Small farmers: The unsung heroes of the Ukraine war

The war in Ukraine has thrown up concerns over food security, both in the war-torn country and elsewhere in the world. But the key to ensuring Ukraine’s food supply may come from an unlikely place: small and medium-scale farmers.

Until now, small farmers have been largely overlooked by the Ukrainian government in favour of large agribusinesses, Mykola Pugachov, deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute of Agrarian Economics, explained during an event on Wednesday (13 April).

However, this is rapidly changing in light of the war.

“In a peaceful time, that was a good solution maybe – however, during a crisis, it is specifically important to ensure food security and efficiency of the private farmers, those individuals, small farmers,” he said, adding that their role is “now increasing”.

And this contribution is considerable, according to Attila Szocs from the Romanian small farmers’ association Ecoruralis, which represents 17,000 small-scale farmers.

While rural households use only 12% of Ukrainian farmland on farms ranging in size anywhere from less than one hectare to over 100, the association estimates they contribute as much as 52.7% of the gross domestic agricultural output.

According to the association, Ukrainian small farmers now make up as much as 98% of the country’s total harvest of potatoes, 86% of vegetables, 85% of fruits, and 81% of milk.

“When you look at the typology of farmers in Ukraine, there are really huge farmers. But there are also 4 million other people engaged in agriculture, many of them small farmers,” Szocs told EURACTIV.

And, after a mass exodus of largely oligarch-controlled agribusinesses after the outbreak of war, it is these small farmers that have been left to pick up the pieces, he explained.

“Nobody really discusses who stayed to farm. But who are the ones who are farming right now in Ukraine, and what are they farming, who is managing the food security of the country? It’s the small farmers producing a lot of these foodstuffs that stay in the country and actually nourish the country,” he said.

Meanwhile, the influx of millions of refugees from the city to the safer surrounding countryside has added an extra strain on local food systems.

While aid and food programmes may have their place, these are “not always sufficient and poorly distributed because of the war,” he explained, meaning it is local farmers who are left to fill the gaps.

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Extra stress, no extra support

However, despite their central role in feeding Ukraine’s population, farms under 100 hectares in size are not recognised by the Ukrainian government.

This means that historically they have not qualified for any state aid, as Victor Yarovyi, a scientist at the Institute of Economics on forecasting of the Ukrainian National Academy of Science, explained to EURACTIV.

“Support is oriented on corporate farms and real farming households and small farms get nothing. It is the main problem,” he said.

This has not changed in light of the war, according to Ecoruralis’ Szocs.

“So this is extra stress on small farmers, who are without any kind of public aid in a chronic situation, with a limited means of production and very limited land,” he concluded, warning that Ukraine’s rural population is on the brink of poverty, with 44% on incomes below the subsistence minimum and 7% experiencing malnutrition.

Meanwhile, Ecoruralis estimates that large agribusinesses, who control just over two-thirds of Ukrainian farmland, were afforded 60% of all agricultural state subsidies in 2012.

This is a pattern that risks repeating itself with international aid, Yarovyi said, explaining that many programmes, such as that from the World Bank, define small farmers by the same criteria as the Ukrainian government.

“It may seem that support is oriented for average and small enterprises and farms, but in practice, it goes not for rural development, but to support some producers of export crops,” he explained, pointing out that while it is not necessarily bad to support some agricultural products for export, “it does not help in rural employment, it doesn’t help in many other things”.

Meanwhile, Pugachov also stressed that ensuring support for these small farmers is of tantamount importance, both for food security and revitalising the rural areas.

“We have to encourage more agri and agri-food programmes. For that, we need to also engage small and even micro farmers,” he said, adding this will “create employment opportunities for the rural population while also contributing to better access physically and financially to agricultural goods and agricultural technologies.”

“Those programmes had been developed during peaceful times, but unfortunately, they were never completed. And now their relevance is very difficult to overestimate,” he emphasised.

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Small and secure 

Meanwhile, smaller farming set-ups also carry other practical benefits.

For example, Pavlo Koval from the Ukrainian Agrarian Confederation pointed out during the event on Wednesday that while it is “absolutely impossible” to move some of the larger processing units due to their size, small or medium-scale processing companies and facilities, on the other hand, can often be displaced “quite effectively and quickly”.

Already, nearly 60 companies have already restored their processing operation in this way, he said.

Szocs also added that the vulnerability of big farmers is that they become “logistical targets” of Russia’s aggression, pointing out that one of its first moves was to target Ukraine’s food supplies and that, by comparison, it is “much harder” to target several dispersed smaller farms than one large one.

This was recently corroborated by EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who added that this is not only a concern in terms of food security but also in terms of environmental pollution in the surrounding areas.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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