the municipality of Sjenica established the Regional Center for Rural and Agricultural Development (the center), using EU funds to construct a new facility for the center.

Recognizing the economic potential that cheese production could bring to south-west Serbia, USAID partnered with the Czech Development Agency in 2013 through the Emerging Donor Challenge Fund to help the center become a modern facility that offers a range of services to the farmers. The Czech Development Agency provided funds to equip the lab, and USAID trained and educated staff on ISO standards and required testing procedures. Both efforts were designed to help the lab attain accreditation.

Esad Hodžić who is the director of the center is proud of what he and his nine staff have accomplished with the help of donors and how they built upon that assistance even after programs ended.

“We are grateful to the EU and Czech Development Agency for the facilities and equipment, but what USAID helped us accomplish is precious. With USAID assistance, we were trained to introduce and maintain ISO standards, which makes us ready to work according to the same standards the EU uses. Our accreditation has been confirmed twice already after the USAID project was over,” Hodžić said.

This lab uses 37 accredited testing methods and can process a thousand samples of milk and meat a day. It provides services to approximately 10,000 dairy farms and 14 dairies in this region.

“Accreditation is not just a piece of paper we keep framed in our premises. It is knowledge, and people are behind that knowledge,” Hodžić said, proud of his staff and their achievements.

The people working in the center are well known to farmers in the area. They visit villages and farms, provide advice and training to milk producers and processors, transferring knowledge and experience related to hygienic standards and best practices.

Hodžić admits there were some questionable practices used by some small farms at the beginning, such as adding water or baking powder to the milk or skimming the fat. But he and his staff have managed to stop these practices and persuaded the farmers that they should always strive for the highest quality and safety standards. He thinks the center being so close to the farmers is of crucial importance, as farmers can receive assistance and advice quickly and react quickly if a problem arises, for example, if increased bacteria or milk acidity occurs.

Refik Catović, a small milk producer from Sjenica was one of the first beneficiaries who received assistance and services from the center. When a dairy supplier from Bajina Basta in western Serbia, was looking for good quality milk producers from the Sjenica area, Refik wanted to offer his milk.

“I was fortunate to have these people working at the Center for Rural and Agricultural Development in Sjenica, who helped me with advice and instructions,” said Mr. Catović. “Not only did the quality of the milk improve very quickly, but I managed to increase the price of the milk I offer by 33%, just by following their advice.”

 “With increased sales from two years ago, I invested in keeping more cows, and more importantly, I can now prove any time the quality of the milk I offer. I hope I will be exporting one day”, Mr. Catovic concluded.

The center has also built connections with other important institutions that support the dairy sector.  It has managed to bring the State University for Agriculture from Novi Pazar to its premises, offering students the necessary practice, knowledge, and advice to be successful.  The center also established a strong cooperation with the local high school, educating students in agriculture sciences. The center also initiated the Sjenica International Agricultural Fair, held each summer in Sjenica, which brings many buyers and producers from the whole region of the Western Balkans.

Things continue to look up for dairy producers in Serbia.  The regional center in Sjenica has become a member of the national network of accredited labs and the Directorate for National Reference Labs in Belgrade received its accreditation in December 2018. Receiving these accreditations means that regional labs are ready to meet EU food safety and quality control standards.  By meeting EU standards, Serbian cheese producers are guaranteeing safety standards will be met which will result in more Serbian dairy products being offered throughout Europe.

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to guarantee the Sjenica cheese standards and quality to the consumers in the EU, US and further. We have enjoyed our cheese for generations, but we want its high quality and aroma to be properly preserved, packed and safely sent to consumers worldwide,” said Hodžić.

Last updated: April 02, 2019

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