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A shepherd pastures his herd in the Carpathian Mountains 750 km (466 miles) west of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, May 30, 2009.

Ukraine’s Under-the-Table Local Food Movement

After years of brutal starvation under the USSR and a poorly managed transition to private farming after communism, an ad hoc network of local food providers has sprouted in Ukraine.

Vadym’s grocery shopping style is no exception in Ukraine. Due to the nation’s rich and complicated agricultural history, Ukrainians recognize and appreciate where their food comes from. In a culture rooted in the importance of togetherness, a strong personal and familial connection between Ukrainians and the food they eat has far-reaching effects on the country’s economic output, environmental strategies and relationships.

The future of Ukrainian food production is now unclear, but the mentality behind the relationship with food can be traced back many generations.

When collectivization was first introduced in 1928 the effects were especially brutal. The policies damaged agricultural production and confined millions of peasants to abject poverty. In fact, collectivization was largely responsible for the Holodomor, a manmade famine in Soviet Ukraine and southern Soviet Russia that lasted from 1932 to 1933. With Ukrainian farmers already in a state of flux due to a loss of private lands, the Soviet government unexpectedly decided to increase Ukraine’s production quotas. Widespread starvation consumed the rural population at the same time that the country’s agricultural exports surpassed levels that could have sustained the starving citizens. Stalin denied the existence of a famine and refused foreign aid in the midst of tremendous human suffering. In total, the Holodomor claimed the lives of an estimated 2.4 to 7.5 million people.

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A farmer works on a field near the village of Kostyantynivka outside Donetsk, June 21, 2012.

Even today, the Holodomor remains shrouded in mystery; there are no precise records enumerating the famine’s casualties and the exact reasoning behind the Soviet government’s agricultural plans is unknown. Still, the Holodomor serves as a reminder to contemporary Ukrainians that food availability is not something to be taken for granted. There is respect for those who toil to produce the food that feeds and nourishes, because they can remember a time when their ancestors did not have the privilege of owning property and choosing how to manage their land.

Following Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country’s collective farms were divided up among the workers and pensioners who had once been tied to the land plots. Villagers needed to prove their long-term affiliation with the collective farm to receive a private lot, which ranged from 1 to 7 hectares (or 2.5 to 17 acres) depending on the region. Because land privatization was conducted at local officials’ discretion, villagers who had been less than loyal often found themselves coincidentally without the necessary documents to be granted private land. Those who were lucky enough to receive a plot of land found the divisions illogical and inconvenient and were rarely briefed on their property rights. The land divisions were hastily drawn and resulted in unclear and often undocumented property lines.

Widespread starvation consumed the rural population at the same time that the country’s agricultural exports surpassed levels that could have sustained the starving citizens.

And not much has improved since.

Now, more than twenty years after Ukraine gained independence, the government has yet to develop a comprehensive record of property ownership. Rental agreements are complicated and neighboring landowners feud. Although the average size of a land unit is between seven to ten acres, landholders find themselves locked into a system of legislation that doesn’t acknowledge or support small-scale farmers. With funding from the World Bank, the State Agency for Land Resources of Ukraine is working on a mapping project to create a less volatile land economy for Ukrainian farmers, but has failed to establish a transparent land market for the country so far.

What the government did do is place a moratorium on agricultural land sales in 2001 to allow more time for the development of a secure land market. Expectations are that the ban will be lifted in 2016, but the moratorium has already been extended twice, first in 2009 and again in 2012. With Ukraine’s fertile black soil’s estimated value ranging from $40 to $80 billion dollars, the moratorium is freezing one of Ukraine’s biggest markets and setting severe limitations on the agricultural sector’s potential.

Because of the moratorium, landholders aren’t allowed to sell property, which violates Ukrainians’ constitutional rights and denies the struggling agriculture sector a needed economic boost. Since many landowners are unable or uninterested in farming, the ban on land sales has created a leasing culture of half-hearted commitment: Domestic investors are hesitant to devote resources to land they can’t own, and foreign companies view the sector as being too risky and unstable for serious investment. As a result, rural Ukraine lacks developed local roads, modern grain elevators and other common farming equipment. As agricultural technology from the Soviet Union decays on local farms, Ukraine’s rural population is rapidly changing.

A man and a horse plough up the field near the village of Bugayvka, some 130 km (81 miles) east of Lviv in western Ukraine May 10, 2011.

The rural population has dropped from 53 percent in 1960 to 33 percent in 1991, and the urban migration continues today. In 2011, rural inhabitants made up 31 percent of the total population, a record low. Ukraine’s farmers are also growing older: according to a 2012 survey by AgroInvest, only 19 percent of Ukrainian farmers and land managers are under the age of 40. It’s unclear exactly why the migration is taking place, but a greater interest in higher education or urban job availability are likely factors.

Foreign investors have already expressed interest in Ukraine for both its fertile lands and natural resources. In September 2013 Ukraine signed a record-high $2.6 billion deal with China to develop agricultural projects on nine percent of Ukraine’s arable land in exchange for preferential food prices for China. Two months later, Chevron signed a $10 billion shale gas deal with Ukraine and Shell Gas has also expressed great interest in developing a deal in Ukraine once the ongoing political unrest subsides. Beyond foreign involvement, these deals will introduce a slew of environmental problems unfamiliar to traditional Ukraine, where small and medium scale farming has been the norm for centuries.

Rural Ukraine lacks developed local roads, modern grain elevators and other common farming equipment.

Currently, the practices rooted in village culture read like a conservationist’s wish list: Due to local fresh food availability, food transportation emissions are minimal. Producing local foods to be sold in local markets promotes self-sufficiency in addition to building community and a sense of place. In many cases, small- and medium-scale farmers have had the land in their families for generations and practice responsible farming simply because they have a familiarity and investment in maintaining high soil quality.

Traditional farming practices have succeeded for many years in making nationwide agricultural policies unnecessary; however, as big operations take root, the need for national farming policies has become an inevitability.

A red star marking the farm field named after the Hero of the Soviet Union lieutenant Ilya Zakharovich Shuklin, is pictured aside the road between Kramatorsk and Donetsk June 21, 2012.

Ukraine is home to one of the most thriving local foods movements in the world. Theirs is a system idealized by the U.S. farm-to-table set, sick of big box supermarkets and trying to reconnect to the food system.

Lately, agricultural issues have been put on the backburner due to the political unrest raging throughout the country since November. Months after the ousting of corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych, May 25th hosted early presidential elections that brought Petro Poroshenko into power. Although Poroshenko has a myriad of issues to address, including violent separatist conflicts in the east, agriculture is likely to flourish under his leadership.

Agricultural issues have been put on the backburner due to the political unrest raging throughout the country.

Nicknamed the “Chocolate King,” Poroshenko is well-acquainted with agricultural technicalities due to his involvement with the cocoa bean production necessary for his billion-dollar confectionary enterprises. As head of the Council of the National Bank of Ukraine, he called Ukraine’s agricultural sector a highly profitable “sleeping giant” and encouraged an increase in production to address food security issues in Ukraine and abroad. Under Poroshenko’s administration, the sector is likely to grow and change, although no one can say exactly how yet.

In Ukraine, from urban streets to village roads, it is taboo to throw away bread. Bread that has fallen on the floor or gotten stale is placed in wire basket bird feeders outside so that the food does not go waste. Some Ukrainians even give the bread a quick kiss before leaving it for the birds.

The state of Ukraine’s food culture, built on a deep respect for locally produced food, is in flux. But many Ukrainians, like Nina, Maria, Vadym, Victor and Ruslana, are carrying village values with them to their new homes. For them, food production and distribution is a matter of family and friends’ visits, of hospitality and generosity. Every bit of food has a story.

Rachel McMonagle, a current Fulbright Fellow, has been living in Kiev since September, studying how the moratorium on agricultural land sales is affecting small-scale agriculture in Ukraine. During her time in Ukraine, she has worked in partnership with the National University for Life and Environmental Sciences and USAID on a variety of projects concerning crop rotation, biofuels, and property rights. Rachel is a graduate of Oberlin College.

(Editor’s Note: Interview subjects requested that their last names not be used.)

(Photo credits, from top to bottom: Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin,  Reuters/Michael Buholzer, Reuters/Gleb Garanich, Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

Ukraine’s Under-the-Table Local Food Movement