It is not commonplace, but it can be done: with zero cultivation or trading experience, plant a ten-hectare plot with grapes and enter the market. Liubomir Vaipan, an IT specialist, working in the real estate sector, did exactly that in 2008, when the real estate bubble burst. He now grows and sells grapes, plums, and cherries on the overseas market and provides fellow growers with fertilizers, packaging solutions, and advice.
Liubomir shows his Stanley plums
"Two years into it, I realized managing a vineyard wasn't so easy, and the crops needed much more care than I initially gave them. I'd just planted grapes of Moldova variety, like everyone else. It was all a bit of improvisation and relying on good luck. After about three years, I considered diversifying the varieties but, in the end, decided I didn't want to complicate the cultivation too much. You need different techniques for each variety. And anyway, the Moldova variety had brought good results for 50 years, surely it could keep doing so for another 20?" Liubomir says about the start of his horticultural adventure.
Plum trees for as far as the eye can see
Seedless is difficult in Moldova
"When I consider the current market, especially for exports, I realize we have to begin focusing on seedless grapes, But that's not easy in Moldova. Most seedless grape vines can't withstand our winter temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius, and those that can, don't taste as good as or have the overall quality we want."
Grapes protected under pergola plastic cover
"I had a very tough time selling that first crop. That's what motivated me to explore the export market. And I'm not referring to Russia. In total, I've sent only eight loads there - three in 2018, four in 2019, and one last year. The first export was to Spain in 2015. I met our agriculture minister at a trade fair, and the first thing he asked was how I'm managing to export grapes to the world's third-largest grape exporter. Good question; I have a customer there. Of course, the quantities aren't large; one shipment every three weeks from October to December, even now," Liubomir explains.
Beautiful bunches of Moldova grapes
Wooden crate supplier
He gained export experience by trial and error. For example, Vaipan shipped the first shipments of grapes in blank wooden crates. "The customer liked the grapes' quality and flavor but pointed out the bland packaging. The following year, I had my brand ready, and we wrapped the crates in branded plastic with additional information. That was a step forward, but the wrapper sometimes tore or slid off the crate. I looked for a supplier who could print the brand on the wood, and now, we supply personalized wooden crates to other growers in Moldova."
In 2013, the company laid down a water basin to ensure it has irrigation water for the 12-hectare vineyard. "Growers in the area were surprised. You don't irrigate grapes, right? I did, but I fertigated. I specialized in it, and for several years now, along with the wooden crates, we've been supplying fertilizers to fellow growers and giving them cultivation advice," Liubomir continues.
The young company's next pivotal moment was the rainy 2019 season. "Export was almost impossible because of quality problems. Plus, it took eight days longer to get to Spain. And, as it turned out, our grape cooling facilities weren't up to the task. We got hit by botrytis. We skimmed the market and adopted a modified atmosphere system."
Own power generator from solar panels and wind turbines
Focus on quality
"Cultivation-wise, we added 17 more hectares of Moldova variety grapes five years ago, but we grow those on pergolas. That immediately improved productivity, quality, and efficiency. We use 20% less labor, and there's a five to ten percent difference in productivity per hectare, depending on the season," says Vaipan.
He added a plum and cherry orchard in 2019 and is not considering further acreage expansion. "The entire focus is now on yield improvement, cost efficiency, and quality care. We're investing in rain nets, solar panels, and sorting and packing lines. We're also trying to extend our harvest period to be able to sell the fruit immediately. The cooling costs saving is a nice bonus."
Own reservoir is being excavated
Eighty percent of this grower's production is already spoken for this season. "We're doing well, but I suspect because of the Russian embargo, many smaller growers will struggle, especially if they don't have a good post-harvest infrastructure or the necessary certificates to export to other markets. Moldova's fruit sector must shift its focus fully to post-harvest quality and pesticide MRLs," Liubomir concludes.
Thirty kilometers south of Chisinau, Vaipan SRL grows Moldova grapes on 26 hectares of pergolas, six plum varieties on 18 hectares of super-intensive cultivation - including Stanley, President, and Empress - and sweet cherries on 10 hectares. The company has a cold storage capacity of 1,200 tons, sorting and packing lines. Thanks to their participation in trade shows like Fruit Logistica and Fruit Attraction, Vaipan has several overseas contacts, allowing it to export to places such as Romania, Poland, Croatia, the Netherlands, Spain, and the Baltic States.
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