Many, many moons ago we had a family business making animal feed. From our dusty old mill in Lancaster we sent over 100,000 tonnes a year of cattle and sheep feed to all corners of Northern Britain. The job entailed many hours of standing in freezing farmyards passing the time of day with farmers and trying to persuade them to buy something.
In hindsight it was character building.
Over recent weeks my mind has been taken back to one particular encounter on a farm on the outskirts of Leeds. It was a huge enterprise. They milked over three hundred cows, reared pigs and collected the eggs from 30,000 chickens. More impressively still, they were marketing a high percentage of their produce themselves. Every day their milk floats headed out into the city bearing a selection of their wares. There was no chance in a million years that I was about to get an order from the old boy who was running the show. He had his suppliers screwed down to the floor and to trade with him would have been much akin to setting handfuls of ten pound notes alight.
But I vividly remember our farmyard chat.
He told me that he was just back from a two week trip to Kiev. This was pretty astonishing. It was hard to picture this particular red faced, flat capped Yorkshireman choosing the Ukraine as a holiday destination. In fact it was pretty hard to imagine him taking a holiday anywhere. He wasn’t the taking a holiday kind of a guy.
He soon put me right.
“I wasn’t on bloody holiday. In Kiev? Is tha’ mad or summat? Nae lad. I were invited. By Council.”
“Don’t be daft. Kiev Council. They paid plane tickets, hotels, whole bloody lot.”
These were the months following the spectacular implosion of the Soviet Empire. The old satellite states were claiming their independence from Moscow one by one and the Ukraine was one of the first in the queue.
The new born nations were scrambling to find a toehold in the world. I had visited the old Soviet Union a couple of times and therefore found it utterly fascinating that the new leadership in Ukraine had stumped up the cash to fly this gruff Yorkshire farmer east.
Why would they do that?
The answer wasn’t hard to understand. When Carol and I had visited Leningrad in the depths of the winter of 1991, old women could be seen queuing for hours on end to get into shops which were selling a range of produce that was made up of cabbage, cabbage and more cabbage, much of it rotten.
We were fine of course. We had dollars, and a fistful of dollars secured us access to the foreign currency shops which were reserved for the Party elite. The new rulers of independent Ukraine had twigged on to the fact that the road to their people’s hearts was through their stomachs. They needed to find a way to put affordable food on the shelves and to put it there quickly. So they had done themselves some blue sky thinking which had taken them to my man’s farm on the outskirts of Leeds.
They paid him a visit. They told him that they would like him to come over to Ukraine to do the same thing on the outskirts of Kiev as he did on the outskirts of Leeds.
And the land? Oh the land was no problem. They had plenty of land. Millions and millions of acres. They would give him the land. All they wanted him to do was to show them how to turn that land into milk and cream and eggs and pork.
Just like he did in Leeds.
So he accepted the invitation. Of course he did. What Yorkshire farmer would ever knock back the chance to go and scope out a couple of thousand acres of free land. As if.
They drove him to the edge of the city and they showed him around the sprawling collective farm they were willing to gift him. But he needed more than a look round before coming to his decision.
“Nae point just looking lad. Tha' needs to feel the bloody soil. Properly. So I told them to bring a digger. A big un. Told em I needed a look at the soil. So they brought a digger and when they got ten feet down and soil were still pitch black, I told them to stop.”
I recall him going rather misty eyed as he described the most fertile soil he had ever seen. He told me he could get four tonnes of wheat off each and every acre. He told me he had never seen owt like it.
I asked him how and why.
“Easy lad. Daft buggers haven’t farmed it for seventy years. It’s barely done owt. It’s just been left fallow.”
I have no idea if he ever went east to farm those acres of black soil. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But it left me with a vivid picture. When I was sixteen I saw the surface view of those very same acres. I was on a school trip that took us through the Iron Curtain into the sinister Alice in Wonderland lunacy of the old Eastern Bloc. We traveled by coach. One long, hot day we made the drive south from Kiev to Odessa. It was hundreds of miles of wheat and corn and sunflowers. Flat, flat, flat. Weathered faces under head scarves. Horse drawn transport. No traffic on the roads. I hadn’t read any Tolstoy at that time, but if I had I would have felt like I was a part of one of his epic tales of the vastness of the Steppe.
Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. After Russia. When I took my bus trip, the one was absorbed into the other. And it was impossible not to wonder how any country with such vast agricultural spaces could ever manage to leave its people hungry. By this time successive Bolshevik governments had conclusively proved that neither five year plans nor shipping people off to Siberia in cattle trucks were good ways of putting food on the table.
A couple of years after my school trip, I learned some of the reasons why this was the case in a university lecture hall. The topic was Soviet agriculture and why it was such a basket case. For seventy years the men in the Politbureau had enjoyed the same kind of cordial relationship with their farming community as the one Liverpool fans like me have with Man United fans.
When the currency crashed to worthlessness in the months after the 1917 October Revolution, the farmers refused to sell their grain to the cities. Why would they? They had no interest in being paid in worthless cash. So Trotsky got himself into the barter game. He looted every grand piano he could find in the grand houses of Moscow and Leningrad and stuck them on trains to the countryside. Once the loot arrived, his commissars swapped luxury goods for grain and somehow they contained the starvation in the cities to manageable levels.
This whole process really pissed Stalin off and he made his mind up that it would never about to happen again. He wasn’t the kind of guy who took kindly to being held over any kind of barrel. The problem? Pesky small farmers refusing to release their crops. The solution? Kill the bastards. He implemented a policy called De-Kulakisation (I guess we would call it de-smallfarmerisation. The supermarkets are quite good at it) In the early years of the 1930's, Stalin topped over 20 million small farmers and moved all agriculture in to huge collective farms where resident secret policemen kept everyone honest.
The problem was that the collective farms were a complete car crash when it came to turning out food and most of the time the people in the cities went hungry.
In the Seventies, the Politbureau decided to loosen their grip out of sheer desperation. They allowed 4% of the land on every collective to be farmed by the workers themselves and they were allowed to sell anything they produced in the market and keep the cash. It worked. By the late Seventies this 4% of land was producing over 70% of all Soviet food.
Human nature and all that.
It’s 1992 and the second largest country in Europe is all set to really become something. It has 50 million citizens itching to get a feel of what freedom is like in the flesh and they have gazillions of the best acres on planet Earth at their disposal.
What could go wrong?
Quite a lot as it turned out. Almost everything in fact. A few weeks ago I listened to a fascinating World Service documentary about the slow collapse of the Ukraine. There are no longer 52 million Ukrainians. The population has shrunk dramatically to just over 40 million. Why? Lots of reasons. When the EU opened up to Poland and the Baltic States, hundreds of thousands got on coaches and headed west for better paid work. They left a vacuum in their wake. So hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians headed west to fill the gap. Sure jobs in Warsaw or Riga were not as well paid as jobs in London or Berlin, but the cash was way better that jobs in Kiev or Lvov.
As the young up sticks and left, the old got sick. The health system creaked and almost collapsed. The older generation missed the certainly of the old Soviet days and started to drown their sorrows in a billion litres of vodka. Soon the average lifespan of Ukraine’s men was ten years less than that of its women.
An expert on the documentary laid out the bones of a bleak future. She predicted that by 2030 the population of the country was going to be down to just over thirty million: a fall of twenty million from Independence Day. Worse still, the projected population would be increasingly old and weary as the young people continued to go west. She said that there were serious doubts as to whether there would be enough people left to actually maintain a viable country.
And so once again, all of those millions upon millions of acres of prime black soil would be left untouched at a time when the nine billion people of planet earth need grain like never before.
She had no answer. She wondered if anyone could ever come up with an answer. How can you come up with twenty million energetic young people in less than twenty years?
But it shouldn’t be impossible because of course we see these very people on the news every night. They are the ones paying for death rides across the Med in inflatable dinghies. And many if not most of these people have skills we in the west have largely forgotten. They know how to farm. They know how to maximise the potential from acres of black soil.
Would twenty million take up a similar offer to the one the Kiev Council made to my man from the outskirts of Leeds? Come East for twenty acres and a place of your own? A 21st Century version of the old Oregon Trail? Swap the RPG’s on the streets of Alleppo for a little house on the Ukrainian Steppe?
It has the look to me of a win, win situation.
Ukraine gets twenty million energetic young people who would become the very best of patriotic citizens.
Twenty million energetic young people get a chance to escape from murder, torture, famine and torture rooms.
And of course mankind gets the shelves filled from planet earth’s greatest larder.
If only basic common sense was allowed to prevail for once. If only the world could find a way of running itself as a World rather than a network of Glasgow style gangs of Neds, all ferociously defending their turf.
The fading, aging countries of the old west are crying out for an injection of new blood, but all most of us are frantically building higher fences. How would the people of the Ukraine react to twenty million immigrants coming along to save the day? Not well I think. We have all seen the Neo Nazis strutting their stuff in Independence Square. Logic and common sense are not a part of their world view.
So I guess we will continue to build our fences higher and higher and soon we will add watch towers complete with machine guns to hold the line. And we will hide on our side of the fence and get older and older until our countries are like vast old peoples homes and every acre of land lies fallow.
We are entering and era of walls and fences where common sense and practicality will be banished by wave after wave of xenophobia.
Let’s face it, the human race is really, really good at being idiotic.