Saturday, 28 August 2010

Tomato farmers eke out hard lives in Kherson region

Tarasivka, Kherson Oblast– The word “farmer” is too posh to describe them. They’re peasants, really.

Yet thousands of these people make the backbone of the food growing industry in Ukraine, a nation where agricultural corporations are only just emerging and commercial land cultivation is in its infancy.

Oleksandr Koryagin is one of them.

Like his peers in the sunny steps of Kherson Oblast, Koryagin grows tomatoes on his one-hectare allotment. He keeps livestock, grows early cucumbers in the spring and late cabbages in autumn, raises cows for milk and meat, and does dozens of other things to stay afloat. He and his wife, Halyna, do most of the work manually.

Theirs is a life typical of Ukrainian farmers, most of whom received small land parcels when the Soviet collective farm system broke down at the start of the 1990s.

Slaving away on land for long hours with no financing available for modern equipment and fertilizers, they produce just enough to eat and sell at a local market. But the rich soil, strong sunlight and their hard work combine to create a delicious product.

By the time my city alarm clock rings at 6:30 a.m., their beds have been cold for a long time – sometimes for up to two hours, depending on the day’s agenda. By breakfast time, Halyna has milked her two cows and churned the milk into cream.

The cows have been taken to the field, dozens of geese, chickens, ducks and ducklings have been fed, as well as two dogs, two pigs, two puppies and six calves. All the animals have been given water to last them through the heat of the day.

Everything takes much longer here than a town dweller would imagine. The lack of modern infrastructure and equipment is compensated for by manual labor. But once the morning routine is over, it’s time for the humans to have breakfast and get ready to go into the field.

August is one of the hottest times in this village, Tarasivka, both in terms of temperature and work. Apart from tomatoes, there are plenty of melon and watermelon fields around. But unlike tough-skinned melons, tomatoes cannot be left on the vine for too long before picking.

They will simply rot and the crop will be lost. Timing is everything here in late summer.

The Koryagins collect about a metric ton of tomatoes per day, give or take three hundred kilos. They usually hire four other locals for help at Hr 50 each.

After picking, the tomatoes are sorted into old but sturdy banana boxes.

Then they need to be driven about 60 kilometers to the nearest wholesale market as soon as possible. Modern storage facilities and other agribusiness conveniences are yet to arrive to this area, and it does not look like it will happen very soon.

Most of the farmers drive ancient, Soviet-made Ladas or Moskvich cars. Usually coupled with trailers, they are kings of the dusty roads – hard to drive, but simple in design and easy to fix.
“In good crop years, prices drop by the day. Today its Hr 1.50 per kilogram, tomorrow it’s Hr 1.20, and two days later it’s down to 50 kopecks.”
- Oleksandr Koryagin.

When a little Lada pulls a ton of tomatoes in a trailer, the car is so strained that the drivers often have to switch on the heating in the salon to kick-start the engine cooling system.

In the 40-degree heat, the temperature in the car soars to the point that would make hell seem quite mild by comparison. But the choice is none if you want to sell what you have labored for since the early days of spring.

Once at the marketplace, the farmers seek out wholesale buyers, usually arriving by trucks from other parts of Ukraine. The current asking price is Hr 2 per kilogram. To me, the price seems quite shocking. “Isn’t there a crop you can grow that would sell for more?” I ask.

“That would probably be cannabis,” Oleksandr jokes back.

The local farmers think that the wholesale price this year is actually pretty good.

“In good crop years, prices drop by the day. Today its Hr 1.50 per kilogram, tomorrow it’s Hr 1.20, and two days later it’s down to 50 kopecks,” explains Oleksandr.

But this year the crop is relatively poor. Early in the summer, the tomato plants got too much rain, and then got scorched by the sun. Many of the vines wilted or its fruits baked in the sun. The simple underground irrigation systems every farmer has installed have not helped much.

Tomatoes are the local pride and joy for villagers and the main source of summer income. Whoever manages to keep his plants bearing fruit the longest is rewarded with respectful looks.

The ability to grow and fix things, and manage on a shoestring budget is the local glamour in this forgotten land of absent agricultural machinery, no specialized literature or help from the local government.

The farmers here have had to survive on their own ever since the collapse of the local collective farm in the 1990s.

The land was then divided up, and one-hectare allotments were issued to each local resident, like in most of rural Ukraine. Some end up leasing their land plots; others cultivate them.

Somehow, the former collective farm head ended up keeping most of the farm’s not-so-numerous machinery. He is very well-off now, offering plenty of heavy-duty services with his tractors and combines.

As a result, he drives the coolest car in the village, a vast Japanese pickup truck that looks terribly out of place here where a second-hand Volkswagen minibus is every farmer’s dream.

Loans – for anything from machines to fertilizer – is an even more distant dream. And that distance is even longer than the 30-kilometer drive the villagers would need to take to get to the nearest bank – or ATM, for that matter.

But on the upside, boy does their homemade cream taste good! And their tomatoes could have tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden.

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