Vladimir Zinchenko never thought he’d go from selling seed to defending the Vyshhorod region of Ukraine (near Kyiv) with an automatic weapon.
But that’s just what he’s had to do since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began six weeks ago.
“Today the situation is calm in the region, but in general the situation in the country is very tense,” he says via email.
Zinchenko is director of seed sales for CanGro Genetics in Ukraine. The Ontario-based CanGro Genetics sells non-GM soybean seed around the globe, including in Ukraine. CanGro’s general manager Martin Harry says while he hasn’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Zinchenko in person, the two have spoken a lot over Zoom meetings during the past several months and continue to work to ensure Ukrainian growers get the seed they need to plant a crop.
CanGro Genetics tests non-GM soybean varieties and has a 12-location testing program in Ukraine. Seed is multiplied in Canada and CanGro sends stock seed to its partners who then grow it and sell the seed to European growers under a royalty agreement.
“Our goal is to capture royalties and not just sell once; we want long-term customer relationships,” Harry says. “Vladimir has been a huge help in doing that in Ukraine, despite the recent challenges. Everyone is working hard to make sure the growers get what they need.”
The difficulties have been many. Martin says requests for seed in Ukraine came a lot earlier than normal this year.
“They knew this war was coming. They couldn’t clean fast enough, or early enough. So even after the war started, Vladimir was shipping seed. As far back as Feb. 24, we started shipping. We got one container of soybeans out, and then everything got shut down by the shipping lines,” Harry says.
Labour and fuel remain two big challenges for agriculture in Ukraine at the moment. The conflict has had reverberations for CanGro here in Canada, which was in the process of renewing its five-year agreement with soybean breeders in Ontario through the University of Guelph.
“We have no funds for that at the moment, and we can’t ask our partners that are struggling in Ukraine for any money. It’s a tough situation for everyone right now, especially people in Ukraine and surrounding countries like Poland and Romania,” Harry adds.
CanGro’s relationship with Russia has also changed in light of the conflict, Harry notes.
“We’ve been supplying seed to Russian partners for years, and they’re asking for us to grow seed for them now. We’ve declined at this point in time, because we have to buy it. It’s grown in Manitoba for them, and we have to buy it outright. Considering the sanctions put in place, I don’t think that we will be able to ship to them even next winter. At this point, it’s the principle of doing the right thing,” Harry says.
“We still have their seed for this year, right or wrong, and we’re in the process of moving it in the Canadian system. But in Ontario, and even in Manitoba, there’s not a lot of demand for 2400 CHU non-GMO soybeans, unless it’s a contract-type thing. So, we’ll do what we can and will be moving ahead with soybean production in Ontario.”
Harry is in constant contact with his growers in Ontario. He says he can’t guarantee he’ll be able take all their seed come harvest, but they are staying the course, nonetheless.
“They’ve said, ‘We’ll grow the beans, because we can move them into IP contracts down here.’ They’ll know before harvest whether it’s seed or whether it’s grain. At this point in time, when you have a co-worker like Vladimir’s carrying a gun defending his country, hard choices have to be made.”
Most of Zinchenko’s clients received their seed and were able to start spring planting. This applies to the Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr, Cherkasy and western regions of Ukraine. As for Sumy, Chernigov and southern regions, they are unable to farm as fighting there has been very intense, he says.
“My daughter will be two years old this month. So, there is a desire to take her out of the most dangerous regions of Ukraine, but our family has no desire to leave the country,” Zinchenko says.
With Ukrainians in survival mode, Harry said CanGro staff and partners in Canada have been emotionally affected by the conflict and continue to look for ways to help.
“You know, you read some of the stories about the hardest-hit regions, people killed and other people living in their basements for over a month. How do you do that? Many of us here in Canada have never had to experience anything like this,” Harry says.
Zinchenko remains optimistic, despite the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine. In a photo he sent to Seed World Group, a large smile adorns his face despite the fact he’s holding an automatic weapon, ready to fight at any moment should the need arise.
“We will win. We will rebuild everything. Seed production will be OK. This year we will plant the seeds that we have, and then we will bring in foundation seed and restore everything,” he says in his email.
When asked how he can smile in spite of the challenges that surround him, his answer illustrates the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people.
“Our smiles are our secret weapon.”