Late February is the beginning of the planting and growing season for many farms. It’s the time when workers head to their fields to plant new crops and prepare for the coming months. Last year, the beginning of the growing season coincided with the beginning of the full-scale war. The Village Ukraine editor Iryna Vyhovska talked to farmers in Kherson, Odesa and Kyiv oblasts about Russian occupation, resuming farm work, price hikes, and their plans for the future.
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Asparagus grower in Kherson Oblast
Before the full-scale war we had 35 hectares of land and were one of the biggest asparagus growers in Ukraine. Over 50% of all asparagus sold in Ukraine was grown in Kherson Oblast, either by us or by another farm, in Nova Kakhovka, which is also currently under occupation.
We started in 2016 or 2017 on just 1.5 hectares of land. We’ve grown 25 times larger in just four years. It was a very dynamic market, and we were trying to keep up with it. We organized asparagus festivals, and our social media just exploded – asparagus is very photogenic. We’d have up to 1,000 people reposting our post in one day. Restaurant owners and chefs supported this growing movement. And Covid gave asparagus in Ukraine a real boost. When everything was closed in 2020 and people couldn’t go anywhere and were forced to stay at home, asparagus came in handy. It’s very easy to prepare: you just need a pan, oil or butter, salt, and that’s it, you have a delicious, healthy, and beautiful dish ready. It became a real hit then.
Up until last year our asparagus was sold in national supermarket chains: Silpo, Metro, Auchan, Novus, WineTime, and even ATB. But our farm has effectively been under Russian occupation since the very beginning of the full-scale war, and unfortunately we can’t even access it. Though last year we were still able to carry out all the work that had to be carried out during the growing season. Except for harvesting of course. Unfortunately this year we won’t be able to do anything at all, because the village [where the farm is located] is not just under Russian occupation: Russian soldiers are living there and there are strict restrictions on people’s ability to move about.
A typical growing season looks like this: we get to the farm in what is currently the Henichesk hromada in the Ivanivka district in Kherson Oblast in late February–early March. We stay there until November. Last year, my partner was supposed to drive to the farm on the morning of 24 February. Around the same time, a truck with fertilizers was also about to set out from Kherson. Our growing season was supposed to start on 24 February. That morning, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to do anything, and by the evening of the 24th and the morning of the 25th Russian troops were already entering our village. Any work that was done that season was undertaken by two of our employees, who have remained under Russian occupation all along: a production manager and a machine operator. My grandma is also there now, under occupation. It’s not a good situation, but they are all alive, and that gives me some peace of mind.
You need people to harvest the crops, and everyone who had an opportunity to escape left
Our equipment is still there, it hasn’t been stolen. But we don’t know that they won’t steal it in the future, that they won’t occupy our fields. We understand that they will most likely do that. And we can’t do anything about it. Really early on in the war we could get there, before the demarcation lines were drawn. But pretty soon that opportunity had ceased to exist. Our friends were forced to flee Kherson and Hola Prystan via Russian-occupied Crimea.
Our friend and partner who owned greenhouses near Hola Prystan and grew lettuces could not escape in time and ended up in Russian captivity. He was tortured. Eventually he fled, leaving all of his farming facilities behind. No one was left at his farm, no one to look after it, and of course the entire area where it is located is under Russian occupation.
Last year, the season’s work was done and there was a harvest, but it could not be harvested and distributed. At the very least, you need people to harvest the crops, and everyone who had an opportunity to escape left.
Asparagus is a perennial plant. It’s planted once every 9–10 years, but it needs care and attention. So if we’re not able to carry out the necessary work this growing season – even without harvesting it, just not letting it die, then maybe we might be able to continue growing. We will have a harvest after the liberation. But if we are unable to work the land this year, then it seems we will probably lose our volume. You need to tend to asparagus, to water and fertilize it, it’s a living organism which is currently deprived of care.
We thought about starting fresh at a new location, but that’s very difficult. We have put eight years of our lives into it, let alone the money we’ve invested. But we thought that if Kherson Oblast is not liberated this year, then we’ll have to think about what to do next. So far, and especially after the liberation of Kherson, we hope that everything will be fine. But this is war, and it’s very difficult to make plans. We’ll see how the situation develops.
Growing asparagus on other soil might mean that the season is shorter, that it would start later, that the harvest might be smaller
Asparagus is currently grown in Volyn Oblast [in northwestern Ukraine – ed.]. But there wasn’t enough of it last season. Not only did the crops from Kherson Oblast not come through, but there were also major issues with logistics: drivers, vehicles, a lack of fuel in the beginning and during the heat of the harvest season. To be honest, it was not a very good season for anyone.
The market will be changing a lot now, because the biggest producers and farms were in southern Ukraine – in Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts. Tomatoes, cherries. All of this has to change now, because production capacities that existed here before now have to be filled by either other Ukrainian producers, or imported goods. We can expect the market to change.
Asparagus can be grown outside of the southern oblasts, but Kherson Oblast has the largest number of sunny days per year, and that’s what we were counting on. That’s why we were able to start the season several weeks ahead of other producers. Growing asparagus on other soil might mean that the season is shorter, that it would start later, that the harvest might be smaller.
Flower growers in Kyiv Oblast
We are a seasonal flower farm. This means we are not trying to cheat nature, so we don’t have peonies in December or tulips on 14 February. We grow flowers according to the seasons. We are doing everything we can to somehow augment natural processes, to extend the growing season for example, but we are not acting against nature. We have greenhouses, but they are not heated. We only need the greenhouses to protect the flowers from poor weather.
We do our growing in the Brovary district, 40 kilometers away from Kyiv. Our village was occupied at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. But we started the growing season as planned. Ranunculus have to be planted in late February. We had plans to start on 24 February. Like everyone else, we were woken up by the sounds of explosions. We were in a state of shock, but we got to the farm and tried working. We started planting the ranunculus bulbs. I co-own the farm with my business partner Bohdan, it’s the two of us. I evacuated with my family before he could. He managed to finish planting the ranunculus and then had to flee the occupation through fields [instead of roads] when the Russians were entering the village. Both our homes were looted during the occupation. They took most of our equipment and planting stock. We stored lots of things in my partner’s grandma’s cellar, but that building was completely destroyed.
Two missiles hit our farm. Both miraculously failed to detonate and remained there, stuck in the ground. State Emergency Service workers removed one of them. The explosive part was missing on the other one. We were just very lucky.
We grow organically and fertilize our soil every year. The soil itself was not damaged by Russian strikes. But we had many doubts about continuing our work: we were growing flowers and we didn’t know if it made sense to grow flowers that season, if there would be demand, if we would be able to talk about flowers on social media, which is our main communication channel, when our country was at war. We didn’t know if it was appropriate.
We returned to the farm as soon as we could, in early April. That was very timely, we arrived when tulips were starting to bloom, the first variety to bloom. So in that sense we hadn’t lost anything. When we came back, we realized that flowers would continue to bloom regardless, that nature cannot be stopped. The farm resumed its work. Even if no one needed it at that point, we owned the land and we had no right to not work it. So we started planting everything quickly. We polled people on social media about whether it was at all appropriate to post about that [growing flowers], we want to see how people would respond. Everyone really supported us, people were invigorated by the thought that others were not giving up and continued working. It allowed them to keep going. On social media, we show farming how it is getting our hands dirty; we share our work and our thoughts, and some people have even thanked us, saying that we are bringing them back to life.
Though we returned as soon as we could, we lost a lot of time in April; that is a crucial time for all growers
For the most part, we do not work directly with consumers. We target professionals: florists, decorators, event organizers. But none of them were working. So we had a season like no other before it. We were saved by the fact that tulips were the first flowers of the season and they could be sent by mail. We sold them to ordinary people who would order armfuls of flowers to their home in search of a little joy. People in western Ukraine really supported us. People who were forced to flee but whose parents stayed behind in Kyiv would send our flowers to cheer up their relatives, and that supported us, too. That’s how we found hope again and decided that regardless of what was going on around us we would keep working.
When I returned after the liberation and saw my farm, I said that I will never leave my home again, no matter what. I can’t afford for my land to be idle, so I decided that we’d have a growing season, even without knowing if we’d be able to sell anything. We had to do it just so that people could come and walk among the flowers and look at flowers on social media, and so that the land would keep “working”.
Though we returned as soon as we could, we lost a lot of time in April; that is a crucial time for all growers. It’s not like in other businesses where if something’s gone wrong you can just start over. When you’re a farmer, time is measured in years. If you fail, you have to wait a year until you can start over. There are few plants you can try growing again during the same season if the first batch failed. So when we got back, we were pressed for time and had to work at full speed.
We don’t know what this season will be like, but we can’t afford not to work
We lost all of our springtime annuals, flowers that are planted for seedlings in late January or early February. We planted a lot of matthiola, poppies, artichokes, and eucalyptus. We lost all of these because there was no one to care for the plants and because they had no water or heat. The windows in my home, where we left all the seedlings, were broken, so even if there had been some kind of irrigation system, they simply would have frozen.
We usually sell to wholesalers and florists. Event organizers – event managers and agencies – buy around 60–70%. Last year people didn’t celebrate that much, no one had grand weddings with giant floral arches, we sold all of our flowers either to florists who made arrangements for smaller-scale events, or flower shop pop-ups created by Sasha Arsalani (Mutabor Mutabor), Klovskyi Sad and Ira Pcholka from Pollen Bureau.
Consumers were our main source of income last year: seeing what was happening in their country, and in search of a sense of normality, people wanted to create a bit of calm around them. People knew how horrible the news was, they had few sources of joy, so they bought flowers for their homes to feel at least a little bit of relief.
We don’t know what this season will be like, but we can’t afford not to work. Regardless of whether there will be sales and of whether the war will end, which no one knows. It’s impossible to make plans so we decided that the best way to stay above water, to support our country, to pay taxes was just to keep working. As long as we can still work, as long as we haven’t been hit by missiles or shells, as long as there isn’t a major offensive, we will keep working. We are hoping to collaborate with florists, but whether they will be able to keep working is a whole other issue. We will grow flowers, that is our main purpose, that’s what we know how to do. As for sales: whatever happens happens. Worst case scenario, we’ll give out flowers on the street. [Laughing]
In reality, the war hasn’t affected us that much. We were always a Ukrainian producer, we always used Ukrainian on our social media, had a pro-Ukrainian position, and did everything we could to help develop farming in Ukraine. The only thing is that there are no producers of high-quality planting stock for cut flowers in Ukraine, so we have to buy it abroad. We already produce a lot of it ourselves, but we need professional seeds to achieve predictable results, and those are not available in Ukraine. Therefore, we are tied to the euro and dollar exchange rates.
Last year I delayed putting our prices up for as long as I could. I tried to maintain the previous season’s prices, but I have one main rule: never lower the quality. Never. We never keep cut flowers sitting around waiting for someone to buy them. We cut them to order. I would never cut a flower just because it’s time to cut it and let it lie around waiting for a customer. I’d rather leave it in the field, so that it blooms and dies gradually, according to its own life cycle. And if there’s no customer who is prepared to pay the full price, I’d rather give it to someone for free than undervalue the labor of Ukrainian farmers and sell the flowers for cheap.
Our prices are well-balanced, we are doing our best to maintain them. But there were many complicating factors, such as fuel issues, and we were forced to add delivery costs to prices, though we’d never done it before. We had to pool together orders over several days rather than send deliveries out immediately.
I would like to be able to not raise prices, but we calculated that if we don’t update our prices, we won’t be able to purchase stock for next year. It’s that simple.
Owns the largest agricultural business in Ukraine, based in Odesa Oblast
The Danube Agrarian occupies a total area of 2,200 hectares of organic land in the village of Safiany in the Izmail district in Odesa Oblast. We’ve been engaged in all sorts of farming activities since 2013: we grow crops, keep livestock and bees, and grow medicinal herbs, industrial crops, and melons. We are the only farm in Ukraine growing organic peaches and nectarines. We are also among the top three largest egg producers. Our products are sold in seven national supermarket chains.
In the summer, during the season, we employ over 100 people, and around 40–50 in winter. We have deliberately increased the diversity of the crops we grow in order to have a non-stop growing season and be able to employ people March through December, and not just a couple of months in the summer. We grow kohlrabi, fennel, and onions so that people can work and the land doesn’t stand idle. This year we went further and started launching new products, including canned eggplant caviar, tomatoes, and oil-preserved sundried tomatoes. We have already launched three new products in 2023.
Of course the war has affected us, but we are lucky that we have not been touched by hostilities. However logistics is very fraught and fuel prices have gone up. Also the majority of our customers have left the country; it’s the wealthy who mostly buy organic products, and the majority of them are no longer in Ukraine. It’s quite a significant issue for us, but we are working on expanding our customer base. We’re not taking the measures we planned to take, but the measures dictated by present circumstances.
We have not stopped operations for a single day. On 24 February we were planting peas, and I wrote a Facebook post about continuing to work as usual because agricultural workers are the ones enlivening our land. We have no right to stop. We keep working despite the war. Only one person among our employees has left. Everyone else stayed. In winter, we mostly employ locals; in the summer some people drive from as far as 70–100 kilometers, making the journey back home each day.
Our prices are influenced by the costs of seeds, planting materials, fuel, and manual labor, which our products require a lot of
Our biggest challenges currently are rising fuel prices and problems with logistics. All of our products have had to go up in price because production costs have risen significantly. It’s difficult to say what an average price increase is: some prices have doubled, others have increased by 20%. In setting prices, we are tied to non-organic products and the average prices of goods in supermarkets. We can’t sell our peppers for 200 hryvnias when non-organic peppers cost 100 hryvnias.
Our prices are influenced by the costs of seeds, planting materials, fuel, and manual labor, which our products require a lot of. Like really a lot. And we have to pay a fair wage to manual laborers. Because they pick everything with their hands. We also fertilize, inspect, and process everything by hand. We order seeds from abroad because we want it to be as natural as possible.
We have felt the changes brought on by the war financially, but we continue to do our job. We try to do it better every day. In 2022, we were planning to increase the amount of everything we grow, but we’ve had to pivot our growth plans. We weren’t able to do some of the things we wanted to do, we failed to plant some of the things we wanted to plant, but instead we launched new products. The most important thing is to keep working.