During the Soviet times, the vast territory along the bank of the Turunchuk River in the Black Sea village of Troitske was a collective farm. Over time, the land was abandoned, when a large landfill was created nearby. Because of the sand deposits, the authorities wanted to dig a quarry here. However, excavations for the quarry never after the riverside land was bought by Pavlo Tulba, a farmer and entrepreneur After removing 300 truckloads of garbage, he laid the foundation for a mixed garden, the likes of which are seen nowhere else in Ukraine. Currently Pavlo grows nuts, hazelnuts and briar and works not on the production of raw materials but on the value-added business – there is a functioning manufactory that processes nuts to a nut butter.
Until 2012, the area had essentially been a wasteland of dilapidated and burned collective farm buildings, weeds and debris that no one was planning to clean, and total hopelessness, but it did have a great view from the hill. And it was the great scenery that prompted the current owner to buy the land and create a walnuts and hazelnuts orchard and briar. In just a few years he has not only had successful harvests but also opened a nut-processing plant.
How “the crazy e city people” laid the foundation for the orchard
Pavlo Tulba was born and raised in Moldova. After high school he went to study in Odesa where he obtained a degree as a winery and fermentation process engineer after which he decided to stay in Ukraine. By nationality, Pavlo is Gagauz (read more about the Gagauzes of Ukraine). However, after many years of living in Ukraine, he considers himself to be Ukrainian.
For 10 years, Pavlo Tulba has been working in the walnut export industry exporting to different countries such as China. He also worked as a negotiator between Middle Eastern and Ukrainian companies in the agricultural sector, specifically dealing with pea, chickpea and millet. Pavlo says that at some point he decided to leave the food export business because the industry is problematic since it lacks sufficient legal regulation in Ukraine.
— We didn’t grow anything. We purchased nuts from people, cleaned, sorted, calibrated, packed and shipped them abroad. For a while, it was an interesting business until it was destroyed by China. In addition, it was a very corrupt sphere in Ukraine.
Currently, Pavlo Tulba owns the orchard and the manager of the “Gorikh Prychornomoria” cooperative. Having decided to start his own business in 2012, Pavlo began looking for a large plot of land he could legally purchase under the current moratorium on the sale of agricultural land. Eventually, he found a large plot suitable for his nut orchard.
— Before I bought the land, I had never been here. I simply discovered that there was a plot of land for sale and the authorities wanted to dig a quarry here. I came to find out more details and liked the landscape. So I decided that here would be an orchard, and not a quarry.
Pavlo explains how he managed to buy this large plot of land without violating existing laws.
— Nobody was interested in this plot apart from us. It is actually one of the worst plots, so it was allocated to teachers and doctors not as a profit share, but for personal use. The land was legally sold and bought, and we began to purchase it bit by bit. In 2013, we started laying the foundation of the orchard, at first planting walnuts, then hazelnuts and briar.
In the Soviet times, there was a farm in Troitske. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the collective farm did as well. The land was divided into units and the farm was liquidated since its livestock business was unprofitable livestock business. However, some buildings of the former cooperative survived.
— In the village people are not often ready to accept new things. We are growing things that went against rural village norms; our work seemed strange to the locals. But that was a great advantage: there were almost no thefts because people thought of us as crazy city people.
Pavlo Tulba soon started construction for his onsite nut cooperative. From the beginning, however, the locals were wary of his intentions and did not always understand him. There were times when they even refused to sell the land.
The plot Pavlo bought near the Turunchuk River is not very suitable for traditional agriculture but the hills provide perfect conditions for nuts since here are pollinated by winds, and most importantly, from all sides.
Mixed garden: minimization of risks
In the words of Pavlo Tulba, the “Gorikh Prychornomoria” cooperative has tried to create the first large-scale mixed nut orchard in Ukraine. The owners have planned their own planting schedule for when to best grow and harvest both walnuts and hazelnuts together. A mixed-orchard model, where there is more than one crop on one hectare, may be more cost-effective because it minimizes the risks of crop failure.
The farmers stick to two ways of planting trees: walnuts with hazelnuts and walnuts with briar. They also plan to plant about 100 hectares of briar and an additional separate hazelnut orchard. In Ukraine, they were the first to venture growing hazelnuts at an industrial scale as no one has tried to do this so far. During the Soviet Union, hazelnut was not cultivated because of problems with frost resistance. Now the nut enterprise uses European varieties of hazelnuts such as the Catalan, the Barcelonan, and others. Briar, in contrast, is a less problematic crop since it is low maintenance to grow and quite profitable because of its health benefits.
Yet another “never before done in Ukraine” achievement of the cooperative is their successful inoculation of truffles onto their hazelnut roots. As explained by Pavlo Tulba, Borchii truffle grows on the walnut roots and costs about $30 per kg. On the roots of the hazelnut grows black truffle, a kilogram of which reaches €2,000.
— At the moment we are working on the mycorrhization of roots and soil. After a successful inoculation, the mushroom itself will grow on the roots. In addition, our method provides a convenient way to collect the truffles. While the nuts here are toxic to insects, the truffle is fragrant and so bugs are attracted to them. In this way, it’s very easy to find and pick the truffles just by following the bugs since they don’t fly around in the nut orchard for no reason. No pigs or dogs are needed to search for the truffles, it is possible to find them by yourself.
Ukrainian selection and nut “racism”
Pavlo Tulba thinks that growing walnuts is an extremely promising business in Ukraine. In his opinion, our country has everything to make this crop profitable on a large industrial scale.
— If historically walnuts grow on 7% of the world’s land, Ukraine has the largest amount of land that is suitable for it. It is a huge potential that no one is pursuing.
Pavlo says that the main trouble with walnuts is that they can freeze. At -25°, even an adult tree can die. However, Ukrainian varieties have been bred through selection that can withstand the temperature drops.
— These Ukrainian varieties were bred, tested and approved at Bukovinian and Transnistrian breeding stations during the Soviet Union. Testing requires planting a tree, waiting for the harvest and performing a systematic analysis of what happens with the crop over time. For this type of testing, 10 years are required to wait for the crop, 30 years to monitor it and 40-50 years for observation. In other words, it took an incredibly long time to derive these Ukrainian varieties but no one needs them.
At the present time, the cooperative actively propagates Ukrainian walnut breeds.
— We are, after all, for Ukrainian horticultural breeding and we believe that Ukraine should grow Ukrainian hybrids, it’s the smart, right and scientifically tested thing to do, and there are no great risks.
Pavlo Tulba says that for their nut butter they grow a sort that has longer seasons and yields greater harvests. In terms of its nutritional properties, the nut is no different, but it does have a distinct appearance. Pavlo Tulba explains that in Ukraine the quality of nut is determined by its color.
— The lighter the nut – the more expensive the sort is, the darker – the cheaper. It is a matter of perception, habits of consumption and stereotypes. The taste of the nuts is exactly the same.
The “Gorikh Prychornomoria” cooperative also grows seedlings. Pavlo notes that the process is not simple, but they cannot do without it now.
— Without cultivating seedlings, we can’t move further with our business. Seedlings demand specific conditions: greenhouses, fog, and people who will look after them. Seed germination takes a lot of time and effort as well as money.
Currently, the company uses nut seedlings for its own purposes to create a large scale production. But they do sell saplings for those who wish to buy seedlings. However, Pavlo Tulba says that more often people want to collaborate, invest in the nut orchard, and undertake joint projects.
A new model of cooperation
Pavlo and his team have introduced a new collaboration method in order to expand the business. They already work with dozens of partners who invested because they believed in the project and have already received positive returns. Pavlo initially refused to use the standard cooperative model because it is quite vulnerable to internal conflicts, especially when people do not trust each other and everyone aspires to lead but no one works.
— We decided to structure our cooperative differently: when we generated the land asset, we offered to sell a piece of land to investors but we would plan it as an orchard just like ours and be the ones working on it for the first 4 years until it starts to provide a full harvest. At that point, our partners have a choice: either to continue to work with us or run their own business separately.
Pavlo sees that the “Gorikh Prychornomoria” cooperative’s greatest priority is in seeking opportunities for further expansion. He says that interest in expanding the cooperative is already sufficiently high even without any concerted campaign to attract more investors. The challenge for scaling up the business currently lies elsewhere, there is a lack of available land. Pavlo Tulba believes that an open land market would help incentivize greater investment projects in commercial horticulture.
— When people want to invest in such an expensive business venture together, they should work with existing successful enterprises that have the potential to expand or they need to have sufficient resources to start their own business, using the same successful model. Either method will lead to a successful cooperation that has the potential to develop further.
— People want to invest; you simply need to give them opportunities to do so in a clear, transparent and profitable way.
The Ukrainian M&M’s
In addition to horticultural cultivation, the “Gorikh Prychornomoria” cooperative has decided to completely close the cycle by processing its own products. The enterprise purchased a neglected canning factory that had last been in operation 10 years ago. They repaired the facility and bought new equipment for processing nuts, hazelnuts and briar. The factory has separate sections where workers wash and dry the products. Moreover, they plan to make a so-called “energy butter”,a mixture of nuts and honey.
Using unique technology, the plant processes dry and frozen walnuts that they sell not only within the Ukrainian market but also abroad. The ultimate goal is for “Gorikh Prychornomoria” to become a name brand product that characterizes the geographic region and then further develop the area as a tourist destination.
— We don’t want to sell raw products. We want to make snacks and new products from our nuts will present nuts as snacks and develop a new product – like nuts marinated in natural fruit juice. To begin creating this new snack we are procuring Carpathian berries. Using high pressure, we plan to flavor the nuts with concentrated natural juice. Different juices will create nuts of different colors and tastes, similar in their appearance to M&M’s. My children love M&Ms, and I want to make a natural alternative for them.
Pavlo Tulba thinks that nut cultivation in Ukraine still lacks the necessary scientific awareness and professional environment, though the specialization is already offered at a number of agricultural universities With no theoretical background, the “Gorikh Prychornomoria” cooperative learns by experience and a continual process of trial and error. The owners of the nut orchard are ready to share their practical knowledge with other farmers and young professionals.
— We don’t do anything secretly. On the contrary, we are ready to share, describe and show. We even actively invite students from agricultural universities because we want this field of study to develop. I cannot plant a 10,000 hectare orchard, but a thousand people can. So we try to popularize nut farming both as a discipline and industry.
Pavlo Tulba will be able to leave the orchard as his legacy for his three sons. After all, a nut tree lives a long life – more than hundreds of years.
— In a way, our business is an “eternal”. We found it interesting that there are few places in the world where these nuts can grow, and that was the main reason why we entered the industry. We wanted to build something durable and be able to transform the product.
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