Ukrainian farmers defy odds during war

By Andrew Heck

At more than 100 metres tall, Mother Ukraine has kept watch over Kyiv since 1981, when Ukraine was a Soviet republic. Originally, her shield bore the communist hammer-and-sickle, but this year, the insignia was replaced with the Ukrainian trident, a national symbol.

War brings with it no shortage of tragic consequences. Frequently, outsiders observing the Russian invasion of Ukraine are exposed to news reports showing all manner of devastation, including strikes against military and industrial targets, but also civilian areas.

For some hog farmers in Ukraine, life has become nothing short of a nightmare, as their farms have become unwittingly caught in the crossfire. Yet, their resiliency has been remarkable. Facing a true emergency of the highest order, they continue to produce pigs, process pork and supply their mostly domestic market.

From the direct impacts to Ukrainian civilians, to ripple effects across the Ukrainian pork value chain, hog farmers around the world should have their eyes on Ukraine, if they want a crash course in the value and need for emergency planning and what’s at stake when things go terribly wrong.

Massive change comes quick

Ukraine’s pig herd across the country shrunk by 600,000 head between 2022 and 2023. During that same time, the country’s entire agricultural sector lost about half of its pre-war annual revenue.

From one day to the next, Ukrainians’ lives and livelihoods currently hang in the balance.

“All possible risks are there in Ukraine,” said Oksana Yurchenko, President, Association of Ukrainian Pig Breeders. “Despite this, we continue to work with our partners to support producers, whose needs are different in each region of the country.”

Ukrainian producers raise hogs across a large swath of territory spanning from the eastern and central provinces bordering Russia and its ally, Belarus, all the way to the far western provinces, sharing borders with friendlier neighbours like Poland, Slovakia and Romania. While Ukraine is certainly smaller than Canada, it is the second-biggest country in Europe to Russia, stretching more than 1,500 kilometres at its widest. As in Canada, far-spread clusters of production lead to regional differences.

When full-on war struck the eastern part of the country, chaos ensued, as many producers were left to fend for themselves.

“Nobody knew what to do,” said Yurchenko. “Producers stopped breeding gilts to halt the production cycle, and they cut sow herds.”

In addition to immediate production impacts, other factors were at play: unreliable electricity and gas, unsafe transportation routes and even the threat of being drafted into the military.

“Our ministry of agriculture has an agreement with the ministries of defense and finance to make exemptions for up to half of all producers seen as critical to maintaining the food supply,” said Yurchenko. “However, it is an application process, which can be difficult. Older producers are not seen as fit for combat, but younger producers and their workers are vulnerable.”

Because the collective labour pool has shrunk with resources tied up in the war, all facets of the industry have experienced setbacks.

“[Military] mobilization is a challenge. You lose veterinarians and other people when they don’t manage to receive immunity,” said Yurchenko. “Some farms lost most of their employees to the military, which creates difficulty continuing the operation.”

Sporadic explosions and firefights constantly threaten farms in conflict hot spots. Machinery is often stolen by occupiers, whose presence lingers even after they’re gone, with landmines that have been buried. It is estimated that more than one million acres of Ukrainian farmland are actively mined.

“Unfortunately, we have lost about 15 per cent of all farms and about 11 per cent of the entire pig herd, either because of the war or because producers shut down their operations,” said Yurchenko. “Fortunately, no major processing facilities have been affected, as these are found mostly in non-combat zones.”

One of Ukraine’s largest hog farms, Agrocomplex Slobozhansky, was nearly lost as a direct result of Russian occupation but is in the painful process of rebuilding.

Agrocomplex Slobozhansky was one of Ukraine’s largest hog producers pre-war. Spread between two sites in Kharkiv province, the company’s 3,400 sows and integrated operations were delivered a major blow between March and September 2022, as Russian troops were stationed just a few kilometres away, regularly hammering the region to wrest control of it.

Throughout the occupation, Agrocomplex Slobozhansky’s owners kept a diary of events as they took place.

“The farm faced constant shelling, and the surrounding roads were blocked, making supply of critical inputs and shipments of pigs out impossible,” the diary reads. “Farms began to use diesel generators, and the drinking and feeding systems were only run a few hours a day to save diesel. Pigs on both farms began to die, due to lack of water and feed.”

Starting in April, the nearby village and surrounding areas completely lost power. Then, in May, additional shelling destroyed the farms’ feed mill. In a futile attempt to keep up with operational needs, workers began to grind grain for feed by hand. Eventually, the area was liberated, but not without bitter consequences for the producer.

“Now that the region has been freed from Russian troops, the farm currently has 1,300 breeding pigs. Many of the barns have no windows, and there are holes left by shells in a number of the roofs.”

On the bright side, Agrocomplex Slobozhansky was lucky enough not to have lost everything, unlike some others. The company vows to rebuild and repopulate to pre-war levels, at a price tag equivalent to around CAD $25 million. Though, little to none of the necessary funding will likely come from external partners.

“Before the war, we had some government programs to finance new construction and renovations to barns, but that has since ended,” said Yurchenko. “Farms today in the highest-risk areas are rejected for support and denied bank loans.”

From the depths of carnage and destruction to the relative yet tenuous stability of the present day, Ukrainian hog farmers continue to fight for their farms and lives.

Ukrainian industry still sees hope

Eurasian wild boar are native to Ukraine, unlike Canada, but the species presents the same fear of disease transmission, including African Swine Fever (ASF). Ukraine has grappled with ASF for more than a decade. Image © Jerzy Strzelecki

Starting in 2012, African Swine Fever (ASF) quickly became a major concern for Ukrainian producers, when the disease first broke on a small farm in the east. Then, multiple cases in wild boar were discovered in 2014, followed by an outbreak on a 60,000-head commercial operation in 2015.

“Since then, we’ve been working with the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and UNFAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] on improving Ukrainian swine biosecurity,” said Yurchenko. “Even right now, we’re still creating educational materials, like instructional videos, to help other farmers model their operations off of those that have made positive changes.”

From recently adopted protocols like showering in and out of barns, and diligent efforts to fence all outdoor operations, ASF is being faced head-on, for the sake of business continuity under intense pressure.

Throughout 2022, the number of pigs on-farm in Ukraine declined by 11 per cent, to just over five million total. Approximately 35 per cent of Ukrainian pigs are raised on small farms, with producers selling to local abattoirs, and the remaining 65 per cent belonging to the commercial system.

Compared to Canada, the impact of Ukrainian pig production on local food security is proportionally larger, as Ukraine currently exports only about 5,000 metric tonnes of pork annually, compared to Canada’s 1.4 million metric tonnes. Prior to 2015, Ukraine’s exports were six times larger than today, with its biggest customer, Russia, no longer seen as a favourable client.

Beginning in 2014, long-standing political tensions between Russia and Ukraine finally flared up, resulting in the ongoing occupation of Crimea – the disputed peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. The Black Sea connects to the Mediterranean via the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits through Turkey, the route by which Ukraine and Russia move much of their agricultural commodities, like grain and oilseed, to foreign markets. In response to widespread economic sanctions issued against Russia for its aggression, the country banned imports of agricultural commodities from several sources, including Canada, which is estimated to have cost the Canadian pork industry $500 million.

Pork is a staple for many Ukrainians, when it’s available. Much of Ukraine’s pork is sold at small markets where, today, it’s on the higher-priced end, which has presented an opportunity for producers and processors still in business.

The bulk of Ukrainian pork is consumed domestically, and consumer prices are high across the board for all types of food. Despite the cost, demand remains high, with Ukrainians continuing to desire pork. Pre-war, Ukraine consumed 800,000 metric tonnes of pork annually, with 100,000 metric tonnes now off the market, creating a void.

In a rare victory, this high demand, coupled with reduced supply, has created new opportunities for producers and processors outside of the main conflict zones. And while the export-based Ukrainian crop sector has been hurt by an inability to move grain out of its ports, it’s led to lower domestic feed costs for hog farmers. In Ukraine, as in Canada, those costs represent upwards of 70 per cent of all inputs for any given producer, typically.

“It’s true that many producers in the east have either lost or chosen to shut down their farms, but some of them have moved west, which has been seen as an opportunity,” said Yurchenko.

Even before the war, Ukraine was a net-importer of pork, mostly from countries like Poland, Germany and Denmark. Still, foreign market diversification remains an attractive strategy for processors, who are working with E.U. officials to implement zoning and prove that Ukrainian pork from commercial farms is free of ASF. While entrance into the E.U. marketplace remains a lofty goal, emerging partners in Asia, like Vietnam and Hong Kong, are already buying Ukrainian pork.

While high prices for pigs and pork are a silver lining for the Ukrainian industry, farms hit with ASF are afforded no financial assistance to recover losses incurred from depopulating and sanitizing barns.

“It doesn’t leave them with many options,” said Yurchenko. “That’s why we’re focused on trying to keep the number of new cases low.”

While the overall situation for Ukrainian hog farmers remains harrowing, with no clear resolution in sight, the industry and the Ukrainian people have looked to triumph, however possible.

Canadian farmers should be ready

Animal Health Canada’s Emergency Management Division helps livestock producers prepare for significant risks, like foreign animal disease outbreaks.

For Canadian hog farmers, the prospect of war may seem far-flung, but other emergencies – such as animal backlogs experienced during COVID-19 processing closures, the possibility of foreign animal disease outbreaks and environmental disasters – provide plenty of rationale for our industry to take notice and learn from Ukraine’s struggles.

Stemming from multi-stakeholder discussions in 2018, the African Swine Fever Executive Management Board (ASF EMB) was assembled to act as a framework for collaborative work to prevent and control ASF, if it were detected in Canada. The ASF EMB is coordinated by Animal Health Canada (AHC), a not-for-profit association jointly funded by federal and provincial governments, industry organizations and other partners.

Similarly, the Animal Health Emergency Management (AHEM) Project was designed to engage and educate livestock producers across Canada in their efforts to minimize the impacts of disease on-farm. AHEM was taken on by AHC in 2020. Both the ASF EMB and AHEM Project were incorporated into AHC’s new Emergency Management Division earlier this year.

The AHC Emergency Management Division’s main task is to support emergency preparedness planning to ensure rapid and coordinated response across industry and governments, with a particular focus on foreign animal diseases like ASF and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). This, in turn, supports a quicker recovery, which is good for producers, supply chain partners and the Canadian economy.

For producers, the group continues to work with provincial and national pork producer organizations to help with farm-level management, including printed and digital materials, in-person seminars and webinars. Many of the tools being developed can be applied to various types of emergencies, as it’s easier to modify an existing plan than to start from scratch, should the need arise.

For Mikki Shatosky, who works in AHC’s Emergency Management Division, it’s about more than just planning – it’s about understanding how to respond to an emergency. This understanding should begin long before an emergency occurs.

“You have to plan thoroughly; it’s not only about your well-being but also the well-being of your workers, family and all those involved in the response,” said Shatosky. “It could potentially affect your neighbors, first responders and your entire community. Have first responders ever dealt with an emergency on a pig farm? What specific information could be provided in advance to assist them?”

Building strong relationships within your community and with partners, including your provincial pork producer organization, ensures everyone is aligned in their understanding of what could happen in case of an emergency.

“In the event of a disease outbreak, there will be a lot to manage. You’ll need to have an inventory of your animals, equipment and a site map, among other crucial information,” said Shatosky. “The more you can do in advance, the better prepared you will be. When you’re actively facing the emergency, it’s too late. Having the necessary tools ready can be a significant help.”

Emergency preparedness goes beyond the logistical considerations related to your farm. Confronting a crisis often carries heavy mental, emotional and psychological baggage.

“When you add animals to the equation, it heightens the stress level,” said Shatosky. “As a farmer, you raise animals that you sincerely care for. When something goes wrong, you feel personally responsible, but it’s important to realize you’re not alone, and you must take care of yourself. Knowing where to find assistance is vital.”

Shatosky also emphasized the merit of international cooperation for mutual learning.

“Collaboration across borders and international knowledge-sharing are important components of our work,” said Shatosky. “We bring together private practitioners, government officials and industry representatives from around the world to exchange ideas through our programs.”

Whether you are in Canada, Ukraine or anywhere else, no-one is immune to unforeseen circumstances. For hog farmers, effective planning, preparedness and response are your best forms of self-protection.

Pray for peace but prepare for war

Resiliency is essential to emergency response. Planning and preparedness are its precursors. Image © Maksym Kozlenko

There is understandably a big difference between envisioning an emergency and experiencing one. Whether on-farm or in society, as Ukraine is facing, broken spirits must quickly mend and trudge onward.

“During the first months of the war, you would hear the air raid siren and panic,” said Yurchenko. “It’s quite difficult to imagine, but people living here are making the best of the situation. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows. Why not have a BBQ? Life goes on.”

During this time of war for Ukrainians, the fight is actively on. And while violent conflict may not be on the horizon for Canada, peace time in the pork industry should mean taking all measures in advance of a crisis, especially one that interrupts foreign trade. That includes evaluating and upholding the highest standards of biosecurity and animal health, in anticipation of the recovery process. Business resumption will depend on it.