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Household agriculture helps keep Ukraine fed

Growing a garden is more a labour of love than of economy, right?

Gardeners are proud of their efforts, from earth to table. If they save some money raising their own fruit and vegetables, great. But many are more driven by pride than money, and certainly more by satisfaction than subsistence.

It’s different in Ukraine. And it’s helping Ukrainians’ stay fed during the Russian onslaught.

A new report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that “household agriculture” – small-scale agricultural production that’s a significant step up from gardening – is on the upswing in Ukraine.

Over half of the country’s 14.7 million households are involved in this kind of production, providing food for their families and to some extent to communities, through on-farm sales or open-air markets.

Their agricultural plots are more like fields to us. Although one third of them are under a hectare, that’s still about two-and-a-half football fields in size, bigger than most community gardens we’re accustomed to. Some are up to 10 hectares, and many involve livestock, such as dairy cows and poultry.

Household agriculture is a matter of survival for Ukrainians, and it’s not something new (like it is for Canadians, who took up gardening in droves when the pandemic struck).

In Ukraine, according to the USDA, rural families have long viewed their vegetable gardens and farm animals as a safety net. Household agriculture provides Ukrainian families with stable food and a bit of money when extraordinary events occur, such as major economic crises, temporary unemployment, epidemics or wars.

Household agricultural operations appear to be immune to what the USDA calls “external shocks.”Their practices are not modern by most North American agricultural standards – for example, hand labour is common and veterinary support is lacking – but the department describes their performance as “sturdy,” a word that only starts to characterize Ukrainian resilience.

Ukrainians don’t really care if their household agriculture operations measure up to others’ standards. As the USDA notes, in private conversations, Ukrainian rural residents often reject economic arguments about the lack of efficiency and profitability of household activities.

The department says the Russian invasion is expected to fortify Ukrainian households and increase the perception of them as the only risk management tool available to many Ukrainians.

It’s suspected that’s already the case. The USDA says some households responded to the invasion by increasing production in response to the start of the war. In fact, they’d already started boosting household agriculture efforts when the pandemic took hold.

Officially, household agriculture comprises just 11 per cent of income for rural Ukraine families.

But it’s not about the money – it’s about food security. Every culture has its own way of approaching it. In peace time, food security is aided greatly by trade. In times of uncertainty, it’s a different story.

Here, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has introduced measures to provide manufacturers with compliance flexibility in managing supply challenges. With some exceptions – local ones, in fact – in our culture, food from family farmers often goes to processors and manufacturers then to consumers, rather than in a more direct line like it does with Ukrainian household agriculture.

But as we try to learn as much as we can about modern survival and resiliency, the household agriculture model may be worth a deeper look. At least the USDA thinks so, even though America is one of the most productive countries in the world. 

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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