That shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone: the country has been referred to as the European Breadbasket for decades, if not centuries, after all. But the question is, having just come out of a massive global financial crisis, is it still?
Twenty years ago, while the land and its potential to produce were as favourable as they are today, the landscape looked much different. “In the early 2000s, there were two or three fairly big holdings of over 200,000 hectares”, says Peter Thomson, Deputy CEO of Ukrainian Agrarian Investments LLC. “Today, there are 20 or so major holding companies operating 15% of arable land. There is a consolidation process going on very actively, which took a step back at the time of the crisis, but has started again.”
Thomson first came to Ukraine from Scotland in 1993 with a UK government technology transfer project. Himself a man of the land, he has since been part of the agricultural process almost as long as the country has been independent, and involved in various agricultural projects and businesses throughout the years, he seems to have a pretty good grasp on the situation here in the country. As a significant part of Ukrainian Agrarian Investments, a privately owned enterprise in operation since late 2005, the 260,000 hectares of rented land, including plots all over the country, are his major concern at the moment.
While Ukrainian Agrarian Investments may not be the largest agribusiness there is in the country, Ukraine is a country still very traditional in many senses, and land acquisition is heavily debated. This whole process of agricultural reforms in Ukraine, or any of the other countries of the former USSR, affects everyone who derives a living from the land. Thomson, however, says, “The process of improving labour efficiency has been going on in farming since time began, the world over. Post-war agricultural policies, such as those in Western Europe, might have distorted the natural consolidation that may have taken place, but it is an inevitable process. As populations move away from the village and into the cities, there are fewer and fewer people left to operate the land. It makes sense that those few people that are left, operate more land. The agri-holding model is all about bringing more efficiency to the industry through centralised purchasing of inputs, reducing the cost of marketing, selling and distributing farm produce, and reducing the cost of finance, while at the same time preserving and enabling the abilities of the farmers who grow the produce.”
Judging by what is going on in the industry, the big agri-holding model is scalable and this consolidation could carry on. Such a system also brings doubtless efficiencies with it, and as Thomson acknowledges, “The industry is about feeding people. We have to do that better by reducing the costs and improving the quality of what’s produced. I believe the holdings are well-positioned to do that.”
A Good Year
With that in mind, 2011 is looking good. Listening to people who sell seed, fertiliser and equipment, Thomson says, “There’s an awful lot of investment going on right now. And given favourable weather conditions, this year could see quite a good harvest.” Nigel Thwaites, Ukrainian head of one of one of the world’s leading agribusinesses, Syngenta, agrees: “2011 is looking to be a very very good year. Demand for agricultural inputs, high quality seeds and high quality crop protection chemicals is very high. And we’re looking at returning back to the point 2008 left off, which was the world’s record agricultural year.”
Thwaites has been in Ukraine for not quite a year and a half, but has worked in emerging markets for over 15 years. He says, “Business-wise, it’s nice to be in a growing market where you can see growth, rather than in a flat market where you’re always looking at cost management and market defense. There is the positive challenge here as well to help people become more independent in their business thinking and development.”
As an inputs supplier, he acknowledges that there are four key global agricultural markets that can grow sufficiently to help balance the food/population balance over the next 30 years. Ukraine is definitely one of those: “Agriculture here is massively underinvested. We have beautiful soil, we sit on deep water access, we can produce very heavy crops if we farm in a sustainably intensive way. And it has a real opportunity to grow and become a primary driver in the economy.”
One of the biggest challenges he sees, however, is investment and the amount required to turn this into a stable economic area. Agricultural quotas are also a problem. And while Ukraine had a very good export reputation at one time, and was building on that reputation, government quotas have limited the opportunity for farmers wanting to extract value from their crops. But the country itself also recognises that there is room to grow: “We produce on average just under three tonnes/hectare of wheat. In Europe that’s at least six or seven tonnes/hectare. But because we can produce a tonne of wheat here at a considerably lower cost than you could in Western Europe, they look at Ukraine and their knees are knocking!”
Influences from all Corners
Syngenta on the whole is a global company that consists of a number of elements; many of which the consumer may or may not know about. Crop protection/chemicals is perhaps what they are best known for, but they also work in seeds, home and garden and genetics. The latter, especially when we talk of genetically modified foodstuffs, is something Ukraine hasn’t been too exposed to as of yet. “When a country moves into a GM environment, you need to be able to separate GM from conventionally grown seed. This country would very much benefit from growing GM crops and could increase profitability and yield for the farmer. But it also requires legal infrastructure; something we are nowhere near at the moment.” Thwaites says there is still much in the way of testing that needs to be done, so it would probably be another five years or so before seeds of any sort appear on the market.
The Western world often has quite a negative view when it comes to these types of products, and Thwaites himself doesn’t think that GM is necessarily the answer: “Because Europe is Ukraine’s neighbour, and is very much a channel for its commodities, Ukraine is taking a reasonably cautious approach to GM. That said, it is also an opportunity to increase productivity and is definitely an element of the technical solution we need to feed a growing population.”
While GM is a topic that may be more of an issue in coming years, it is still in its infancy here in Ukraine, and plays, as yet, a minor role on the national agricultural agenda. Legislation, on the other hand, is very much a significant part of the process, and with a new draft law to support the commercial interest of grain producers on the table (draft law #8163), Peter Thomson has reason to feel cautiously optimistic: “This sector is obviously very important to the country and I think we’re starting to see some real positive policy steps being taken by the government.”
With the weather playing a big part as well, Nigel Thwaites conveys that parts of the global harvest, such as in Australia and Brazil, will not be as strong as in previous years. “The stocks of commodities at the end of this harvest season won’t have increased, which means that the global commodity prices will remain strong. That’s very good for Ukrainian farmers, and offers the opportunity for us to get Ukrainian crops into the world market.”
While neither Thomson nor Thwaites have the option to do for the country what the state did for farming villages during the Soviet UNI0N, their presence here in Ukraine is certainly felt. The biggest challenge the country has overcome since independence has to be the change from a market that relies on supply and demand into one that is solely market driven. But as the Deputy CEO of Ukrainian Agrarian Investments relates, “Yes we’re in business, but it’s about more than that. Our own business last year produced about 300,000 tonnes of grain to feed people. We make a positive contribution to the economy as a whole.”