Dr. Janos Berenji
Yugoslavia has a long and well-documented history of hemp fiber and seed production. However, little has been published concerning their recent past. Dr. Janos Berenji is head of one of the research stations of the Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (Serbia) and directs the hemp research. This interview was conducted by Rob Clarke during the "Renaisance of Hemp" symposium held in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (Serbia), on September 22, 1996.
JIHA: When, and from where, was hemp introduced into Yugoslavia?
JB: It is obvious that hemp was introduced into the area of present-day Yugoslavia very early. Evidences exist of considerable hemp production in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Turks taxed hemp in Serbia, and Austro-Hungarian empress Maria Theresia recommended in 1765 that only high-quality hemp should be sown. Therefore, the Imperial Chamber brought to the Bocłka region, new colonists from Northern Italy in order to transfer the skill of growing and processing hemp. The impact of Italian varieties on our hemp culture was very significant.
JIHA: What was the scope and extent of the Yugoslav hemp industry?
JB: Surprisingly, Yugoslavia is omitted from most of the publications listing hemp growing countries. In spite of this fact, the recorded maximum hemp area in Yugoslavia in 1949 reached as much as 108,215 ha. Even relatively recently, in 1965, in the most intensive hemp production region of the Province of Vojvodina, hemp was sown on more than 20,000 ha. The first considerable reduction by 80% occurred in 1968. In 1988, a further reduction of growing area by another 80% was observed. As a consequence, hemp is only a minor crop in Yugoslavia today.
JIHA: How much hemp is grown in Yugoslavia today, and for what purposes?
JB: During the last few years, hemp in Yugoslavia was grown on ca. 1,000-1,500 ha, basically as raw material for the textile industry and to some extent for bird seed. Starting from 1995, up to 100 ha of certified seed production has also been organized by my institute. Retting and fiber extraction is done at 5 places and there are 4 factories for processing hemp products. Ambitious plans exist for extending the present textile processing capacities and enlarging the production area for the textile industry up to 4,000-5,000 ha, combined with 100-200 ha for bird seed and 13,000 ha for a future paper mill to be built in the town of Senta. Corresponding areas will also be devoted to production of certified seed.
JIHA: Do you require licenses to grow hemp in Yugoslavia?
JB: There have never been limitations for commercial hemp production for industrial purposes in Yugoslavia. We consider that industrial hemp could not be, and is in fact not, abused. On the other side, drug Cannabis is forbidden by the law and it is under rigorous control by police authorities.
JIHA: Which varieties are grown?
JB: At the very beginning of hemp production, landraces of Italian origin were grown in Yugoslavia and named after the region of their intensive cultivation like 'Futosłka', 'Titelska', 'Apatinska', 'Vukovarska' (named according to the city of Vukovar well known from the last war), 'Potocłka', 'Osjecłka', 'Beljska', 'Leskovacłka', etc. During the 1960's, certified seed of the Italian cultivars 'Bologna' and 'Carmagnola' was imported and even multiplied to some extent in Yugoslavia. The monoecious French 'Fibrimon' has also been tried with limited success. The only existing domestic cultivar 'Novosadska kon-oplja' was officially registered in 1967, but its seed has never been reproduced to a significant extent until the last few years.
JIHA: How was the Yugoslavian hemp variety developed?
JB: 'Novosadska konoplja' was selected by Prof. Milenko Lazic“, apparently from the same Italian hemp used by Rudolf Fleischmann in Hungary to select the 'F-kender' ('F-hemp'), and by Dr. Ivįn Bócsa with József Schmidt to improve 'F-kender,' obtaining the Hungarian cultivar 'Kompolti'. The Hungarian cultivars 'Kompolti', and especially 'Uniko-B' and 'Kompolti Hibrid TC', have made a significant contribution to the yield and quality improvement of Yugoslav hemp production during the last 10-15 years. Our long term plan is to supply the Yugoslav hemp industry with domestic certified seed of the cultivar 'Novosadska konopl-ja', which is planned to be replaced by the first domestic hybrids as soon as they are available.
JIHA: Are traditional landraces still cultivated in Yugoslavia?
JB: The traditional landraces in commercial industrial hemp production have been completely replaced by selected cultivars. However, 34 accessions in the Vavilov Research Institute (VIR) collection are designated to have their origin from Yugoslavia, the majority of them probably representing former landraces. That is why my Institute is interested to take part in maintenance of the VIR hemp germplasm collection with special reference to accessions collected in Yugoslavia.
JIHA: When was the Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops in Novi Sad established and when did they begin work with hemp?
JB: The Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops in Novi Sad, the capitol of Vojvodina Province (NE Yugoslavia) was established in 1938. It is presently Serbia's most complex and largest research institute in the field of agriculture, dealing, first of all, with breeding and seed production of all the field and vegetable crop species of economic importance (wheat, maize, sunflower, sugarbeet, soybean, forage crops, vegetables, hemp, hops, medicinal plants, tobac-co, etc.). In order to enhance hemp research and production, the Institute established its Research Station for Hemp, Hops and Sorghums in 1952 in Bacłki Petrovac near Novi Sad. This research station still exists and presently I am serving as the head of it. Due to a decrease of interest in hemp production, the program on hemp was almost completely ceased during the 1960's, but in 1992 it was renewed, and has been active ever since.
JIHA: How did you personally become involved with hemp?
JB: I remember as a child, the pain-staking work of my parents with hand-harvesting and retting hemp, picking and stringing tobacco leaves and cutting the panicles of broomcorn. When I graduated from the Faculty of Agronomy in Novi Sad, I got a job at the Institute. By pure chance, I was commissioned to work with broomcorn at first. Since the Institute is operated on a self-financing basis, for a full-time plant breeder a "small" crop like broomcorn could not provide enough revenue, so I started to be involved in tobacco breeding and, from 1992, with hemp research as well. From these years of experience, I understand why my parents never complained about the hard work with such crops as broomcorn, tobacco and hemp. If you like your job, if you are devoted to your work, instead of complaining you enjoy solving even the most complicated problems. So, I have a lot of trouble with hemp, but I like this crop very much, and I enjoy working with it.
JIHA: What is your role with hemp at the Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops in Novi Sad? What are the current activities of the institute?
JB: I am coordinator of the hemp research and development program aimed at promotion of hemp production, mainly by breeding and seed production. This program is still a new one, so it has to be financed from a common fund of the Institute until it can become self-financed by selling certified seed of our own hemp cultivars. A lot of field work is done by my assistant Vladimir Sikora. We are starting to operate a breeding program and an ambitious multiplication of the seed of our existing variety 'Novosadska konoplja'. Several experiments to improve hemp production practices are also under way. We have a fruitful cooperation with the Faculty of Engineering Sciences in Novi Sad (Prof. M. Martinov) and Belgrade (Prof. D. Markovic“) to solve the most urgent bottleneck, the mechanization of hemp harvesting. Coordinated research exists for utilization of hemp for oil production and as raw material for paper pulp. Excellent cooperation exists between the Institute, the hemp growers and the hemp industry. The most recent activity of the Institute was the organization of a successful scientific meeting called 'Renaissance of Hemp'. [Editor's note: See page 83]
JIHA: Are there any hemp museums or hemp exhibits in Yugoslavia?
JB: A few years ago, a group of enthusiasts initiated the founding of the first Yugoslav agricultural museum. It is now part of the National Museum of the Province of Vojvodina and occupies the main residence of a magnificent old estate in Kulpin, not far from the city of Novi Sad. Among the first exhibitions, the history of local hemp production and processing was prepared. It is a well documented exhibition showing the old-fashioned way of hemp growing, retting, crushing, spinning, weaving, and hemp folk customs, completed with a set of well-preserved old devices used for domestic hemp processing. Quite a lot of photo material for this exhibition was taken from the unique book of Prof. Dr Jan Kisłgeci titled Praise to Hemp (1994) which is devoted to the rich and lengthy history of hemp in our country. All of those interested in having a pleasant and instructive excursion through the history of hemp are welcomed to visit the hemp exhibition and read Praise to Hemp. [Editor's note: See review, page. 88]
JIHA: How has the war in Bosnia and Croatia effected the Yugoslavian hemp industry?
JB: The war was a tragedy for all people in this area, with catastrophic consequences for the economies of the war-effected countries. Croatia ceased its hemp production in its traditional growing region of Slavonija. In Serbia, the production area was significantly reduced due to economic sanctions of the UN prohibiting both the import of certified seed and the export of final products based on hemp. It was a mortal blow to the Yugoslav hemp industry which was almost entirely export-oriented before the war. The sanctions are over now. We preserved our enthusiasm for, and devotion to, hemp for which a renaissance is expected. Our strongest motive is to take advantage of the opportunity to sell our traditionally high-quality hemp and hemp products on Western markets.
JIHA: Are you aware of any hemp production, breeding programs or hemp cultivars from Bulgaria or Albania?
JB: Hemp production is a traditional part of agriculture in all of Eastern Europe. Hungary made the greatest progress in hemp research and production, compared to which the other countries mentioned made only moderate efforts. Several hemp varieties are registered in each of these countries, including Bulgaria, but not too many results have been published in this field. Based on personal communications, there are at least two Bulgarian hemp cultivars, Silistrensi (selected from Italian hemp and registered in 1968) and Mesnaja sort. In spite of the fact that Yugoslavia borders on Albania, it is still not easy to obtain first-hand information. In fact, I have no information at all from Albania as far as hemp is concerned.
JIHA: Thank you.