Article published in the Kyiv Weekly, 02.04.2012
With spring planting underway throughout the country, Kyiv Weekly has decided it is time to review the challenges face by agriculture in Ukraine. We start our series with one of the newest and most influential trends in the sector – organic farming
In mid-March, the sun shines lightly and a fresh wind reminds all that winter is yet not over. In Ivankovychy, a village 20 km from Kyiv, Oleksandr Koroliev walks onto a field and invites the visitor to half-buried greenhouses. A few steps down, a series of isolating doors and one is in another world. With a 25-degree temperature, it seems like summer has been settled here for a long time. Here is a green haven, displaying cucumbers, dill, parsley, mint, onions, lettuce, potatoes, and burgeoning tomato plants. In these greenhouses, no sign of pesticides, industrial fertilizers or any other chemical can be detected. Everything here is certified as organically grown.
Oleksandr Korolyov is the first farmer in Ukraine to be certified as a producer of organic greenhouse-grown agriculture. For about four years now, he has been growing a wide range of organic products in his four greenhouses, which occupy each 250 m2. As he explains, “the greenhouses are partly buried in the earth, so the interior doesn´t freeze in winter. Sun comes through the glass rooftops and reflects on this silver-like paper I installed on the walls. So I can have good, healthy food all-year round. Not much, but enough to feed my family and supply a growing number of my customers.”
Oleksandr Korolyov knows he is an exception in a large agricultural country characterized by intensive production methods. Yet, he is one of the pioneers of a growing trend to spread organic farming practices in Ukraine. “It all started in the late 1990´s, early 2000´s,” recalls Natalia Prokopchuk, Project Coordinator of the « Organic Certification and Market Development in Ukraine » at the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). “German, Dutch and French organic producers and traders have settled here because of the vast agricultural potential of Ukraine. And of course, because of its famous chernozem, one of the most fertile soils in the world”.
The idea appealed to Ukrainian producers: in the beginning of 2003, 31 farms were granted the status of “organic”. By late 2010, they were 142 farms. They are spread across the country and around major cities, as urban consumers demand more and more certified organic products. Several organic farmers tell similar stories about how originally they were not directly involved in agriculture, but rather were a part of the urban, middle-class, well-educated category of the population who came to realize the dangers of modern food supply.
Fear of food safety as a motivator
Oleh Zukhovski runs EthnoProduct. With 8,000 ha of organic land in Chernihiv oblast, 2,000 dairy cows and about 300 employees, EthnoProduct is one of the largest organic companies in Ukraine. Back in 2008, he started a small family farm to provide healthy products to his family. “I have three kids. After my youngest daughter was born five years ago, I understood that the quality of food available in shops had deteriorated and that I had to protect my family from industrially- and chemically-produced food.” His initiative seduced many of his friends, who soon were asking for some of his produce. The size of his farm progressively increased until it grew into an actual business. His cows now deliver about 7.5 tons of milk a year.
The degradation of food safety is a widely-shared concern among producers and consumers. The high level of corruption in Ukraine as one of the major roots of the problem, as it lowers quality standards and discourages farmers from delivering quality products. The intensive practices in agriculture worsen the problem. Ruslan Hrynenko produces organic eggs and chicken in the village of Dymytrovychy outside Kyiv. According to him, Ukrainian soil has lost more than half of its humus, which is one of its fertility properties, in the past twenty years. “A sample of our black soil chornozem could now be displayed in the Louvre museum in Paris, because it´s a piece of history! The intensive agriculture and the massive use of pesticides, chemicals and more have ruined our most precious heritage.”
Quality over quantity is the motto
Ukrainian organic farms now provide interested consumers with most of the goods of basic food consumption: grain and legume crops, vegetables, fruits and berries, milk and honey and processed products, such as juices, jams and flour. Such a variety of supply represents quite an achievement for such a young branch of agriculture. Yet, it remains a marginal trend. According to the Organic Federation of Ukraine, even though the size of certified agricultural land has risen by 40% from 164,449 ha in 2003 to 270,226 ha in 2010, it still makes up a mere 0.7% of the overall arable land in the country.
Organic output makes up less than 1% of the total agricultural production. As Oleksandr Korolyov specifies, organic farming regulations allow him to grow about 5kg/m2 of cucumbers. In intensive farms, one might grow 20 to 25kg/m2. But, as he adds with a smile, “there is no need to see these figures in terms of unfavorable competition. I don´t sell to the same people as “classic” intensive farms. I prefer quality over quantity. So do my customers.”
Success hard to achieve
Organic farmers do not hide their difficulties in setting up and developing their activity in Ukraine. As their businesses grew, customers required them to provide a certified guarantee of their organic practices. Being the first ones in the country to go through the certification process, the task of ensuring a complete and transparent scheme of the production cycle proved extremely difficult for Oleksandr Korolyov and his colleagues. He and many of them turned to the Swiss Institute for Market Ecology (IMO), as the Swiss State Secretary of Economic Affairs (SECO) had been implementing the “Organic Certification and Market Development in Ukraine” from 2005 onwards. It has provided technical assistance and shared a know-how to developing farms.
Unlike in European Union member states, no state subsidies or preferential bank loans are accessible in Ukraine to developing organic farming. Most of the new Ukrainian organic farmers had to support the set-up costs themselves. Oleh Zukhovski invested over UAH 30m to build and develop appropriate milk-producing facilities. For his EthnoProduct company, business is going well. A Swiss investor recently joined the enterprise as a full-fledged partner. They might start making a profit by the end of summer, depending on the season’s output.
On a more modest scale, Oleksandr Korolyov had to invest about a million hryvnia of his own money to build his four greenhouses near Kyiv. “Were everything to go as I wish, I estimate it will take another five years from now to be break even,” he says. As soon as possible, Korolyov intends to develop an organic farm complex with a larger variety of products, some animals and guest houses. For him, the decision to go organic is much more than a business. “You have to understand that for us, money is not the most important in what we do. We are ideological farmers. We hope that soon, we will be able to make a living out of our activities. But the essential thing is to develop know-how, a technology that would replace of quality of our food at the center of agriculture in Ukraine.”