Farm­ing ex­otic an­i­mals is a growth busi­ness in Ukraine

Kyiv Post - - Business - BY VERONIKA MELKOZEROVA MELKOZEROVA@KYIVPOST.COM

YASNOHORODKA, Ukraine – Early in the morn­ing on March 29, two em­ploy­ees of the Os­trich Val­ley farm, some 30 kilo­me­ters west of Kyiv, har­ness up a pair of draft horses to a wagon and fill the tank it car­ries with wa­ter. More than 400 os­triches are wait­ing for their morn­ing drink.

It takes sev­eral trips to ferry the heavy load around the pens to wa­ter all the birds at the farm, which also func­tions as wildlife park.

Founded in the 2000s, Os­trich Val­ley was one of the first farms in Ukraine to start breed­ing the gi­ant African birds. Over a decade later, more and more Ukrainian farm­ers are choos­ing to farm os­triches, snails and other ex­otic an­i­mals rather than plain old cat­tle.

More­over, Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment has upped its sup­port for farm­ing ex­otic an­i­mals. The 2017 state bud­get ear­marks Hr 4 bil­lion ($148 mil­lion) in state sup­port for farm­ers who pro­duce veg­eta­bles and breed cat­tle, poul­try and, for the first time, ex­otic an­i­mals. In 2016 state sup­port for agri­cul­ture was worth only Hr 2 bil­lion ($74 mil­lion).

Hen­nadiy Chyzhykov, the pres­i­dent of Ukraine’s Cham­ber of Com­merce pres­i­dent, gave the Kyiv Post the of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics for os­trich farm­ing in the coun­try.

“There are more than 60 os­trich farms in Ukraine with a to­tal 6,500 birds, and the num­ber is grow­ing,” Chyzhykov said.

But Lud­myla Zhuk, the Os­trich Val­ley farm’s man­ager, said there are ac­tu­ally many more os­triches in Ukraine than the gov­ern­ment thinks.

“We know about more than 100 com­mer­cial farms. But, ac­cord­ing to Ukrainian law, a busi­nessper­son only has to reg­is­ter a fam­ily os­trich farm as a com­mer­cial farm if they keep more than 12 birds,” said Zhuk.

While the os­trich busi­ness is still only de­vel­op­ing and can’t even pro­duce enough os­trich meat for ex­port, an­other ex­otic farm an­i­mal – the edi­ble snail – has seen its ex­ports from Ukraine rise by 115 times since 2013. The snails are sup­plied to the mar­kets of France, Lithua­nia, Ro­ma­nia and other coun­tries.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ukrainian Snail As­so­ci­a­tion, in 2016 Ukraine ex­ported more than 380 tons of snails – seven times more than Ukraine’s sig­na­ture prod­uct, lard, known in Ukraine as salo. Ukraine ex­ported just over 51 tons of salo (lard) in 2016.

Feath­ered prof­its

Alexey Doroshenko, a Samopomich Party lawmaker and the head of the Re­tail Trade Sup­pli­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Ukraine said that the map of Ukraine is now dot­ted with os­trich farms that have started up in re­cent years.

“There are os­trich farms in prac­ti­cally ev­ery oblast of Ukraine – they can be tracked down by spe­cial road signs,” Doroshenko said.

Os­triches are hardly the eas­i­est birds to farm.

An adult bird can weigh up to 150 kilo­grams, and stands from 1.2 to 2.8 me­ters in height. The birds’ small heads con­tain 40-gram brains and they are quite ag­gres­sive – they can kill large an­i­mals (in­clud­ing hu­mans) with a pow­er­ful kick from their clawed feet. They can also run at up to 70 kilo­me­ters per hour.

So why are so many Ukrainian farm­ers in­ter­ested in breed­ing these gi­ant, dan­ger­ous birds?

“It’s waste-free pro­duc­tion,” Zhuk ex­plained. “You can sell every­thing, start­ing with live os­triches, to os­trich meat, the claws, skin, feath­ers and even the eye­lashes – which are of­ten used for mak­ing cos­met­ics brushes. One os­trich egg weighs 1.5 kilo­grams and can feed ten peo­ple.”

A three-month-old os­trich chick costs Hr 2,500 ($92), and the price for a bird grows by Hr 1,000 ev­ery month af­ter that.

Even Ukraine’s fugi­tive Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych bought some of the birds for his pri­vate zoo at his lux­u­ri­ous Mezhy­hirya es­tate. It’s not known if he ate any of them.

Yanukovych bought some adult birds in 2010, and, as he said in an in­ter­view he gave to the BBC in June 2015, “sup­ported” them un­til he was forced to flee to Rus­sia af­ter the Euro­Maidan Rev­o­lu­tion in 2014.

Yanukovych bought his os­trich flock for around Hr 80,000 ($2,960) – a fairly av­er­age price for a small flock of live birds. An egg costs Hr 300 ($11), while meat costs Hr 300–500 ($11–18) per kilo­gram.

Many farms, like Os­trich Val­ley, also take ad­van­tage of the pub­lic’s cu­rios­ity about the quirky avians to run an os­trich zoo as a side busi­ness. Zhuk said more than five tourist groups usu­ally visit Os­trich Val­ley ev­ery day to take pic­tures and sam­ple some os­trich meat and eggs in the farm’s res­tau­rant. It’s even pos­si­ble to ride a bird. “Ev­ery sum­mer we put on an os­trich race, though for adults only and only af­ter the client signs a con­sent agree­ment. Such races are pretty dan­ger­ous, but en­ter­tain­ing,” said Zhuk.

Wealthy Ukraini­ans also buy os­triches in­stead of guard dogs to pro­tect their man­sions.

“An adult male os­trich faith­fully guards his ter­ri­tory, and will even kill an in­truder. But they can only re­mem­ber things for about five days, so own­ers have to fre­quently in­ter­act with their pets to stay safe,” Zhuk said.

Snails out­pace os­triches

Al­though snails are the zoo­log­i­cal op­po­site of os­triches in many re­spects, the growth of the snail-farm­ing busi­ness has out­paced that of farm­ing the gi­ant birds. Chyzhykov said Ukrainian os­trich traders, for now, only sup­ply the do­mes­tic mar­ket, as they can’t pro­duce enough meat or eggs for ex­port.

Mean­while, the Ukrainian Agrar­ian Busi­ness Club re­ports that Ukrainian ex­port of snails have grown from a mere three tons in 2013 to 380 tons in 2016.

The Snail Ukraine As­so­ci­a­tion press ser­vice told the Kyiv Post that there has been a ban on col­lect­ing Bur­gundy snails in most of the Western Euro­pean coun­tries since 2010, as over-har­vest­ing of the gas­tropods was dam­ag­ing the bal­ance of ecosys­tems.

De­spite that, France has lost none of its ap­petite for “les es­car­gots” – in that coun­try alone peo­ple munch their way through 25,000 tons of snails a year.

The UK’s Daily Mail re­ported in 2014 that since 2013, Western Europe has been im­port­ing most of its edi­ble snails from Eastern Europe – mostly Ro­ma­nia, Be­larus, Lithua­nia, and Poland.

How­ever, Dmytro Butenko, the founder of snail farm “Eco Ul­itka” (Eco Snail) in Vin­nitsa Oblast, told the Kyiv Post that snails fre­quently sold as a Pol­ish prod­uct in France may ac­tu­ally be Ukrainian-raised Bur­gundy snails.

“Our (Eastern Euro­pean) neigh­bors buy Ukrainian snails as a raw ma­te­rial for $1.50 per kilo­gram, process them, and re-ex­port them to the West for $5–6 per kilo­gram,” said Butenko.

On his farm, Butenko raises up to 70 tons of snails per sea­son (from spring too sum­mer). The snails on his farms are pro­cessed by hand, but he dreams Ukraine will one day build its own snail pro­cess­ing plant. How­ever, he said such a plant would only turn a profit if it pro­cessed more than 500 tons a sea­son.

“Last year the Euro­peans in­creased the snail im­port quota for Ukraine, so ev­ery­body started breed­ing snails. But peo­ple have been breed­ing and col­lect­ing snails since 1991. Buy­ers just didn’t trust Ukrainian snails be­cause of the Chornobyl dis­as­ter,” said Butenko.

The Snail As­so­ci­a­tion press ser­vice said there are up to ten com­mer­cial snail farms in Ukraine.

Still, most Ukrainian-pro­duced snails are not farmed, but are il­le­gally col­lected in the forests of western and cen­tral Ukraine, the as­so­ci­a­tion said.

Three cu­ri­ous female os­triches check out a pho­tog­ra­pher from their pen at the Os­trich Val­ley com­mer­cial farm in the vil­lage of Yasnohorodka in Kyiv Oblast on March 29. (Volodymyr Petrov)

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