World Bulletin / News Desk
When seven-year-old Fatmagul Ali picked her first tobacco leaves in 1967, growing the crop seemed like a licence to print money. At the time, communist Bulgaria was one of the world's largest cigarette exporters and key supplier to the entire Soviet bloc.
The couple are already bent low over the plants well before dawn, their hands tarred from plucking the sticky leaves in the glow of their head torches.
Row after row, they will spend hours repeating the same gesture before returning to their nearby village of Karchovkso, in the Muslim-majority Kirkovo region, to hang the leaves to dry.
And yet these efforts will barely yield enough for survival.
"When you take into account the expenses, we'll make only a couple of euros today," Fahim, 57, shrugged.
The fall of communism led to the disbanding of cooperative farms and a decline in tobacco production, slowly smoking out what was once Bulgaria's most valuable asset.
With a kilo of dried tobacco leaves costing around 2.50 euros ($2.95), the Alis will make only about 2,300 euros gross this year. They've taken up second jobs to make ends meet.
"We're thinking about abandoning tobacco, there's no point to it anymore," Fahim said.
Although the Kirkovo region still boasts the European Union's largest number of tobacco growers per capita, the output is a far cry from the days when Bulgaria's so-called "golden leaf" was an international mark of quality.
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