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Olena Tovsta, Ukrainian farmer: “The Slow Food network saved my farm”

When her husband is conscripted into the army at the start of the war, Olena Tovsta finds herself managing the entire family farm, called Dobro Craft, in the countryside of Gadiach, in the Poltava region.

Thanks to the Together for Slow Food Communities in Ukraine campaign, she received resources that kept the farm going, and now she tells us her story:

Since the beginning of what Moscow calls a “special operation”the military administration reports that it was only during the month of April that five missiles hit infrastructure in the area and more were fired into the area.

The situation on the ground has not improved, even in the absence of military action: the entire population of Ukraine lives under the constant threat of missile attacks. We are tired and scared, but we try to resist.

Resilience on a farm where the work continues

“Our farm has always been family-run, with the help of a few seasonal workers. Before the war we had 84 goats, but then we had to sell a few to earn money to support ourselves. Today, in our Dobro Craft live 79 goats, 55 kids, 40 old goats, three ponies and a dairy cow. We grow grass for haymaking on rented land, and we are actually in the hot season, which means a lot of work.”

Our animals live in freedom almost all year round, during the winter they take refuge in the stables, from which they still come out at least once a day. We feed the goats a protein grain mix. There is always hay and dry fodder in the feeders, and we add whey, which we give to all our animals. We always try to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet for them.

How life goes on for small farmers during a war

Besides finding food for our animals, one of the main problems is buying gasoline: either it’s too expensive or there isn’t any. With all the oil refineries blown up and many gas stations bombed, there is little fuel in the country, and what is available is given to the front lines, critical infrastructure and big farmers. Therefore, farmers like us receive small quantities at a very high price. This greatly complicates all processes and increases production costs. Of course, we didn’t give up, and going to town or bringing our products to customers

We rented bikes. As you can imagine, this is no walk in the park.

As if that were not enough, those who bought our products – for example, mothers with children – had to flee, and now farmers are forced to sell their products at a loss to have enough to survive.

In the territories liberated by the occupiers, the situation is worse, the Russians took away everything they did not destroy: tractors, seed drills, all the equipment.

My husband continues to serve and whenever possible resolves our family and domestic issues over the phone. My children – 18, 14 and 7 – help me manage the work, but it’s not easy. They are at home, studying online although the internet connection is unstable, and we are more present on the farm because there is a lot of work. I have a few assistants, but we have had to cut staff because we cannot maintain salaries.

As she struggled, Olena tried to remember that she is part of a community, and in this particular time, those who need it most are those who receive her products.

“We try to meet the needs of the community, so there are not many products that we sell between milk and cheese. Slow Food’s help was therefore crucial. The movement responded quickly to our agricultural problems during the war and provided us with financial support, and we bought goat feed. Without this help, there would probably be no farm, or I would reduce it to 10 goats, and I don’t even know if the cow and the pony would be given away or slaughtered. I would not have overcome all the work. We are very grateful and proud to be part of this international network. We believe that his philosophy can be a seed of peace for the reconstruction of the country”.

Slow Food supports the network in Ukraine through two projects.

1. Saving Ukrainian biodiversity – aims to support those who, even in times of war, did not leave their farms and in the most difficult conditions, at the risk of their lives, to preserve animal breeds, plant varieties and the most precious techniques, those which nourish the local community, which nourish the future.

2. Keeping knowledge alive – aims to create a twinning between Ukrainian Slow Food communities and their counterparts across Europe: women cheesemakers ask their colleagues

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