From Farm to Fork strategy: Ukrainian Berry Cooperative successfully develops EU concept with Dutch support

The cooperative movement in Ukraine has a long history. The negative image of the Soviet collective farms when the gardens were overgrown with weeds and the factories were cut into scrap metal, fortunately is vanishing from the memories of Ukrainian agrarians. Modern farmers have begun to revive cooperation on new principles, realizing that joining forces is the main advantage for future success.

This article is about Agricultural Cooperative “Jagidnuy Rai” (Berry Paradise), from Dunaivtsi Gramada (Community) in Khmelnytsky region (Western Ukraine).

Working in the Field
©Reinoud Nuijten

Every year the number of its participants increases, the range of products and technical base expands, the latest technologies are mastered, new partners join. Farmers already have something to be proud of and share with colleagues!

Berry article 1
©Uagronl

The cooperative was founded in 2017. At first, there were just over twenty owners who wanted to grow berries together on their plots on equal terms and conditions. Over time, new participants joined - people who were inspired by the positive experience of fellow villagers. Today, the cooperative has more than 40 members. Last year alone, 13 new members joined the team, most of them young people under the age of 35. Territorially, Cooperative “Jagidnuy Rai” (Berry Paradise), unites 18 settlements and covers most of the Dunaivtsi district in Khmelnytskyi region of Ukraine.

Berry field
©Uagronl

Theory and practice of berry cooperation

The cooperative started its activity with the support of Continental Farmers Group agricultural holding operating in the region and renting the land plots from the nearby villages. Later, in 2019 the Gromada (Community) of the district took part in All Ukrainian Competition Incredible Villages of Ukraine, initiated by AgroPortal.UA and in the framework of the competition became known to the Office of the Agricultural Counsellor of the Netherlands Embassy of Ukraine. After visit of Cooperative in autumn 2019 the representatives of the Embassy have no doubts that the cooperative has great potential for introduction of Dutch technologies in their production. Support of the local authorities and coordinators of Continental Farmers Group became the basis for fruitful cooperation.

Farming the Future
©Uagronl

The Embassy sees the goal of supporting the cooperative as the formation of sustainable local production, the association of small farmers to access the latest technologies and quality planting material, and to encourage local consumption of products. In order to expand the professional contacts of the cooperative and form a strategy for its development, the embassy facilitated the participation of members of the cooperative in many events, seminars and conferences. The embassy encourages the use of sustainable, environmentally friendly management and production methods.

Mykola Ostrovskyi and Jagidnyi Rai
©Mykola Ostrovskyi and Jagidnyi Rai

- The main condition for joining the cooperative was that the person had an agricultural land plot for going to growing berries or vegetables. Over the last year, we have expanded our range of vegetables and fruits, - says Mykola OSTROVSKY, head of the Department of Social Protection and Labor of Dunaivtsi City Council, a member of the cooperative “Jagidnuy Rai” (Berry Paradise). The Raspberries became the crop from which it all began. Continental Farmers Group offered us very good partnership conditions and handed over 15,000 raspberry seedlings of the Polana variety at a formal price – 1 UAH per seedling.

For two years, farmers cultivated this crop, and learned on their experience, Mykola Ostrovsky continues. For the third year, they received the first harvest, which was sold in joint batches with a neighboring cooperative. Last year, they sold themselves at a fairly high price - 50 UAH per kilogram, paid by a nearby processing company. Unfortunately, this time the neighbors could not reach an agreement within their cooperative and sold raspberries on the fresh market twice as cheap. Therefore, understanding and trust between the members of the cooperative is one of the key conditions for the development of the association.

The very idea of agricultural cooperation is to unite small producers who find it difficult to survive alone and compete with large market players. The cooperative also plays an important role in community development, promoting rural employment. The lack of jobs in rural areas forced people to leave their homes and families for the long time and travel for work. Realizing this, big business, donors and government agencies support agricultural cooperation.

Incredible Villages
©Uagronl

The first acquaintance of the representatives of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with the Dunaivtsi community took place in 2019 during the contest "Incredible Villages of Ukraine" from AgroPortal.ua, the Embassy was a partner of this contest. As part of the project, which aimed to develop the tourism potential of Ukrainian villages, the Embassy provided a grant for landscaping near the Burbun waterfall in the village of Lysets, which is very popular with locals and visitors. Seedlings of ornamental crops under the project were provided by a Dutch nursery, which successfully operates in the Zhytomyr region (Kornelis). Read more here

Lysets planting
©Uagronl

The whole community gathered during the planting of ornamental trees and shrubs, and representatives of the Office of the Agricultural Counsellor of the Embassy also arrived. The work revealed that the community has a local cooperative “Jagidnuy Rai”, which currently has more than 40 members who grow berries and vegetables. Of course, in addition to ornamental plants, the Netherlands is known for its fruit and vegetable sector. There are many representatives of Dutch business - suppliers of the sector in Ukraine. Therefore, the logical development of the Incredible Villages of Ukraine project was the embassy's support of other areas that contributed to the development of rural areas and employment of community residents. The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Dutch companies became great partners of our cooperative. Assistance from foreign partners includes financial and technological support, conducting various trainings and seminars.

Fresh Forward varieties
©Uagronl

A new direction - growing strawberries with Dutch technology
During 2020, with the participation of the Dutch company "Fresh Forward", the cooperative gained access to new varieties of strawberries and leading technology of cultivation - on the ridge using "frigo" seedlings. The company's specialist helped in the selection of varieties, soil analysis, the development of technological maps.

- Working with a cooperative is interesting and easy at the same time for many reasons: the group has a leader through whom it is convenient to communicate, the members are friendly, envious and supportive of each other. Therefore, it is definitely advantageous for small farmers to unite, because by joint efforts they can solve their problems more effectively than alone, - shares the conclusions of Anton DOVHANYUK, a representative of Fresh Forward.

Vegetables from Rijkszwaan
©Uagronl

In addition to Fresh Forward, other companies with "Dutch" roots joined the cooperation: suppliers of planting material STOV "Podillya-Plant" and JV "Dekoplant"; representatives of Agrocares B.V, who performed a laboratory analysis of the soil of all areas of the cooperative with recommendations for improving the quality of land; Rijk Zwaan Ukraine, a company that offered high-quality Dutch vegetable seeds. In order to expand contacts and obtain more information, the Embassy has facilitated the participation of members of the cooperative in many events, seminars and conferences. The Embassy supports and encourages the cooperative to use biological crop protection and fertilisers. The support of the Dutch partners is not limited to the planting material but includes after sales service, regular consultancy and trainings.

- The Dutch partners have selected regional varieties of garden strawberries for us, Continental Farmers Group has provided a grant for the purchase of ridge forming machine, which was tailor made at the Vinnytsia plant specially for the heavy soils of cooperative, - Mykola Ostrovsky shares his experience. - Unexpectedly, the trial plantations paid off in the first year. Everything worked together: the consultants who supported us, the beautiful local soils and climatic conditions. In addition, thanks to the magazine http://www.jagodnik.info/ more companies learned about our cooperatives and offered their cooperation. For example, all last year we worked well with BTU-Center. The specialist came to our sites, analysed, consulted and helped in the selection of the biological crop protection. We worked exclusively with bacteria and achieved excellent results, in particular, we managed to double the yield! That is why we are satisfied and optimistic about this year.

Strawberry plantations were laid by the early, middle late varieties to ensure log production cycle. A total of 20,000 seedlings were obtained, which were planted in various ways: some simply in the soil on straw, some on agrofiber, some on a ridge covered with film. Subsequently, they compared their results and analyzed all the pros and cons of each method of cultivation. The best were the ridges, which insures the quality berries even abnormal amount of precipitation. Overwintered plants are also great. But this method requires a good supply of water, because it is designed for drip irrigation. Per each ridge 2 tapes for drip irrigation from “Aqua Plus” company were used.

- Last year showed that old fashioned growing strawberries like our parents did is unprofitable and very risky. We would never have achieved such results if we did not use modern technologies and knowledge. That's why we really appreciate and always look forward to advice and learning from our friends and partners. We use such a valuable opportunity and advise colleagues not to wait, not to watch what others are doing, but to be the first, not to be afraid! None of us was disappointed or changed our minds. No one left the cooperative because they did not receive the profit they expected, - emphasizes Mykola Ostrovsky.

Strawberry Yagidnyi Rai
©NL Embassy in UA

Development of sales strategy

The cooperative decided to use a different approach to strawberry sales than raspberries. Here they understand that the principle of "grow good products and sell them in bulk for processing" is quite primitive. You need to be prepared for different scenarios in the industry, so strawberries will be sold on the fresh market. For long time the cooperative wanted to buy a car to transport fresh berries. We managed to do it with grant funds - 200 thousand UAH from "Continental Farmers Group".

At first, the cooperative wanted to buy a car with a refrigerator, but after studying the issues and experience of colleagues, they stopped at an ordinary vehicle, without cooling, but upgraded specifically for the transportation of berries. This is a Ford Transit, insulated from the inside with a special felt, with a sunroof for better ventilation. The idea of refrigerator was abandoned, because it is suitable for transporting berries to retail chains, where products will also be stored in the cold.

- When you work in the fresh market, the temperature difference creates condensate on the berry, it loses its shelf life, - says Mykola Ostrovsky.

The level of profitability of such a business increases when sales are carried out by a cooperative, and families work in each individual farm. That is, they do not use hired labor, respectively, farmers receive a net profit and can compete well in the market. Another advantage is that everyone is personally responsible for their small plot, its cultivation in accordance with the requirements adopted by the cooperative and the quality of the berry. The primary goal of the cooperative is to feed the local community and sell the surplus.

Training cooperative
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Product quality and safety: "grow for yourself"

Therefore, from the very beginning of the cooperative's establishment, the farmers agreed to grow ecological products, use safe biologicals and bacteria. Local soils are rich enough in humus, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements, the extra fertilisers are added based on the soil analysis.

Farmers have repeatedly consulted with experts on obtaining a certificate "Organic Standard". However, in the case of our cooperative, the plots of which are located separately, it is impossible to get one certificate for all, and to certify a plot of 20-30 acres - is unprofitable.

Soil sampling
©Reinoud Nuijten

- Although we cannot prove the eco standards of our products, but we definitely work with organic and biological products. Hoping for the discipline of each member of the cooperative, we really understand that this is not one big area and not one company that fully control the whole process. People may be different, but we are all set up only for organic products. We periodically check ourselves - we deliver products to the laboratory. This is our brand, for which everyone is personally responsible! Not all members of the cooperative are entrepreneurs. Many people grow for their own needs to feed their families, children and friends with tasty and healthy products. And in the future we will be happy to develop green tourism. Our model of cooperation is very special, but successful. And we are ready to share our own experience with others, - sums up Mykola Ostrovsky.

The experience of "Berry Paradise" shows that with the strong will anything is possible. And the example of this cooperative should inspire farmers from other regions not to wait but actively attract attention of donors and partners. In general, this type of farming fits well into the concept of Farm to Fork strategy, which is gaining popularity in Europe. It has a positive impact on the environment, biodiversity and sustainability of agricultural production, reduces emissions, develops local production of environmentally friendly products.