[Note: This post was originally published after my trip to Ukraine in September of 2013. Given recent events, I’ve decided to repost with some stylistic edits.]
As followers of my blog know, I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Ukraine with Michigan Farm Bureau and Greenstone FCS for an agricultural study tour. It was my first international trip and an absolutely amazing experience. My paternal grandparents were both born in Ukraine and immigrated during World War II. So there’s a personal connection as well. While in the country we visited a dozen or so Ukrainian farms, ranches, companies, and processors. I’ll share some of the highlights of what we learned.
One of the most impressive things about Ukraine is all that land. It just goes on and on and on for miles. The average field size is probably between 3,000 and 5,000 acres, although there are certainly fields that are much larger. It was amazing to drive past a field and literally not be able to see the end. The soil there is also exceptionally fertile and black in appearance.
However, despite the land and soil, the country’s agriculture is still trying to catch up with more modern systems — but it is getting better! As Ukraine moves away from communism and toward free enterprise, there are improvements with machinery, production methods, and inputs. Our trip allowed us to see implementing these advancements. Still, while an average US farmer can get about 140 bushels of corn per acre, a Ukrainian farmer only gets about 95 bushels per acre.
The problems stem from two major sources: a corrupt government and land laws that are developing after only 20 (brief) years of independence. Corruption is everywhere in the country. We witnessed it firsthand when our bus was pulled over three times while touring and each time our bus driver had to pay off the police. Government officials own all of the gas stations, don’t have to report their income, and can usually be paid off with a bribe. One company manager told us the government had originally sold them land, only to take it away 3 years later when the company started making money.
The land laws are also problematic. Remember, while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, no one could own land — it was all in the hands of the government. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collective farms were divided into hectares (1 hectare = 2.47acres) with many people getting about 4 to 5 hectares of land (or roughly 10 acres). But they don’t have the right to convey ownership of their land. So, lots and lots of people own small chunks of land that are too big to farm by hand, too small to buy equipment for, and usually landlocked and inaccessible. As a result, many Ukrainians lease the land to super large farms for a pitiful amount of rent (about $38 an acre annually). The government has expressed a desire to open up the land laws further, but there are (legitimate) concerns about how that should be done and who should be allowed to purchase the land.
Meanwhile, most Ukrainian villagers survive by sustenance farming from their backyard, selling the fruits and vegetables or animal products they produce (by hand) at the farmers market. Many of these “backyard” farms consist of 2-5 hectares. On the other hand, there are farming corporations that lease up to 60,000 hectares. The dichotomy is astounding and loosening of those land laws could provide more middle ground.
As a result, the Ukrainian middle class is rather small (but growing!) and the farmland could be better utilized with an increase in modern technologies. Most of the problems could certainly be fixed with the right land law reforms and ridding the government of most corruption.
On the plus side, the country is full of rich history, culture, and friendly people. Although still struggling with a communist mentality, there are individuals that are finding a way to work in the environment and grow their enterprises. We had the opportunity to speak with many of them. It was absolutely amazing to see people that could face such adversity and overwhelming odds but still be successful.
Throughout the centuries the people of this country have been conquered time and again, but managed to maintain their own unique cultural identity. As they move toward a modern economic system, they will certainly face influences trying to take over the country — just not with swords or guns. With any luck, they can continue to maintain that unique identity and the people of Ukraine can find a way to make a modern economy work for them.
Thank you to Michigan Farm Bureau and Greenstone FCS for this amazing opportunity! Also thank you to the other people that participated in this adventure for making it truly special!