Poppies- © Ispace/Shutterstock

Poppies - © Ispace/Shutterstock

For centuries the opium poppy has been cultivated with great success in what is now North Macedonia. After the bans of the Yugoslav era, there are now those who want to reintroduce it for the (legal) needs of the pharmaceutical and food industries

13/09/2023 -  Aleksandar Samardjiev Tetovo

In the past two centuries, the opium poppy was one of the main agricultural crops in the Macedonian fields. It was then almost banned in the former socialist system, but now, after several decades, despite the strict rules and regulations, an attempt is being made to restore the tradition of growing this plant in North Macedonia.

As an agricultural crop, the poppy was so present that it is even on the Macedonian national coat of arms, designed in 1946. Under Yugoslavia, though, its production was significantly reduced and almost banned in order not to allow illegal trade, because opiates can also be obtained from it.

Now in North Macedonia there are strict rules and regulations for poppy production, and some people are currently trying to return it to the fields because it is simple to grow, and especially because of the climatic advantages that the country has.

Bring the poppy back to the fields of North Macedonia?

Aleksandar Dimitrievski is a young entrepreneur who owns a company that cooperates with farmers and offers them a guaranteed purchase: in accordance with the strict law, he uses poppy seeds for the production of pharmaceutical products and as dietary supplements.

According to Aleksandar, the poppy is very easy to grow and 90% of the fertile soil in North Macedonia is suitable for this crop.

“Poppy can be planted from the first to the sixth class of fertile soil. It can't be planted only on hilly and windy areas, because when the wind blows, it simply blows the poppies away. It doesn't require much work, it doesn't require irrigation, it just grows, it doesn't need pesticides, but only natural fertilisers”, says Aleksandar Dimitrievski.

The poppy’s stem has a "head" or capsule at the top, and the word pepper (чушка) is colloquially used among Macedonians to refer to it. It is planted in September and harvested in June and July of the following year. The seeds are taken from the "head" and two products are made from it - poppy collagen and poppy oil are used as pharmaceutical products, but also in the food industry.

“The nutritional values of unaltered poppy seeds are fascinating and revolutionary. They find application in the modern diet, which adds a contribution to the immunity of the human organism”, emphasises Aleksandar.

Apart from its commercial potential, Aleksandar says that his idea of reviving poppy production is part of his dream to make a change in Macedonian society. He started his business career with the collection and treatment of waste cooking oil, with the aim of preserving the environment given the uncontrolled release into nature. He then also worked in the glass selection and treatment business.

In North Macedonia, poppy cultivation is currently considered to be around 25 hectares in total, but according to the trends, it could increase significantly in the next years and – according to some analyses - it could reach up to 200 hectares. The available data on poppy show that in the past in North Macedonia poppies were planted on several tens of thousands of hectares.

The poppy in Macedonian history

Serbian historian and publicist Vladan Jovanović, in his study "Macedonian opium: about the financial and political dimensions of the phenomenon (1918-1941)*, published data about opium producers in the Vardar Valley: according to the author, between the two world wars the region, which corresponds to modern North Macedonia, used to meet around 43% of the demand of the poppy’s legal processing industry at the world level.

From a cultural point of view, the poppy is a significant theme in Macedonian poetry and art. Many folk songs and poems celebrate the work and way of life of the Macedonians through the poppy.

Another important historical source when it comes to poppy production in North Macedonia is the document collection "Turkish-Yugoslavian Central Opium Bureau (1931-1941)”, by the State Archive of Republic of North Macedonia**.

According to the documents, the quality of Macedonian opium was known on the world market even in the period when Macedonia was within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The main factors were the favourable geological predispositions of the land and the specific climatic conditions characteristic of certain parts of Macedonia.

Specifically, the penetration of the Mediterranean climate from the Aegean Sea along the valleys of the Vardar and Struma rivers, combined with the loose soil that contained fine sand and a little lime, offered ideal conditions for poppy cultivation.

Since the 1880s, there was information that the opium from which the highest percentage of morphine was obtained, i.e. the best quality, was grown in the Tikvesh region in the central part of Macedonia.

The official sources about the amount of opium obtained in Macedonia, though, are rare and insufficient. The statistics of the Ottoman Empire indicate that 70 tons were produced in 1880, and in the following year the production reached 79 tons of raw opium. In the period from 1901 to 1911, the annual production in Macedonia amounted to 30-80 tons. During the Balkans and the First World War (1912-1919), production averaged 60 tons per year.

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