It is a hot summer’s day near Kharkiv in South East Ukraine. The air smells of warm soil, hay, and dung. Olexander Vorobey is a tanned, strongly built man in his mid-thirties.
He has just finished fertilizing the apple orchard. Fertilization, as common among all the farms working in the production of cider in this region, are strictly organic.
While non-organic farming methods are not a big deal for the soil short-term, long-term, organic farming methods could be a way to remediate the soil structures destroyed by extensive farming and war.
In 2014, returning from deployment in the war, Vorobey had a bad leg injury and a strong will to continue the agro-enterprise started in 2010 by his father. By doing so, he became one of 210 officially registered organic farmers.
“Two years of organic farming has allowed me to study the legal twists and turns of land ownership”, Vorobey explains. On his return in 2014, he re-domesticated the shepherd dogs that had turned feral, cured the rat-injured cats, and developed accessories for better land-processing. “Every step was both interesting and unbearable at once. Many times I wanted to give up but did not. I carried on”, he says.
The five top strains of apple from his father’s apple orchard – Champion, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, and Sweet – were sweet as honey, but looked unattractive. Then someone suggested that Vorobey produce cider. Although he had only ever tasted cider a couple of times in the pub and had not especially liked it, nevertheless Vorobey decided to give it a try. He researched the market and asked around until finally he was put in touch with a Swedish microbiologist studying the biochemistry of apple cider.
The implied technology of turning apples to cider dates back to the Middle Ages. It involves fermentation of the right juice consistency at a specific temperature without adding supplementary sugar, months of maturation in a cold, dark environment, and natural carbonization. The goal is neither speed nor volume, but a small quantity of high quality, top-tasting cider.
Could organic farming help remediation of soil structures destroyed by extensive farming and war? Olexander Vorobey thinks so, adding: “There are moral factors that do not allow me to exploit the soil”. He knows that there are farmers who seed the sunflower for ten or more years on the same fields. Of course he also knows that the sunflower is a highly profitable crop, but that it exhausts the soil and provokes diseases. Vorobey is fearful: “Our soil is very rich, which means it will sustain extensive practices, but personally, I think it is unacceptable”, he says.
The ecological purity of apples is largely prompted by the location of the orchard. Chernozem is the fertile, rich-in-humus black soil that fosters big apples. The hot Ukrainian summer makes the fruit sweet and naturally protects it against crop diseases. The prevalence of anti-pest soil treatment in Ukraine is much lower than in Poland, where the wet climate presupposes constant vigilance against plant diseases. In Vorobey’s farm the harvest is not stored in the conventional CO2 environment where it is choked, where the apples, as with any organic fruit, would lose their moisture and naturally shrink. According to the findings of a study conducted by Catrin Heikefelt, Biotechnologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, storage procedures used by Vorobey boost the percentage of fructose and, accordingly, the strength of the cider. (See Catrin Heikefelt, Chemical and sensory analyses of juice, cider and vinegar produced from different apple cultivars. Alnarp: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2011
Comparing himself, an organic farmer, with industrial agricultural producers, Vorobey sees a distinct difference. Industrial enterprises have more administrative workers and less manpower per hectare of land. This may be better in terms of economic efficiency, but not in terms of profit redistribution, as, apart from paying taxes to the village council, Vorobey also employs local people. Working on the land, the farmer must take care of the surroundings – clearing the side roads, and mowing and trimming the thickets along the roadside to prevent the spread of vermin and quarantine weeds. In doing so, Vorobey improves the environment. And the environment, in its turn improves him, one could say.
It took three weeks of consultation, six months of experiments, and 400 kilograms of apples to get the right juice consistency, proper type of yeast, and correct passing temperatures for each stage of fermentation. The results of these biochemical efforts were around a hundred bottles of dry and semi-sweet cider.
According to Olga Yurachkivska, marketing and branding specialist for one of Ukraine’s major beverage companies, Obolon, cider is by far and wide the only soft-alcoholic beverage that is dynamically developing, which means that demand for it is rising. And furthermore, like the beer market, the market for soft alcoholic beverages is bigger than for any other category of food. The same is true for handmade and craft foods: “It would be important for him to target the proper market niche – through gourmet online retailers and food festivals”, Yurachkivska recommends.
Olexander Vorobey’s first-year promotion strategy was to contact several wholesale commissions and post an advertisement for his drink online at Facebook. The comments were positive, until, eventually, domestic demand for Capitan Horobets – the brand name of Vorobeys organic cider – became higher than his capacity to supply.
As it is only Vorobey’s second year in the cider business he does not have eco-certificates or experience of co-operation with domestic and foreign unions of eco-products. Dr. Zinoviy Svereda is a specialist in social economics and President of the Ukrainian Co-operative Alliance. She considers Vorobey’s situation as one with good prospects: “Ukrainians are increasingly worried about their health and the environment and want to consume quality products”, he says. In 2016, the Ukrainian organic market comprised 20 million euros compared to 8 billion euros in Germany: “Therefore, consumption of organic products in the domestic market [in Ukraine] is only just developing, and most of the certified production is exported”, Dr. Svereda estimates. Most organic apples are exported to Germany. Therefore, it is important to produce apple cider certified according to European norms. Thus he believes, in fact, that in Ukraine there is a need to certify the land for agricultural purposes, the seedlings, and the orchards themselves. “It would be good to establish joint Ukrainian–German enterprises in order to process raw materials in accordance with European norms”, Dr. Svereda suggests.
This article was created and published as a result of the Blue Link workshop held in Hamburg/ Potsdam in 2017. More information about the workshop and the project is available here.