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ISU agronomist volunteers in Ukraine

By Staff | Apr 30, 2010

Mark Licht, an Iowa State university field agronomist, talks with several Ukraine farmers during his visit last month there. Ukraine is experimenting with growing corn and soybeans. Wheat and barley are the dominate crops in Ukraine.

CARROLL – Mark Licht, an Iowa State University Extension field agronomist, returned March 14 from a two-week volunteer assignment to Ukraine where he advised farmers on how to improve crop production practices.

Licht’s trip was part of a project with Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs – a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people and enterprises in the developing world.

Licht said he visited eight different farms – the largest was 370,000 acres, or 150,000 hectares – as part of his assignment, which allowed him to get an idea of the challenges and opportunities prevalent in the corn and soybean sector in Ukraine.

Licht used his experience in advising Iowa producers to help Ukrainian farmers adapt production approaches popular in the U.S. to improve their own yields and aid effective decision making.

“My farmer hosts were gracious and hospitable,” Licht said. ” They were very inquisitive and asked a lot of good questions,” Licht said. Corn and soybeans are still a fairly new crop to that region, he noted.

“They had already visited the U.S. and already knew about inoculants and variety selection.

“I advised them on planting dates, planting earlier rather than full-season varieties. And they also understood that not everything that worked in Iowa will work for them.”

Licht said that Ukraine, four times the size of Iowa, is in a cooler climate lying in the same latitude as northern Minnesota and Canada.

He said that on the largest farm he visited, growers had a 10,000-acre test plot for corn and soybeans. “That sounds like a lot,” Licht said, “but out of 370,000 acres, it’s not very much.” He had reported that some areas had recorded 180-bushel corn and 50 bushel soybeans.

Collective farming anyone?

Under the old Soviet system, food production was handled on giant collective farms. Licht said he was surprised to see that old farm structure still somewhat intact in Ukraine.

The difference, he noted, is that farms are now commercialized structures owned by investors, unlike the family-owned farms prevalent across the Midwest.

One farmer host, Licht related, managed 2,500 acres, which he owned in shares with his brothers, while his father handled all the mechanic work and his mother kept the farm records.

Tech charts

Licht said Ukraine farmers use tech charts like farming bibles which tells them what equipment they need for which crops typically wheat, barley, canola, flax, sunflowers and some vegetables, – how much fuel is needed for how many acres, when to plant and how many people are needed.

He added that these charts are highly accurate. “They aren’t estimates, but are fine-tuned,” Licht said. “They know exactly how much an operation will cost them.”

When asked about crop pests, Licht said that there are no soybean cyst nematode problems in the country. “They don’t have enough beans planted. But they have some aphids and mostly complain of stalk borers in corn.”

Dry weather

Dryness is a greater issue in Ukraine than in Iowa, but Licht noted the soil, was similar to Iowa in some areas that featured high organic matter and clay, allowing for better water-holding capacity. The region was once called “The Breadbasket of the Soviet Union.”

There is a lack of good agricultural equipment, Licht noted, in Ukraine since many producers import older, used machines mostly from Germany, the United States and Brazil.

Despite cultural, structural and technological differences, Licht said there are many similarities between farmers in Iowa and in Ukraine.

“Ukraine has the potential to be very productive if management practices keep up with the pace of agricultural progress,” Licht said.

For instance, he said that the development of hybrids is behind, because of government requirements that allow only hybrids registered with the government can be planted in Ukraine soil.

Seed companies around the world are hesitant to register their hybrids with the government fearing loss of control of their patents.

Licht’s travel was funded by the Farmer-to-Farmer program, under the United States Agency for International Development, which provides voluntary technical assistance to farmers, farm groups and agribusinesses for developing and transitional countries to promote sustainable improvements in food processing, production and marketing.

Licht currently lives in Carroll with his wife and two sons. He grew up on a family farm near Clare and is a 1997 graduate of Manson Northwest Webster High School.

He has bachelor’s degrees in agronomy and Extension education from ISU and a master’s degree in soil science from ISU.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453, or by e-mail at kersh@farm-news.com.

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