Growing demand for organic food in Ukraine is encouraging farmers to quit chemicals
“Eco,” “bio,” “organic”… the growers of produce and other foods in Ukraine have plenty of names for their products. So far, they have been fairly free in this business, since the Bill “On organic production” has only gone through first reading. “Normally, organic farmers are inspected twice a year and certificates are issued on that basis,” says Andriy Koniashyn, Executive Director of the Organic Movement Federation of Ukraine. “It’s not just the product that undergoes certification, but the entire production cycle. That’s how you get ‘products with a face’ and it makes it possible to track all stages of production, from the origin of the seeds to the end product in the hands of consumers.”
The family secret
Byron Agro, a farm in Stovpiahy, Kyiv Oblast, grew out of the need to feed the owner’s own family. “My cousin had a baby and she needed milk,” Director Yuriy Serheyev says. “That’s how it all began. We now have around 40 calves, 64 goats, 87 sheep, and 18 cows,” says Viktor Velhan, the farm’s manager and livestock expert. “The animals are kept in these corrals when it’s warm outside. We own several hectares of land and lease more from the village, including nearly 20 allotments from local residents. It’s just enough to feed our livestock.”
Kyiv-born Serheyev, now 32, started his eco business after training in the UK. “I have two degrees, in marketing and economy,” says Serheyev. “I wasn’t into farming at all first, but now I’m learning through doing. My mother helped me with the start-up capital. I’m hoping to break even in about five years, but right now I’m investing all I get into the farm.”
The farm is marketing its products as ecologically pure. “We don’t use any mineral fertilizers or chemicals. We hoe, water and cultivate our vegetables. We use milk and another organic mixture, against the Colorado beetle. Our cows have natural food from spring to fall,” Velhan says, pointing to the land around the farm. “We feed them with hay and meal feed, grits, offal, oatmeal and barley. No chemicals. If they get sick, we boil linseed and St. John’s Wort, or feed them calcium carbonate and salt. We expect to get 7-8,000 t of milk every year.”
Velhan goes on: “We don’t spray our pears or apples. We use worm-eaten ones to make compote for the staff. That’s our secret: farming grandfather-style.” To revive livestock breeding and bring back the long-forgotten taste of real food, he uses a manual from 1960. “Nothing better’s been written yet.”
The farm produces foods for the family first and the rest gets sold. “Some people ask us to deliver one liter of milk to Kyiv,” Serheyev says. “In fact, clients line up for our milk. When we run out of it, people start calling and saying, ‘Do you realize our children are hungry?’”
Leftovers of collectivization
Stovpiahy doesn’t quite see things the same way. “We have different goals: we work and they’re bothered,” Velhan kids. At the beginning of the village, we pass the ruins of the Mayak kolhosp or collective farm. Once, it kept up to 7,000 animals and grew vegetables. Now, there’s not a single animal left. Starting a business on a ruin wasn’t easy.
“Last winter, we had unfinished premises and not enough fodder,” Serheyev recalls. “We bought the kolhosp cowshed built in 1957 and are fixing it up. But the old director is a real dog-in-the-manger. Not long ago, he cut off our power, so we now have a small war going. The hay sheds are empty, so are the silos. We haven’t got round to that yet. We asked him if he wanted us to pay rent. He said no. Workers are another big issue. Ukrainians have somewhat lost the habit of work. Horilka is also a problem. Every salary or advance is like a natural disaster.”
Studying the Swiss
Byron Agro is in no rush to certify its products until new laws are passed. With no certification, consumers who prefer organic food have to trust the farmer. As the organic movement evolves and moves to larger markets, quality standards and control become inevitable. Today, Ukraine has nearly 15 accredited certifying organizations—and only one of them is Ukrainian.
Getting certified as an organic producer starts with a two-year transfer period. Viktor Melnyk’s farm grows organic vegetables in Holubivka, Vinnytsia Oblast, and has gone through this. Melnyk started his business after a trip to Switzerland, where he worked at a biodynamic farm in 1996-1998. “Switzerland actively supports organic production,” he says. “Bio farmers are paid CHF 800-900 for every hectare.”
Melnyk now grows 30 ha of carrots, potatoes, beets and various grains for markets in large cities, like Kyiv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk. “Selling the product is key,” he explains. “The first steps were difficult. Our food costs 30-40% more than average. The Swiss still help me and I call them whenever I have questions.”
A growing enterprise
Pavlo Tizesh from Botar, Vynohradiv County, Zakarpattia, has been exporting organic products to the EU for five years now. “We live by the border,” Tizesh says. “I took courses in Hungary and now we export juices, jams and syrups to Hungary and Austria. Inspectors actually come from Budapest.” Three years ago, Tizesh looked closer at the domestic market where his product is getting more and more popular. “We already have loyal clients in Zakarpattia, especially for meat.”
Ivan Boyko has been in organic farming since 2004. In 2007, he and his Swiss-born partner Rainer Sachs founded TOV Zhyva Zemlia Potutory in Ternopil Oblast. “In addition to crops, we bought cattle to produce organic milk,” Boyko says. “Manuel and Eva-Maria, a couple from Switzerland, run our livestock operation. Their hard work and professionalism help us produce the best milk. Initially, they planned to work here for 10 years and maybe even stay on. But Western Europeans have a hard time understanding some of the nuances, especially our bureaucracy.”
After two years, the Swiss are going home. “I’m now hiring a guy from Austria,” Boyko says. “Graduates from Ukrainian universities don’t have the same practical experience as people in the West. A Westerner can take on some portion of the work immediately: they are more responsible, motivated and performance-oriented. Ukrainian specialists have either migrated or work for other farms.” So far, Ukraine has just a few institutions with programs for eco-farming, so Potutory plans to set up a training platform to improve farmers’ qualifications.
The OMFU says the domestic market for organic products has doubled since last year, though it still remains modest. Ukrainians either don’t think about what they actually eat or are not ready to pay more for healthy food. Farmers often ignore expensive certification while claiming that their products are organic. Rural folks also call their products organic to tempt customers at local markets. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they aren’t spraying their potatoes or apples.
Organic food prices in Ukraine:
1l milk – UAH 18-25
1kg butter – UAH 164-375
1kg potatoes – UAH 10
10 eggs – UAH 25
1kg minced meat – UAH 85
1kg goat cheese – UAH 210
Ukraine’s organic food market is worth EUR 4.8mn
In Ukraine, a total of nearly 270,000 ha of organic farmland, spread among 121 farms