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Three cows, seven acres

Natasha Mortenson shown in the AGROKOR Belje's Dairy Farm. A visit to AGROKOR's Belje's Dairy Farm was a highlight. Belje processes all their milk into "ABC Cheese". This is a vertically integrated farm, but is rare in Croatia. Most farms are very small and have, on average three to 10 cows each. Photo submitted 1 / 3
The Roca Estate in the Dalmatia Region of Croatia is a farm. Apart from its culinary delights, it offers educational tours as well. This farm is famous for its Dalmatia Prosciutto. Guests can participate in pig slaughter, butchering and/or meat processing activities. The farm also grows olives, figs and grapes. Photo submitted2 / 3
Paski sir cheese is world famous sheep milk cheese from the Island of Pag, Croatia. Photo submitted3 / 3

Although Natasha Mortenson would have been able to teach farmers in Croatia about using modern technology they weren't interested. It's not like the small farmers weren't gracious and inviting, it's just that they were content with small farms and focusing on market niches such as organic products, Mortenson said.

Mortenson along with at least 15 others in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership spent time in Croatia in February as part of the two-year MARL program. Mortenson is a former agriculture instructor at Morris Area Schools and is in education, outreach and social licensing at Riverview LLP.

The continental portion of Croatia has very fertile soil, but most farms are too small to take real advantage of the fertile soil.

"The average farm is 7 ½ acres with three to 10 cows," Mortenson said.

Such small farms operate in the shadow of the giant government-run farm which supplies about 50 percent of the nation's food and employs thousands of people in the region, Mortenson said. The government operation is bankrupt but since it provides so much food, it's not likely to be dismantled and replaced, Mortenson said.

Instead of wanting to grow and add modern equipment, small farmers have a different desire.

"They are focused on organic production," Mortenson said. "That has increased by 20 percent from 2017 to 2018. That's where they feel the opportunities are." Farmers talk about quality and not quantity, she said.

The organic farm products have a market in Europe, she said.

The group also visited wineries in another part of Croatia. While talking with the owner of a small, very successful winery, she and other group members asked the owner if he thought about expanding.

The owner had no desire to expand. Instead, he told them this was the size of his winery and it was successful. He wanted to continue the tradition, Mortenson said. "I really appreciated that," she said.

But, the group couldn't help but again apply American logic to a cheese factory that also raised its own sheep to provide the milk for cheese. The factory was located along the Adriatic Sea. The factory produced paski sir cheese, a cheese world-famous for its salty taste.

"They hand-milk the sheep everyday," Mortenson said. "We talked about how they could expand with automated milkers."

The response from the business representatives was "This is our tradition. We've always hand-milk and we will always hand milk," Mortenson said.

Even when not visiting farms or agriculture businesses, the MARL group would discuss how farms could expand or add technology to expand and had to be reminded by their tour guide that this was Croatia and not America.

That was a good lesson to learn, Mortenson said.

Being content to be what a business or farm is can be applied in America, Mortenson said. She found herself asking what makes Morris, Morris? How can Stevens County emphasize what it has and does best rather than wishing it were like another city or area? Mortenson said.

"We have our own focus. We have to be Morris," she said.

While she appreciated the mindset in Croatia she also appreciates the opportunities in America, Mortenson said. And when communities focus on what they have and do best, it can be an opportunity to reinvigorate themselves, she said.

The trip also changed her view of hospitality, Mortenson said.

Croatia was torn by civil war in the 1990s. Signs of the war and discontent are visible in shattered buildings and in protest through graffitti, she said. Yet, there is very little crime.

"They have a radical view of hospitality," Mortenson said. "They never let you run out of food."

Mortenson said when she and several other people asked some residents for directions, the residents went out of their way to walk them to a restaurant.

"It's just amazing hospitality," Mortenson said.

And while farmers in Croatia may not be interested in getting bigger or getting new equipment, they face similar challenges to the U.S., Mortenson said.

Fewer children are interested in pursuing agriculture jobs or careers, which is similar to the U.S., Mortenson said. And children are leaving the rural areas to get an education, or after they get an education, they leave, she said. That too, is similar to the U.S.