Contact: Bob Boehm, 517-679-5334
LANSING — It wasn't apparent until day three, when they made their first foray into the Ukrainian countryside, that participants in the 2013 Ukraine Agriculture Study Mission could begin to grasp the dramatic polarity of the nation they'd been sent half-way around the globe to see. Its description in the itinerary made Agricore Holding sound as imposing as its name was opaque: 17,300 acres of pasture; 3,300 head of swine; 1,000 employees; and more than 3,200 head of beef cattle.
Nobody'd seen a building or structure for miles when the bus pulled over onto the side of the road and the tour guide announced they'd now have to hike a quarter mile across a field to get to where the small herd of maybe 100 cattle were contentedly grazing. Tending them was a three- or four-member team of grizzled herdsmen, camped in a repurposed military transport wagon, the previous night's cook fire smoldering in the grass.
It was just the first taste of polarity during the group's weeklong odyssey that took its 27 participants from north to south, Kiev to Odessa, through a cross-section of the former Soviet republic long regarded as an agricultural powerhouse. That reputation was greatly reinforced by subsequent visits throughout the week, although it was increasingly tempered by concerns over how the nation and its people will continue to navigate its way from socialist oppression toward western-style freedom.
The historical context
Today's Ukraine is incomprehensible without factoring in the historical context that brought it to the present day. With only 20 years of independence under its belt since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there remains substantial residue from that most-recent era and the centuries of oppression and conquests that came before. Its rich soil, favorable climate and strategic location with easy access to the Black Sea make Ukraine both a crossroads and a coveted prize, often caught in the middle of other nations' tugs-of-war.
The land and the people that would become Ukraine first began to coalesce in the Middle Ages as the East Slavic state of Kievan Rus. By the dawn of the Renaissance it was already being dissected by Poles, Mongols and Lithuanians. The 18th century found it split between Russian control in the east and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the west.
Early in the 20th century, a brief period of independence as the Ukrainian People's Republic was quickly squashed by Soviet domination in the years following the 1917 revolutions in neighboring Russia. It wasn't until the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991 that Ukraine again found itself truly independent—for the first time in centuries.
A study in contrasts
Despite blunt descriptions of there being in Ukrainian agriculture "no middle ground" between household farms and the new generation of large, corporate enterprises, witnessing that dichotomy in the countryside was one of the week's most eye-opening revelations.
Half to three-quarters of the nation's agricultural output still comes from the millions of tiny household plots of villagers, cultivating by hand the ground immediately surrounding their homes, feeding a handful of chickens and perhaps tending a few cows or pigs. Any surplus production from these household farms is typically sold at the nearest roadside market, thousands of which line the roadways of rural Ukraine.
The remainder of Ukraine's farm sector couldn't be more different, consisting of massive commercial enterprises cultivating millions of acres of some of the world's most fertile agricultural land. In mid-September, most of those acres are full of corn, soybeans and sunflowers, all drying down toward the pending harvest. Almost as many were freshly tilled expanses of pure, black earth that had already produced this year's wheat crop and were awaiting seed for next year's. Ukraine is a global leader in wheat production, and dense bread is a staple at every table.
As infrastructure permits and the trend of foreign investment continues, it shouldn't be long before the ratio of farm production tips toward large, commercial producers and away from the increasingly marginalized "peasant" farmers, confined to their tiny village plots and roadside farm markets.
This land is whose land?
Throughout the week it became clear the issue of land ownership was a central axis around which Ukrainian agriculture turns. All of those millions of acres of lush farmland between the villages and cities were previously farmed under the Soviet collective model—the land was owned by the state, but worked by those who lived in the villages.
In the years since its freedom was regained, the ownership of that land has technically reverted back to those same rural residents who once worked it as little more than serfs. Accordingly, each rural Ukrainian has a 2-5 hectare (5-12 acre) "share" of the nation's collective land bank. State land policy, however, still prohibits individual shareholders from buying or selling agricultural land outright. Instead, these parcels are leased to large-scale farming corporations, many rooted in foreign investment groups ambiguously known as "holdings" that already control up to half of Ukraine's arable land.
Tour participants throughout the week heard repeatedly that the notoriously corrupt and self-serving Ukrainian government is more concerned with its own solvency than helping ensure for rural Ukrainians a smooth transition from socialism to a freer market.
Vitali Sablyuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine's Ministry of Agriculture, admitted as much when he spoke with the group of Michiganians on their second day in the country: "Big agri-holdings have a powerful lobby" in the national government, he said, while "peasant farms [are] not represented."
"It would be fascinating to go back to Ukraine five, 10, 15 years from now and see how things will have changed," said Bob Boehm, commodity and marketing manager for Michigan Farm Bureau and one of the Ukraine tour's key planners. "Myself and several members of our group were struck by its potential more than anything else. It's hard to look at all that land that's so underutilized and not wonder what it'd be capable of producing with the kind of advanced machinery, inputs and production techniques even our mid-size farmers here in the U.S. employ every season."
It could take multiple generations before Ukrainians relearn how to operate in an economy based on private ownership and a western-style free market, only then to face the issue of how to integrate mid-size family farms into a marketplace that isn't configured for them.
"It's coming back, but quite slowly," Sablyuk said, noting that it is no small task to change the national mindset from one of serving the government to that of a government serving its people.
Jointly sponsored by Michigan Farm Bureau and GreenStone Farm Credit Services, the 2013 Ukraine Agricultural Study Mission centered on learning about Ukraine's rich farming sector and rapidly modernizing production and processing capabilities, and gauging how quickly it will mature into a serious export competitor to U.S. farmers.
Slightly smaller than Texas, Ukraine shares borders with Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, and Belarus and Russia to the north and east. To the south lays the Black Sea, on which Odessa—Ukraine's third largest city—is a major deepwater seaport capable of accommodating the world's largest cargo ships. More than half of the country's land is arable, and as fertile as can be found anywhere on Earth. Ukrainian farms produce many familiar commodities, including wheat, barley, sugar beets and corn. Sunflowers are the primary oilseed crop, although soybeans are rapidly gaining ground.
International agriculture study missions are rooted in interaction with host farms, industry representatives, governmental officials and counterpart agricultural organizations. Previous destinations have included Brazil and Chile, Mexico, China, Australia, the European Union and Argentina.
NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles sharing what Michigan farmers recently saw and learned in Ukraine. Forthcoming articles will explore in more detail the commodities and issues that comprise Ukrainian agriculture in the early 21st century. To skim the surface of what's to come, review our Facebook posts from Ukraine.