Flax is the wealth of Belarus
[b]One Belarusian folk song tells us: ‘Ulianitsa was sowing flax…’ The FLAX has been cultivated here for about two centuries, making it a symbol of Belarus. Its flowers decorate our emblem and many songs have been composed in its honour[/b]Only three natural fibres are cultivated worldwide: wool, flax and cotton. Climatic conditions in Belarus are ideal for growing flax and specialists call it the cleanest and most wonderful product. It thrives regardless of rainfall and can grow without much fertiliser. Importantly, no part of the plant is wasted. Since ancient times, linen clothes have been popular; the trend continues, with linen clothes being hygienic and comfortable. On hot days, skin temperature is lowered 3-4 degrees by wearing linen clothes (in comparison to cotton fabrics). Moreover, linen has natural anti-bacterial properties, hindering the growth of fungus and bacteria.
Only three natural fibres are cultivated worldwide: wool, flax and cotton. Climatic conditions in Belarus are ideal for growing flax and specialists call it the cleanest and most wonderful product. It thrives regardless of rainfall and can grow without much fertiliser. Importantly, no part of the plant is wasted. Since ancient times, linen clothes have been popular; the trend continues, with linen clothes being hygienic and comfortable. On hot days, skin temperature is lowered 3-4 degrees by wearing linen clothes (in comparison to cotton fabrics). Moreover, linen has natural anti-bacterial properties, hindering the growth of fungus and bacteria.
It’s no surprise that, all over the world, demand for natural linen products is growing. Belarus has the chance to promote its branded manufacture abroad. President Alexander Lukashenko recently visited the Orsha Linen Mill, saying, “I confidently announce that our linen producing branch shall be one of the best in the world.” However, much work lies ahead to achieve this goal.
Recent data shows that Belarus is one of the largest global regions specialising in flax crops. In Belgium, 14,600 hectares are devoted to flax, while France boasts 75,500 hectares. They are the leading producers of linen in the EU. Ukraine is growing 12,000 hectares of flax, while Russia has 75,000. In Belarus, flax is grown on 78,500 hectares. Only China is ahead, with about 110,000 hectares.
However, the Republican Flax Institute notes that, in Belarus, the efficiency of flax growing is 2-3 less than in Western Europe. Harvests never exceed 700kg per hectare, with only 25-26 percent of valuable spinning fibre received. In France and Belgium, this figure reaches 60-80 percent. Low levels of production organisation and obsolete technologies for growing and processing result in poor quality (by global standards). This is reflected in the price of our flax, negatively influencing the linen industry. Experts also note that Belarusian enterprises need to strengthen their marketing policy. According to the Flax Institute, specialisation in the global market will soon reach a very high level. China and Russia will produce fibre and seeds — primarily, for sowing — while Canada and India will collect seeds for the food industry. Holland will produce high quality seeds for sowing and the UK is to produce linen oil and non-textile products. Italy and France are to specialise in high-quality fibres, clothes and underwear. Belarus needs to find its niche within the global community, as well as its own ‘price-quality-range’ segment.
European countries — mainly Belgium, France and Italy — are now producing diverse, high-quality linen goods, using precise, high quality technology. Italian linens set the standard although these Western European products are expensive. Meanwhile, Asian countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Korea can offer a wide range of linen products at far cheaper prices. Their wares are aimed at consumers on low incomes.
Like Russia and Ukraine, our country produces a small range of medium-quality products, selling them at low prices. Belarus primarily exports gray cloth and fabric already past the initial stage of processing.
However, Belarusian producers have no guaranteed sales market. As a result, in 2009, our exports of fabrics and yarn halved. Stocks have increased, as has the credit burden of our linen mills. Our reliance on supplying a near raw material, our small range and insufficient investments into modern technologies for processing and production are the reasons behind our lack of success.
Pleasingly, the technical modernisation of linen mills has already begun, although much additional investment is required. According to governmental calculations, about Br180bn ($60m) is needed to reconstruct Orsha Linen Mill alone. It’s not easy to find such a sum. It’s been proposed that we close some linen mills and reduce production of linen from 60,000 tonnes to 40,000 tonnes a year. However, Mr. Lukashenko dislikes this proposal, saying, “We should cultivate flax; we can do this.” He has reminded the Government of the situation regarding barley and sugar beet. Some time ago, there were proposals to cut production, for economic reasons, but he overrode the decision and Belarus now fully satisfies its own need for barley, producing about 150,000 tonnes a year, supplying breweries. Meanwhile, sugar production is now double that of domestic needs. Exports used to be loss making but, following global price rises last year, our Belarusian sugar refineries are selling their products abroad at a good profit. Mr. Lukashenko believes a similar revival is possible in the linen branch. Its development is vital, since Belarus lacks many sectors producing raw products: potash fertilisers, wood processing, food production and, of course, flax. According to Mr. Lukashenko, it’s a true sin to neglect the development of these branches.
All these thoughts were voiced during a meeting at Orsha Linen Mill. It has been decided that, until 2012, the branch will receive state support. By then, modernisation should be complete, allowing flax production and linen manufacture to become profitable.
Interestingly, the opinions of private businessmen echo those expressed by the President. Sergey Levin, the Managing Director of Lebortovo Capital Partners (which has fulfilled several successful investment projects in Belarus), believes that postponing linen branch reform would have unfortunate consequences. Our mills’ machinery will become obsolete and we’ll lose the current level of flax farming expertise. Belarus should start restoring the industry immediately. Luckily, the process has already begun….
By Vitaly Volyanyuk