One year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, dairy cows are critical to keeping Kees Huizenga’s crop and livestock operation running as the war continues to bring hardship and suffering to the country and its agriculture.
When the war began, “I went to the people, to the old employees to talk to them and tell them not to panic and that we will all stay, and that we have to keep on running the farm and keep on feeding and milking the cows because they don't care if it's rockets or not. They have to be milked three times a day. And that's what we did. And everybody stayed,” said Huizenga, who is now living in his home country of the Netherlands while managing the 2,000-cow dairy and crop farm he began more than 20 years ago near Cherkasy, Ukraine, about 120 miles southeast of its capital city of Kiev.
“The creamery, the processing factory, they never skipped one day in picking up the milk. They never skipped a day in paying. We gave them some milk for free and they processed it for free and they gave these products to refugees and to the army. And a lot of people, a lot of farmers did similar things.”
Looking at the next year, the biggest challenge for Ukrainian farmers is “the uncertainty,” he said. “You never know what's going to happen tomorrow, if that rocket might hit your farm. We are still far away from the front line, but I know farmers who've been hit and who've been tortured and killed as well. So, I don't know what the biggest uncertainties are. If there will be enough fertilizer available to grow a good crop. Seeds, are they more or less available. Prices because of these export complexities.”
Alan Bjerga: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a war that's costing hundreds of thousands of lives and unfathomable damage to one of the world's leading agricultural producers. Kees Huizinga has seen it firsthand with more than 2000 cows on a modern dairy near Cherkasy, Ukraine, about 120 miles south of the capital city of Kyiv. Huizinga has continued farming in wartime, facing challenges few of us have had to think about and none of us would want to. In part because of his efforts to help fellow farmers in conflict, last year he received the Global Farmer Network's Kleckner Award for his contributions. And along with his experiences in Ukraine, Huizinga, who is originally from the Netherlands, is also a leader in agricultural innovation in Europe. Thank you for joining us.
Kees Huizinga: Thank you for having me.
Alan Bjerga: This has been a year that no Ukrainian farmer asked for. Take us back to one year ago. What was your experience as the invasion began and how as a farmer did you respond?
Kees Huizinga: The first reaction was panic, of course. What's going to happen? How fast are they going to go? What are they going to shoot? You're thinking that the rockets might drop everywhere. Yeah. So panic and anxiety, that were the first reactions. I mean, we maybe subconsciously thought that might happen, but you don't want to think about it. You don't want to imagine that things like that are going to happen. And then on the 24th of February in the morning, we had to tell our kids that the war began, there was war in their country, in our country. And that's a hard thing to do.
Alan Bjerga: How many children do you have and how old are they?
Kees Huizinga: Two daughters, 11 and 13 years old. My wife and the kids, they left. During the day we were thinking what to do, leave or stay. And as I said, you don't know where the bombs fall. You don't know how fast they're going to move. And so in the end of the day, we decided to leave. On a navigation app for airplanes, the ammunition depots of the army are marked. You're not allowed to fly over it. So on this map we planned the route to stay as far away from those depots as possible because that's the things the Russians were shooting at. And so they took all kinds of little roads, dirt roads, and cobblestone roads to the Romanian border. And a drive which normally takes you five, six hours took them like 14 hours. And of course very afraid. And they were already driving in the dark because we decided towards the end of the day that they should leave. And then finally they crossed the border into Romania and that was a huge relief.
Kees Huizinga: But then later on as the Ukrainian army was stopping the invaders and you get some more statistical knowledge about rockets and about war. So later we found out statistically that the chances are not so high that you're being hit. But I mean, still the chances are higher than in Northern America or in the rest of Europe. But now we drive in and out, visit the kids and visit the family. So we're kind of used to it already.
Alan Bjerga: So are they in Ukraine now?
Kees Huizinga: No, in the Netherlands. They go to school in the Netherlands now because the schools in Ukraine, a lot of them are still closed because they don't have a bomb shelter. And still, again, statistically chances are very small, but most of the school directors, they don't want to carry the responsibility that even if one chance in 1,000,000 that their school is hit, that there's hundreds of kids in that school. Lot of schools do online lessons, but that's not really working.
Alan Bjerga: How have you adjusted as a farmer?
Kees Huizinga: Yeah, mainly the crop. The crop, the [inaudible] farming, we adjusted. We grew less corn for grain because it's such a bulky crop to export. And we planted more spring wheat, spring barley because it's less volume, easier to export and it spreads the workload a bit more. We planted some additional soybeans because they're more expensive, so therefore easier to export by truck and by railroad because from the first day the ports through the Black Sea were closed so we couldn't export. Like 80% of what Ukraine produces is being exported and 90% of this go through the Black Sea. So the railroad and truck routes, they're really not... You can't replace that export with it. So that's why we went to crops which are a little bit more expensive and lower in volume.
Kees Huizinga: But the dairy, we didn't do a lot of changes. We bought a lot of protein up upfront. We fear the shortage. Some medicines we bought upfront and some other inputs which we feared the shortage of. I went to the people, to the old employees to talk to them and tell them not to panic and that we will all stay and that we have to keep on running the farm and keep on feeding and milking the cows because they don't care if it's rockets or not. They have to be milked three times a day. And that's what we did. And everybody stayed. Some guys went to the army, of course, but we were able to replace them with others. The creamery, the processing factory, they never skipped one day in picking up the milk. They never skipped a day in paying. We gave them some milk for free and they processed it for free and they gave these products to refugees and to the army. And a lot of people, a lot of farmers did similar things. So yeah, that's the first days of the first weeks and months of the war.
Alan Bjerga: And I understand your herd side is actually growing.
Kees Huizinga: At the moment of when the war started, we were constructing a barn. We were busy working on the foundations and we already bought a lot of metal for the steel frame. But we stopped all this, as I said, because we didn't know what was going to happen. But then when the Ukrainian army pushed back the Russians, now we got a little bit more confidence. And the herd is growing. I mean, it's a natural process. Every dairy farmer knows how it works and you can't stop that. But we couldn't sell the heifers. Slaughter cows are very low in price, so try to keep them as long as possible. So out of need, we had to continue construction. And a lot of construction material we already had paid. So now we had only to weld it together and build it. Now that barn, that's actually our third barn, is nearly finished and we can put heifers and cows in there from the overcrowded other pens.
Alan Bjerga: Going into year two, what are some of your ongoing challenges and what challenges could you see emerging ahead?
Kees Huizinga: I mean, it's the uncertainty. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow, if that rocket might hit your farm. We are still far away from the front line, but I know farmers who've been hit and who've been tortured and killed as well. So I don't know what the biggest uncertainties are. If there will be enough fertilizer available to grow a good crop. Seeds, are they more or less available. Prices because of these export complexities. The Black Sea is not in full capacity of exporting because Russians are slowing down the inspections in Istanbul. [inaudible] they just don't send people there so the inspection capacity is very low. So export doesn't go that fast so prices for grain are really low in Ukraine. I mean, they used to be half of what they were in Europe, for example. Now Europe has come down a bit, but it's still like $100 difference, which is way too much.
Kees Huizinga: And that's still the biggest part of our operation. So if those prices are not going to go up and fertilizer prices are not going to go down... But that's not a lot we can influence. But therefore it's good to have the dairy. As I said, they paid every day. They pick up the milk every day. And their dairy plant has 30% of their turnover from export. So that's an exchange rate stability for us as well and for them, of course. So probably more cows, more feed for cows, actually adding value to the crops we grow and make milk and butter out of them.
Alan Bjerga: I would be interested in knowing how you got into Ukraine in the first place. Netherlands is a major agricultural exporter. Why would you choose to build an operation in Ukraine?
Kees Huizinga: We've been there now for more than 20 years and it still is a great country. And back then they were just 10 years out of communism. They didn't know the market. They didn't have modern agriculture. They didn't have money to invest into modern agriculture. So I think half of the country, of the fields were not tilled. They were overgrown with weeds. And the land belongs to the people from the villages and they hadn't received lease payments for the land for years. And then you have this huge field of a few hundred acres each and more or less level and for low lease prices. So potential was... And with the best soil of the world and good climate. So that was not so difficult.
Kees Huizinga: And Ukraine was rising slowly. God, it was kind of a no-brainer. Of course the culture is different and you have to get used to it and not all the services are available, especially in the beginning, so you have to improvise a bit. But yeah, it's a lot more fun than farming in the Netherlands where land is expensive and they have so many people so you have to have a lot of rules because everybody's fighting for space. It was nice opportunity. And within 20 years we grew to 15,000 hectares. That's... What is it? Like 40,000 acres and 2000 cows and 300 hectares of vegetables with drip irrigation. We could have never achieved that in the Netherlands.
Alan Bjerga: And how many people do you have working on the farm?
Kees Huizinga: A little bit over 300.
Alan Bjerga: And you mentioned some of your workforce went and joined the army and they have families and they have children who are going to the Ukrainian schools. How does the community hold together in a circumstance like this?
Kees Huizinga: Well, it's very difficult. I mean, they hold together because they're very angry. They all know that they don't want to live under Russian occupation. And I think everybody know... I mean, the Russians are very good at propaganda, but living in Russia is just like living in a police state. We had refugees on the farm. We had many refugees on the farm, especially in the beginning of the war. And one of them, they originally were from Kazakhstan and they came to Ukraine 10 years ago. And they said me that Ukrainians are a free people. They said, "Here I can swear and shout at the president and call him any name I want. In Kazakhstan, I would've ended up in jail for three years." And he said, "So Ukraine..." And he felt free. He could do what he wants. And he said, "Russia is a police state. Kazakhstan is a police state. Belarus is a police state." And everybody in Ukraine feels this. Everybody in Ukraine knows this. They all have family there to whom they can't talk anymore because they're so influenced by the propaganda.
Kees Huizinga: I mean, when Crimea was taken, a lot of Ukrainians fled Crimea and every now and then they went back before the second war started. And they noticed the difference in their former neighbors. The neighbors didn't talk to each other anymore because they were afraid they would be spied upon or the KGB or... What is it? FSB now was listening in on them and the neighbors might blame the neighbors or something and then they might get caught, the usual normal Soviet Union way of living where everybody was afraid of everybody in that way. Your neighbors could give you in or your family members or whatever. And that was promoted in the Soviet Union as well. And that's what the Russians continue doing. And Ukrainians have never really accepted this.
Alan Bjerga: I would think from 20 years of living, working, and investing, you would gain an appreciation for that history and that culture.
Kees Huizinga: Absolutely. And I know the history because of course we live there and that's why we are above average interested in it. But we read a lot about it. They deserve to be free and live in liberty and they deserve the support from the whole world to win this war. And we should give it.
Alan Bjerga: Is support from free countries... How do you see it affecting the situation from your vantage point?
Kees Huizinga: Yeah, we have a foundation with a group of Dutch entrepreneurs from Ukraine. All of them have been there for more than 20 years. And the name is De Leeuw Kyiv. The Lion Kyiv in Dutch, it is. And we collected already close to $2 million in money and close to $8 million on humanitarian aid, all kinds of sorts, food, cars, bikes, warm clothes, a lot of generators lately. And with this we help the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian army. There's a lot of these relatively small scale initiatives which go into every corner of Ukraine. So that support is from all over Europe.
Alan Bjerga: If someone was interested in knowing more about the foundation of which you're a part, how would they get more information?
Kees Huizinga: They could go to the website. It's in Dutch and in English, deleeuwkyiv.nl. So it's D-E-L-E-E-U-W-K-Y-I-V dot N-L.
Alan Bjerga: Okay. Let's move into the future. The war is over. Ukraine's a free country and it's able to build a nation. What potential would you see there?
Kees Huizinga: Huge. I mean, the same potential we saw 20 years ago, it's still there. Of course, competition for the land has increased. Back then 50% wasn't tilled and now farmers are competing for the land, which is good in a way. But there's also huge possibilities for adding value, like a dairy farm. We have a 2,000 head dairy farm at the moment and our plans were to grow to 5,000 or 10,000, whatever works out. We plan to do it gradually, but other farmers could do the same or other investors could do the same and bring the dairy knowledge. I mean, copy paste Canadian and American system. From the climate it fits into Ukraine as well. There's water, there's feed, there's soybeans, there's sunflower cakes, there is corn. I mean, everything's there. And there were a few quite good dairy farms. Vegetables, fruit, that's an option. There's enough workforce and they're relatively cheap. And all kinds of other value added things entrepreneurs can think of with their creativity and there's plenty for all of them in Ukraine.
Alan Bjerga: A lot of rebuilding going on, literally de-mining in some parts of the country.
Kees Huizinga: Yeah, absolutely. And they're already working on it, but it's going to take a long time. But Ukrainians are also smart. They're also thinking of their own ways to de-mine with drones and, I don't know, with different kind of cameras on it to spot the mines, for example. So I think that can go relatively fast, although it's not easy. But I mean, that's not all over the country. That's where the front lines were. And that's not the biggest part of the country. So the other parts are still safe to go.
Alan Bjerga: You talk about the importance of international support for Ukraine. Do you worry and do you hear Ukrainians worry that this support may not be sustained?
Kees Huizinga: No, not really. I think other countries supporting Ukraine, they are now so involved, they can't really afford to let Ukraine alone and they can't really afford to lose. So I think the support will stay. The only thing is it should come faster. And that's what worries me.
Alan Bjerga: That there simply won't be enough in time.
Kees Huizinga: Yeah. I mean, at the end, there will be enough, but it'll still cost a lot of lives before we are there. If they would do it faster, we could handle the Russians faster, chase them out faster, and it will be over sooner, saving a lot of lives and money. As I said, Ukraine is a free people and they deserve the support. They're fighting for their freedom. If we let Putin win this war or get away with it somehow, then I don't know what to expect in the future from dictators in the world. There's quite a few of them and it'll be an example for the others to do similar actions. And especially Russia, especially Putin, they are manipulating the world with violence and with hunger. That's a really important thing. And with energy supplies. So if we give into this, then for the next few decades, I will be really worried what's going to happen.
Alan Bjerga: We've been speaking with Kees Huizinga, a dairy farmer in Ukraine and a supporter of its development. Thank you so much for your time.
Kees Huizinga: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
Alan Bjerga: And for more of the Dairy Defined podcast, you can find and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the name Dairy Defined. Thank you so much for joining us.