Ukraine farming, from revolution to revolution: A personal experience

MSU Extension dairy educator reflects on his time in Ukraine.

MSU Extension dairy educators Phil Durst, author, left, and Stan Moore tour a Ukrainian dairy farm during the 2015 Ukrainian Dairy Congress.

From the demise of the collective farms during the Soviet years, Ukraine emerged after independence in 1991 with largely untapped agricultural potential that was limited only by resources. The central planning of the Soviet times had proven to be inefficient and ineffective. After independence, farmers could make their own decisions and investments, and farms progressed greatly.

Ukraine carried the residual of the Soviet times for decades, whether it was outdated, poor quality facilities or undemocratic business practices and outright corruption. Corruption marred the 2004 election and prompted the Orange Revolution of late 2004. I arrived for my first trip to Ukraine in Kyiv on the last days of 2004 and heard much of the public revolt against a fraudulent election and the demand for true democracy.

Ten years later, in 2014, along with two of my Michigan State University Extension colleagues, I was invited to speak at the Ukrainian Dairy Congress, a national two-day dairy conference. We were excited to learn about the Ukrainian dairy industry and to share some of our knowledge with them. That February, I flew into Kyiv a week earlier than my colleagues planned in order to spend time with friends I had made there in past visits. In that week, the Maidan Revolution occurred.

Kyiv end of Maidan Revolution  Ukraine - Phil durst
Durst, near a barricade in Kyiv at the end of the Maidan Revolution.

The Maidan Revolution was in many ways about whether Ukraine would be subservient to Russia or would become more European. President Yanukovych chose Russia in betrayal over the desire of the parliament and the people. In that week, massive protests caused Yanukovych to flee the country and the parliament voted to remove him from office.

Once gone, his estate was opened to the public for the first time. I was one of hundreds of thousands that walked around it, amazed at the waste of public dollars that fed his whims while many of his people went without. As I stood outside of his residence and looked around, the only Ukrainian flag I saw was one that was raised by the protesters and the realization came to me that the President had not displayed the Ukrainian flag. His heart was not for this country.

Despite the country-shattering events of that week in February, and despite the invasion of Crimea by Russia that occurred after the Maidan Revolution, the leadership of the Ukrainian Dairy Producers Association held the Dairy Congress in March, delayed only by several weeks. I returned for that Congress and was amazed by the resilience of this people and their hunger to learn and grow their dairy industry.

While in Kyiv in February 2014, the Dairy Association made plans for me to visit a farm in Zaporizhia (a region currently under occupation in 2022 by the Russian army). What I found there was a modern farm with its own milk processing plant run by a forward-thinking owner. Surrounded by dairy advisors with the association we talked dairy practices and they were knowledgeable and eager to both share and learn.

A year later, my colleagues and I returned to Ukraine for the next Dairy Congress and farm visits with the dairy advisors. While there is a wide range of farming operations, there were farms with modern dairy practices and facilities, including efficient milking parlors and robotic milking machines. There were also very small farms in villages. The grocery stores in Kyiv carried a full display of dairy products produced in the country and yet outside, in the street markets, you could buy milk in plastic bottles from old women from the nearby villages.

Dairy Products Ukraine - Phil Durst
Grocery stores in Kyiv carrying a full display of dairy products produced in the country.

One evening, Natasha, my Ukrainian friend, asked me how long milk keeps in the US. We said about three weeks, maybe longer. She replied: “That can’t be real milk! Real milk spoils in three days!” Milk shelf life is greatly based on quality, so there were still quality issues with Ukrainian milk. Natasha would learn in time that real milk of high-quality lasts longer.

The 2015 Dairy Congress was conducted in the Ukrainian language. Russian was the common language because during the Soviet Union years, Russia, in order “Russify” peoples, made Russian the only accepted language. Yet, at this point, Ukrainians began to stand together as Ukrainians, and not as a branch of Russia as many had thought of themselves. The Ukrainian identity, in a country only 24 years old, began to gain prominence. That identity is now forged in steel by the Russian invasion.

The transformation of Pasha may be emblematic of the transformation of Ukraine. During my first visit to Ukraine, I was placed by the church we were visiting in the home of Natasha, at the time 17. She lived with her parents and brother in Kyiv, in a high-rise apartment building, as did a high percentage of the population. Natasha was the only person in the family who spoke some English. Pasha, Natasha’s brother, did not, and he didn’t like Americans. We shared a small apartment for a week.

In that week, Pasha and I shared meals, and without being able to share a language, began to share a friendship. At the end, as I was preparing to leave, Pasha hugged me and thanked me for coming. The relationship of friendship with the west was growing, slowly at first, but now increased by the war that currently rages.

Phil Durst is a Michigan State University Extension dairy educator. He can be reached at To learn more about farming in Ukraine and how you can help, please visit the World to Rebuild Rural Ukraine website.

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