How a former migrant worker pulled his Ukrainian village from doom to boom.

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Lately, the cluster farming agricultural model is becoming increasingly popular in Ukraine. Fellow villagers or residents of neighboring settlements combine their efforts into a farm cluster to focus on growing specific crops. Examples of such a form of farming are Utkonosivka , a tomato growing cluster in South Bessarabia, and Velyki Kopani in Tavria with cabbage farming.

Khorokhoryn village, located in the historical Volyn region 33km away from the northwestern Ukrainian city of Lutsk, is another great example of a successful agricultural cluster.

First steps

The idea to grow strawberries and Chinese leaf in their hometown came to life in 2007-2008 when people from Khorokhoryn went to Poland as migrant workers and observed the farming practices of Polish farms. After gaining some knowledge and experience abroad, Vitaliy Karpovych together with a few fellow villagers decided to try doing that at home. Looking back at how his farming business started, Vitaliy says:

The Polish guy I met was a great chap. He explained all the ins and outs and gave me the seedlings. And that’s how it all began. We came back home and planted the seedlings. And then we started to gradually increase the production, year by year.

One by one, everyone in Khorokhoryn joined in. Vitaliy and other former labor migrants started to share their ideas and seedlings with their fellow villagers. People got an opportunity to make their own living from this business, no matter how small it was:

”Our people are all hardworking and persistent, like all Ukrainians. Someone pioneered the idea and then the rest joined in. And now everyone keeps working,” he explains.

For many people, however, running their own farm was a real challenge. There had never been any collective farms in Khorokhoryn before, and the farmers also lacked the necessary equipment – they had to set everything up and buy all the necessary start-up machinery.

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Ihor Fronchko – the owner of a small farm who moved to Khorokhoryn from Lutsk – faced similar challenges. When he started growing strawberries and Chinese leaf he had to rely on the support of his family and only had one tractor at his disposal. Ihor explains the simple reason why he grows such an unusual crop combination:

Why exactly strawberries and Chinese leaf? Because they do not interfere with each other. In June, for example, we harvest strawberries and plant the Chinese leaf. As soon as the strawberry season is over, Chinese leaf harvesting begins. And so it goes in August, September, October, and then we sell the cabbage all winter long. Then the strawberry starts again.

The emergence of a new farming business rejuvenated rural life and solved the unemployment problem for many Khorokhoryn residents. The feeling of responsibility for their own harvest and its respective profits does not allow farmers to be idle. Ihor reassures that even heavy drinking in the village has become rare:

The deal is: they can’t get drunk, ‘cause if they don’t do the covering (of the cabbage – ed.) – it will be a goner. And the annual earnings will evaporate in one day.

Hard work

Growing strawberries is not the easiest thing to do. To cover the crops and to protect seedlings from low temperatures, insects, and other harmful factors, the farmers use straw instead of agricultural spunbond. To plant a hectare of strawberries you need to have plenty of straw. And strawberries are quite capricious and demanding.

Khorokhoryn’s seedlings are no less popular than the berries themselves. Though many seedlings are imported from abroad and sold by private businesses, there are many farmers that prefer local small business owners like Vitaliy.

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Chinese leaf also has its nuances. There is always a high risk of losing the entire crop due to hot weather. Until 2016-2017 there was enough rain for the cabbages to grow. But in recent years it’s hard to do so without extra watering:

Then autumn comes – and there’s nothing to harvest, no cabbage, only flowers. There wasn’t enough rain. And you can’t simply water all that.

Unlike in Poland, Ukraine does not yet have a well functioning system for running strawberry-cabbage farms, and the revenues from the sales are modest. Ukrainian farmers have to invest heavily first, equip themselves with all the required implements, with the coolers to store the cabbage, and they have to find workers. There are also difficulties because of the scarcity of land. A while ago the older generation readily leased their plots for 10-20 years, and these plots are still in the hands of the original leaseholders. This means that even though the will, the free hands, and the seedlings are available, people can’t start farming — explains Anatoliy Melnychuk, head of the local rural council:

When the land had been on offer we were reluctant to take it, since we didn’t know back then if we could handle it all. But now people finally believe in themselves. And I hear a lot from people who would gladly extend their plots to cultivate more.

People from neighboring villages are still going abroad for work, admits Vitaliy. This means that the majority of landowners harvest crops on their own, as the salary they can offer workers is hardly encouraging to others:

The majority leave for Poland or some other country where they can earn more.

Sales volume and exports

Initially, Khorokhoryn’s produce was sold in Lutsk, and later they started selling it to Kyiv. To become profitable the business needs to sell in bulk volumes, which is why farmers unite their efforts in order to enter a larger market. The head of the village council says:

When we were on our own we had to look for the markets: out there – Kyiv, Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Dubno, around here — the surrounding cities. That was hard. Today buyers look for us as producers. The offers are coming.

Over time the magnitude of the business became so large that Khorokhoryn started exporting Chinese leaf to Belarus and Russia.

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During harvest season the village can sell up to 100 tonnes of strawberries and up to 60 tonnes of Chinese leaf per day. Technically Khorokhoryn’s farmers are not yet a formal cooperative, but they already work and act as if they are. The head of the village council explains that acquiring the legal status of a cooperative would make the farmers more competitive and strengthen their standing within the European market. By uniting and becoming a cooperative the farmers could increase their production volumes and make higher profits, according to him.

The village in the association of territorial communities

Khorokhoryn belongs to the Smolyhiv association of amalgamated territorial communities (ATC) formed in 2015. Even though Smolyhiv is its administrative center, the majority of budget funds have been directed to peripheral villages from the very beginning. Ihor sees a lot of positive things coming from the association, although the poor state of the roads is still an issue. He admits that even people from Belarus, who frequently visit Volyn, complain about the condition of the roads.

Nevertheless, the improvements in Khorokhoryn, after it became part of an amalgamated territorial community, are obvious: the school’s building was repaired, the library was renovated and the village council is being modernized. Now all required administrative services are provided in one place. Before renovation our local village hall was in an appalling state, says Anatoliy:

This corridor was full of water, leaking through the ceiling – because the roof here was flat. The roof was leaking, and here was where the drainage pipes were placed (in the olden days, pipes were used to drain the water from flat roofs). The pipes rusted through and all the water was coming in. We came here once in winter and it was all like an ice rink — kids could have played ice hockey here.

The next step will be to build what will be called the logistics center, a place for individual entrepreneurs to look for new markets, cooperate, exchange expertise, and solve problems together.

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By their example, Khorokhoryns prove that it is possible to live well, find employment and have a good income, all while remaining at home. And if such an opportunity presents itself, it’s worth pursuing since it’s an investment in one’s own future. In the early stages it’s important to stay patient and work persistently:

Many people start this business, but very few continue because it takes a lot of effort. To earn anything you have to work hard for more than two years. Some lads here put in 10 years of their lives, but they are still at a growing stage. Standing still will not bring you forward. You can’t just stop.

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