Starting an Organic Farm

October 31, 2020
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In 2010, economist Valentyn Obshtyr quit the banking industry and started to revive the enterprise where his father had once worked. He bought out the assets belonging to a kolhosp in the village of Staryi Porytsk in Volyn and began to transform it into a modern farm. Although the transition period was difficult, ‘Staryi Porytsk’ was established according to the principles of organic farming from the very start. Today, the farm produces organic cereals, flour, and dairy products.

Organic farming is a system of crop and livestock production that does not use synthetic chemical fertilisers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, or pesticides. Organic production standards facilitate the preservation of natural resources and biodiversity, and the renewal of soil fertility; there are also strict requirements concerning animal husbandry.

Setting up an organic farm requires a complex approach, as all stages of production must be certified — from the soil and the seeds to the finished product. To become a certified organic producer, a company must pay for certification, and then maintain its status on a regular basis. Despite these challenges, there is growing demand for organic products in Ukraine, and more and more small and medium-sized businesses are starting to produce them.

Among the country’s popular organic producers is ‘Staryi Porytsk’, a farm in Volyn that supplies the Ukrainian market with cereals, flour, and dairy products. In particular, brined cheeses and buckwheat from ‘Staryi Porytsk’ can be found at ‘Silpo’ supermarkets, under the label ‘Lavka Tradytsii’ (‘Store of Traditions’ — tr.), which also supports this series of stories on local farmers.

How It All Started

In the 1970s, Vitalii Obshtyr managed one of the kolhosps in the village of Staryi Porytsk in Volyn. When the newly independent Ukraine switched to a market economy in the 1990s, the enterprise started to collapse. The new management invited Vitalii’s son Valentyn to help them sort out their economic problems. Valentyn, an economics graduate, had no experience in farming, having previously worked in the banking industry. However, in 2010 he decided to take charge of the cooperative and began converting it into a private business.

Kolhosp
A contraction of ‘kolektyvne hospodarstvo’, (‘collective farm’ — tr.), a type of agricultural enterprise that existed throughout the Soviet Union.

— We registered the new business, bought out the assets from the farming cooperative, and later signed agreements with people regarding land shares for the new business.

‘Staryi Porytsk’ has three areas of activity — cultivating plants, raising livestock, and processing milk. Valentyn Obshtyr explains that he had intended to create a full-cycle farm right from the word go, because in order to obtain high-quality milk and dairy products, you need proper soil and forage, and the right conditions for livestock.

— I realised right away that we would be making cheese and processing milk. For this, we needed to have ‘Extra’ milk (the highest-grade milk, rich in fat and protein — ed.). Our animal husbandry system is designed to produce quality raw materials.

Almost nothing remained of the buildings inherited from the old farm: they were either pulled down or reconstructed. The new structures were built from scratch and the cowsheds were made more spacious. In the summer, the cows live on the pastures owned by ‘Staryi Porytsk’.

— During the sunny period, our herd stays outside.

Valentyn became interested in organic food production during his travels around Europe, where he saw many organic shops and thought it would be an interesting area for investment. So when he got the chance to start his own company, he decided to go for purely organic production. Valentyn insisted on this decision, despite the hesitations of his father and other specialists on the farm.

— In the first few years, during the transition period, there were a lot of weeds in the fields: it was a bleak picture. Time has passed, and now it looks totally different.

It takes several years to switch to organic production; time for the soil to regenerate. This is an important step when applying for organic certification. During the transition period, a farmer can expect a lower crop yield. However, the metrics reach normal levels with time, and labelling the products as organic makes it possible to sell them for a higher price. Valentyn says that at first, the fields full of weeds caused laughter and astonishment among the locals:

— At the beginning, everyone laughed at us here. Everyone was astonished by our fields, and probably thought we were crazy. However, when they saw our results, people started to see our project differently, and pretty much accepted it.

Stage One: Grain

The organic production chain starts in the field, where grain is grown for livestock feed and for sale. A variety of grain crops grow on the 960 hectares that belong to ‘Staryi Porytsk’: rye, wheat, barley, corn, oats, buckwheat, and pulses too (vetch and peas).

Rye occupies 10% of the crop production area. According to Valentyn, it is impossible for a livestock farmer to do without rye: not only is it an ingredient of animal fodder, it also serves as straw. In addition to this, rye is a good ‘herbicide’: its tall stalks prevent weeds from growing. The year after, low-growing crops can be planted, and there will be far fewer weeds.

Herbicides
Chemical substances used to control unwanted plants.

Another crop, spelt (a variety of wheat — ed.), occupies up to 250 hectares. Spelt from ‘Staryi Porytsk’ is exported to Germany and Switzerland. Some cereals from this farm, such as organic wheat, can be found in Ukrainian supermarkets.

The crops were sown according to organic standards from the very beginning, in 2010. The transition period lasted for three years. Finally, in 2012, the business received the EU certificate. In 2014, their products underwent additional testing according to Swiss internal standards and received a Bio Suisse certificate.

Valentyn Obshtyr stresses that since then, only organic fertilisers have been used on the farm: abstaining from synthetic chemical fertilisers boosts natural activity in the soil and decreases the chances of soil exhaustion. As a result, the crop yield rises.

— This was the way our grandfathers grew crops and produced food: using organic production methods. The only difference is mechanisation: instead of a horse, we have a tractor or a combine harvester in the field.

According to Valentyn, they eventually started to certify plant products, followed by milk and dairy products. Every year, ‘Staryi Porytsk’ undergoes testing to ensure that their products comply with organic regulations.

— All stages of production are certified: the soil, plants, feed production, livestock, raw materials (milk and meat), and the finished products.

Stage Two: Livestock

For the cattle at Staryi Porytsk, two free-stall barns for cows and a separate shed for calves were set up. All year round the cows are fed with homogeneous fodder: lucerne or grass mix silage or haylage. In the summer, green fodder is added to regular fodder.

— One of the reasons we use this system is that there are lots of disease-carrying ticks and other parasites in the pastures. So the cows are still outdoors and consume the same green fodder, but in the form of a feed mix.

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‘Staryi Porytsk’ has a herd of 300 dairy cows: Ukrainian black-and-white Holsteins. In 2010, the farm received 200 of these cows, and since then, according to Valentyn, they have been constantly ‘holsteinising’ the cows here: in other words, breeding more Holsteins.

On average, the cows at ‘Staryi Porytsk’ produce 18-20 litres of milk per day without any stimulation. Valentyn explains that stimulation reduces the period of milk secretion in cows. For example, on farms where stimulators are used, a cow can produce milk for three to four years; at ‘Staryi Porytsk’, they can do so for 10 years. And this is the norm here. In general, they get a yield of six tons of milk per day, of which two and a half tons are processed.

Stage Three: Milk Processing

The milking area at ‘Staryi Porytsk’ is specially equipped: airtight, and hands-free. The fresh milk is automatically transferred, cooled and sent for further processing. It is tested in a special laboratory:

— As soon as the milk arrives, its fat content is measured, and then samples are taken to be tested for compliance with quality regulations and other safety issues.

For six years, milk was produced on the farm only as a raw material. In 2017 an organic creamery opened, producing butter, soft brine cheeses (brynza and suluguni) and hard aged cheeses.

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At the dairy processing workshop, the milk is pasteurised and, if necessary, separated (i.e., the fat is removed). Then the milk is heated and ferments added, forming curd, from which cheese wheels are made. These are placed into brine and pressed. The next stages include drying and ripening. On average, it takes two months for cheese to ripen; some cheeses need six months or even a year.

The heart of the creamery is the cellar, where the hard cheeses ripen: classic Cheddar with a hint of sourness, and ‘Staroporytskyi’, made according to a unique recipe. The cheese wheels are covered with a natural wax rind.

There is a separate freezing room for storing the packed products that will soon be sent out to the shops. A special machine transports the batch into a refrigerator, in order to maintain the goods at the appropriate temperature.

— The machine directly goes into the vehicle’s refrigerator, so the products are kept chilled while being transported to the customer. In other words, keeping the products at the right temperature is just as important as all the other stages of production.

Development of Small-Scale Producers

The major activity at ‘Staryi Porytsk’ is milk production, which is developing year on year. Founder Valentyn Obshtyr says he has always thought like a consumer:

— Our motto is “For people like for ourselves” (conveying the idea that the products they make for others are of an equally high standard as what they make for themselves — ed.). While I’m planning new products or new projects, I think like a consumer, because I have a big family and I don’t outsource their nutrition.

Valentyn mentions that at first, the farm managed to produce hard cheese, and then several types of soft cheese. When they started working with ‘Lavka Tradytsii’, ‘Staryi Porytsk’ launched a line of milk, yogurt, kefir and sour cream.

Today, the business considers all local retail chains within a 200-kilometre radius. These include big cities such as Lviv, Rivne and Lutsk. As they say on the farm, logistics plays an important role in a business like this.
— Previously, in our childhood days, we would drink milk that was three days old — or five at most. If we bought it in the shop, logistics played a minimal role. Today, milk has to be pasteurised and perhaps also preserved.

If we do not want to use synthetic chemicals to prolong the shelf life of our food, we need to go back to small-scale producers. Farms like these are more flexible about the needs of the local residents, as well as delivery. What’s more, they provide new employment opportunities in small cities. At present, almost 20 people work on ‘Staryi Porytsk’ farm.

According to Valentyn, when it comes to achieving success, hard work helps a lot:

— I tell my nephews: “It doesn’t matter what you’re going to be, bankers or mechanics. Do it better than the others. If you’re the best at fixing cars, everyone will come to you.” I mean, you need to work every day, and above all, you need to work on yourself.

Valentyn Obshtyr and his family have lived in Kyiv for many years; however, ‘Staryi Porytsk’ in his native region remains his favourite project.

— It’s not important what you do. It’s important that you enjoy what you do, and that you aren’t doing it because you’ve got no other options. I came to this project consciously, with a lot of energy, a lot of will.

supported by

This series about local farmers is supported by ‘Lavka Tradytsii’

The material is prepared by

The author of the project:

Bogdan Logvynenko

Author:

Maria Krykunenko

Producer:

Karina Piliugina

Photographer:

Mykola Korol

Serhii Korovajnyj

Cameraman:

Oleg Sologub

Nazar Nazaruk

Starting an Organic Farm

Film editor:

Nadia Melnychenko

Director:

Maria Terebus

Photo editor:

Katya Akvarelna

Transcriptionist:

Sofia Bazko

Anna Lukasevych

Graphic designer:

Katia Ptashka

Sound engineer:

Anastasiya Klymova

Translator:

Maria Bunko

Translation editor:

Maria Fomenko

Proofreader:

Claire Little

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