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"Tractors are better than diamonds."
Thanks for being part of the MEDA family. I thought you might be interested to hear about our new work in Ukraine. Just a few short weeks ago MEDA gift officers Mike Miller and Bob Kroeker were part of a group of 16 travelers to see MEDA’s Ukraine Horticulture Business Development Project (UHBDP).
Ukraine holds special meaning for many Mennonites, including some of those in their group. As they toured the old Mennonite colonies and heritage spots, including the historic Chortitza oak tree – a landmark meeting place, a Mennonite cemetery and the Mennonite Centre, the group replayed old family stories in their heads. For Bob, it was particularly bittersweet, as he walked in the land of his grandparents, who in 1929 had fled for their lives with their young family – including Bob’s mother, then aged four.
From the Mennonite colonies, the group continued on to visit some of the farmers working with MEDA to improve their livelihoods. “We were warmly welcomed with home baking and fresh produce from their gardens and greenhouses,” note Mike and Bob. “And we heard how MEDA is helping them.”
Agriculture is a key player in Ukraine, making up a third of its economy. Farmers in Ukraine – an area once known as the bread basket of the Soviet Union – are fortunate to have much of the world’s best soil and a moderate climate. But these farmers also face some very real barriers to prosperity, in addition to living with the region’s current political instability.
Farmers in Ukraine often have little in the way of modern tools to help them become more productive. Many still sell their crops at medieval-style roadside stands. The move from large, collective Soviet-era farms to private ownership resulted in small plots of 1-4 hectares, so farmers must try to lease more to grow their operations. Many farmers lack continual access to markets, selling only periodically to traders who offer lower prices to meet their own margins. Most produce ends up in open air markets in local towns and cities. And when Russia closed its border to Ukraine, farmers lost 40% of their market.
But while they face incredible challenges, farmers in Ukraine also see huge opportunities, if they can just learn more about how to reach Middle East and European markets and how to meet the demands of those markets. And that is where MEDA – and you – come in!
You may remember an earlier, similar MEDA project that helped to start Ukraine farmers on the path to prosperity. Let us introduce you to Vera Morozova. I met Vera a few years ago when she was part of the Ukraine Horticulture Development Project. Now, I hear she’s building on what she learned in that first phase.
Vera is expanding her acreage and she has built a new home. In 2010 she leased the land where four families now work together – Nicolae, Vera, sister Valentina and daughter Oksana. They started with strawberries and some vegetables, but now they have other fruit crops, including plums, grapes, raspberries and sweet cherries, in addition to onions.
"We plan to grow seedlings from our strawberries and grapes, which will be cheaper than buying them. We would like a tractor - which is better than diamonds for us," said Vera.
In 2012, Vera was able to access more land, so now the families have eight hectares. It’s been hard work preparing that new land for planting, but it’s been well worth it.
“We asked how their lives have changed through the project,” Bob and Mike told me. “Vera said that they started to smile! But she also noted they are now better equipped with tools – rototillers, cultivators – and information. ‘Now we teach others what we have learned,’ she said.”
The group was clearly impressed by the business model of this new seven-year project, which is connecting farmers to small and medium businesses that will link them to more profitable markets. The travellers also were delighted with the caliber, passion and commitment of the project staff.
“The perseverance of the farmers we met – like Vera – is amazing in the face of the region’s instability,” noted Mike and Bob. “But they remain hopeful despite the challenges. Some in our party are from farming backgrounds – but you didn’t have to be a farmer to see the excitement on these farmers’ faces, the anticipation in their smile and the new hope in their eyes.”