Soviet kolkhozy knew what they were doing…taking full control of everything that grows and happens on your farm is the only way…to be successful and honest in modern-day Ukraine too
says a 32-year old Yurij Sergeyev – a farmer, a businessman, and the owner of Villa of Roses, a thriving enterprise about an hour’s drive from Kiev that specialises in produce grown to organic principles.
I may not agree with kolkhozs being quite as productive as Yura makes them out to have been, but farms such as Yura’s are certainly a rare breed in Ukraine.
I met Yura on a hot day, when, after several days of trying to fit into his busy schedule, he picks me up from a derelict bus stop in the middle of nowhere and infinite fields of sunflowers.
Yura’s appearance doesn’t differentiate him from many of his other compatriot ‘biznesmen’ – he is broad, fair-haired, he walks with a swagger and drives a 4-wheeler. But he talks differently.
He is polite and he even (half) smiles: to the manual workers busily putting up the ground in approach to his farm, to the specialist in horse-gear that has been called from miles away to make a carriage for Yura’s mother (‘she deserves a treat’), to a sweet little lady who makes most of dairy products (mostly manually, old school) at Villa of Roses.
Yura himself is a rare breed. He left for the UK in the troublesome 90s and spent there (here) 12 years: appropriately starting in a fast-food joint, later graduating to two Master degrees and even an unfinished phd. He returned to Ukraine some three years ago: to his parents, to the land and people that he knew.
To restore the land, to better Ukraine
Yura explains, as a self-deprecating joke, dead-seriously.
I am then curious whether it was difficult for Yura to settle back in, to stop being overly-polite. He nods readily:
God, yeah, having spent all of my twenties in England, learning the ropes in Ukraine was like learning to live again. As for being too polite – that you learn quickly, it will not get you anywhere.
Like a good, old landowner and his serfs, I’m thinking – who needs to be firm but (appear) fair, ruling his lands with an iron feast..
Indeed, Villa of Roses is quite unique in Ukraine – the farm is a medium size and mixed, it tries to farm according to nature’s principles and it produces most things it needs on the farm. Its success and uniqueness come from the combination of these factors.
– The farm is bigger and more productive than most allotment-type arrangements you see across the country – but considerably smaller than the conglomerates producing en messe. The in-betweens – like the farms in the UK that have their own farm shops – are almost non existent in Ukraine.
– Villa of Roses is not certified organic – like many farmers in the world Yura is sceptical about the certification, believing that the organic standards are a ‘dream’, not practical, hippy-ish, if you like. And, anyway, in Ukraine anyone can buy an accredited logo, can’t they..
– The farm produces everything on its land: from most of the feed for the animals, to making own dairy and meat products, to having its own distribution arrangements and putting its people to explain to customers why their products are better than others.
Having a full control of everything on the farm is the only way to survive
I am then asking Yura whether ‘oligarchs’ have been troubling him.
He shakes his head – we are too small fish for them, and not really the competitors.
Like our tescos really they make things on gigantic scale, squeezing profits, chemicals and souls out of most things they touch – I tell myself, in a somewhat dramatic but earnest way.
Yura’s farm does not seem to use chemicals to grow fruit and veg, or feed numerous flocks of free-ranging pigs, geese, cows and free-range chicken (including ‘soup’ hens, who are, as any French or Ukrainian person would tell you, are immeasurably tastier for making stock).
The most prolific line at Villa of Roses is however dairy products, which are now sold in several supermarkets in Kiev and via the farm’s online shop.
From smetana (thicker, sweeter type of sour-cream) and kislyak (milk left to sour naturally – just like that, unspeakably delicious) to tvorog (farmer’s cheese made simply by adding smetana to ferment) and luscious milk.
And, of course, salo, made in-house, out of small, black pigs (Vietnamese breed) that have – by Ukrainian standards – a pathetically thin layer of fat on their backs.
Clearly though Yura’s aiming at that even rarer breed of Ukrainian population – young-ish, middle-class, health-conscious. Those few who still experience nostalgia and patriotic urge towards the ‘Ukrainian national dish’, but already past the stage of thinking layers of grandmotherly fat ‘being good for them’.
I may disagree with this thin layer of people wanting an even thinner layer of salo, but I am all for the diversity: people, pigs, and purposes. Bon voyage, Yura.