Bulgaria is world's top producer of lavender, but there are clouds on horizon
A small, neat bag filled with dried lavender is an ubiquitous souvenir in many Mediterranean countries. It should be in the portfolio of Bulgarian souvenirs too, along with the vials of rose water.
For over a decade now, this country has been the world leader in the production of fine lavender. Lavender production is not new to Bulgaria. All over the country, including the low mountain slopes of the southern Stara Planina, it has been grown since at least the 19th century. In the 20th century, production was industrialised, first by entrepreneurs mainly in the Valley of Roses, and then by the planned economy of Communist Bulgaria. Unlike the Bulgarian rose, which can be harvested only by hand and needs a particular climate to thrive, lavender is less fussy. It needs mainly dry soil with a particular acidity and summer heat, and can be harvested mechanically. The lifespan of a plant is about 25-30 years and the market is almost guaranteed. Lavender oil has a wide range of applications in pharmaceutics and cosmetics.
In 2023, Bulgaria patented three new lavender varieties after 20 years of research and development. The new varieties are advertised as "supercultures" that will give more abundant harvests
For some time in the 1980s Bulgaria was a leading international exporter of lavender oil. As with so many other things, lavender oil production decreased after the collapse of Communism in 1989, but it gradually revived.
In the 2010s, industrial lavender production in Bulgaria left the confines of the Valley of Roses, the thin strip of land between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges that has particularly good conditions for the farming of oil bearing plants, including the famed Bulgarian rose. Lavender has spread far beyond, including to a region which was for centuries known for another type of crop. The Dobrudzha, in the northeast, is traditionally and deservedly known as Bulgaria's granary, as its heavy black soils are excellent for wheat and other cereals. The lavender craze in Bulgaria has changed that. Today, while travelling in the Dobrudzha in summer, you will often see fields of splendid lavender rather than the more subtle gold of wheat.
Why the sudden popularity of lavender?
Lured by the expanding market, the seeming ease of cultivation and harvest, and the quick profit to be made, entrepreneur after entrepreneur jumped on the bandwagon. Lavender fields began to expand, distilleries were opened, farmers invested in or hired harvesting equipment. This change was most visible in the Dobrudzha. In 2010 lavender fields in the region covered just 150 acres. By 2020 they had already spread to 20,000 acres. In 2013, Bulgaria exported over 80 tonnes of lavender oil, a threefold increase compared to 2010. Its major markets were France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the United States, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Almost all the produce was exported, as the Bulgarian cosmetics industry was too small to count.
Some entrepreneurs even made additional cash by charging anyone willing to pay to have their wedding photos taken among romantic lavender rows.
By 2012, Bulgaria became the world's leading manufacturer and exporter of lavender oil, replacing the previous leader, France. This change became possible not only because of increased production and cheaper labour costs in Bulgaria, but because a devastating disease decimated the French lavender fields. These were all competitive advantages, although some experts claimed the quality of Bulgarian lavender oil was still inferior to that produced in Provence.
However, for some time now lavender production in Bulgaria has been under threat. In the summer of 2023, the media started talking about the supposed end of production in the Northeast, quoting an unprecedented number of owners of lavender fields, seeds and technology selling their property.
In the late 2010s, the uncontrolled planting, often by inexperienced individuals trying to cash in on the hype, led to a decline in the quality of plants. Poor plants produced low quality oils and the price of lavender oil dropped accordingly. In 2020, lavender crops in Bulgaria dropped to 49 tonnes, a decrease of more than 20 percent compared to 2019, while new plots increased by only 7 percent. The yield was also affected. In spite of more fields being planted with lavender, the average yield in 2020 dropped 26 percent compared to the year before.
In the summer of 2021, it was announced that about 100 tonnes of lavender oil was still unsold – about half of the 200 tonnes that Bulgaria had produced in 2020. In the summer of 2022, lavender fields in Bulgaria decreased by 16 percent, but the better harvest was bad news too, as it resulted in even larger quantities of hard-to-sell lavender oil gathering dust in the warehouses.
Prices dropped, too. From the 250-280 leva per kilogram of lavender oil, in the record breaking 2018, in 2019 the prices plummeted to 40-45 leva per kilogram, and they have not recovered since.
The quality of this mass produced lavender oil was also too low. As the eternal laws of supply and demand moved in their predictable ways, Bulgarian producers realised that the lavender market was not unlimited and that it required reliable quality. Manufacturers and experts suddenly began discussing how the business needed to be regulated to adopt good practices and properly sourced plants if it wanted to survive.
According to a more optimistic forecast, international demand for lavender will soon resume
Climate change has also affected Bulgarian lavender. In 2019, unexpected heavy rains damaged the harvest in the Dobrudzha, while in 2020 lavender fields in the region suffered from a soil-borne disease that was probably activated by a prolonged drought.
Will this signal the end of Bulgaria's lavender love affair?
It is too early to say. The fact that producers are finally realising that lavender is more than just a way to make a quick profit might be a sign that the future of this crop in Bulgaria is not that bleak.
Meanwhile, Bulgarians are still happy to have their photos taken against a backdrop of bright lavender.