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A Cheesemaker’s Report From Ukraine

Over the course of almost two months of the war, there was not a single person who did not discuss all the horrors of Ukraine today. Behind all these events are ordinary people, and also ordinary people are most affected and continue to suffer. People who were living by their daily routine, doing chores, working, planning their lives, having children, building, developing businesses, studying and educating others, inventing various creative things to improve not only their lives but the life of Ukraine as a nation.

Our company Ardis group (Ukrainian importer and producer of cheese), which I am a part of, has been developing the culture of cheese consumption in Ukraine for about 22 years, with its own production of fresh cheeses, its ProCheese Academy training project for cheesemakers and cheesemongers, and much more.

We had huge plans for this upcoming year, such as hosting the World Cheese Awards in Kyiv in November. We have been working on it for a long time and finally received the right to become the first country in Eastern Europe to host this competition.

The ProCheese team at the World Cheese Awards in Oviedo, Spain in November 2021

I am confident our country has something to be proud of in terms of cheese. There are about 300 cheesemakers in Ukraine, and their number is only growing. Cheese consumption per year has also increased. Last year it was about 5 kg per capita. I am convinced that Ukraine has great potential for cheese production and consumption.

We stand proud to have our Carpathian cheeses, and our brynza has already obtained protection by geographical origin. Some cheesemakers follow the example of European recipes but still bring in something authentic, Ukrainian. For instance, Gouda-type cheese with nettles. The most popular among our consumers are semi-hard and fresh cheeses, but with the development of the industry, Ukrainians began to love moldy cheeses and hard-aged cheeses. 

Many cheese factories in recent years, in addition to developing new cheese recipes, have been constantly learning, improving their skills, creating maturation chambers, and mastering the art of affinage. I am already familiar with many cheesemakers and their products, thanks to the national ProCheese Awards we held last year for the first time.

We all looked forward to the World Cheese Awards because we have something to surprise cheese professionals from around the world. But now, during the war, the situation has shifted, and some cheesemakers have temporarily stopped working, and others have readjusted their production.

The Ardis warehouse was destroyed by shelling

The state of the industry during the war

Currently, most cheese factories that are not in the zone of active hostilities are trying to restart their work. But there are a number of problems faced by businesses in different parts of the country:

1. Damage from missile strikes and shelling

Almost all businesses that were in the hotspots were affected. Thus, a large enterprise Lactalis Ukraine had one plant (administrative building) and warehouse damaged. Craft manufacturers, such as the Syrovarnya na Vogni, were forced to leave everything and flee from occupied Berdyansk.

Many such enterprises have damaged or completely destroyed warehouses and vehicles. The warehouse of Ardis Group was also destroyed, and the car fleet was partially damaged.

2. Supply disruptions

Supply chains were broken: many shops and warehouses were destroyed. Distribution centers in large supermarkets have been destroyed, such as in the national retail chains Novus, ATB, KOLO.

Craft production in Kharkiv Ekan has stopped working because the farm that supplied milk was completely destroyed by rocket fire. Now they are looking for an opportunity to evacuate production to a more quiet region where they could potentially get milk.

The restaurant and hotel sector has almost completely stopped working, especially in combat zones.

3. Problem with the supply of enzymes, additional ingredients (spices, etc.), and packaging

Many packaging industries have been destroyed, so factories are looking for other manufacturers or suppliers of equipment, and labels. Given that the situation is changing almost daily—finding contractors and stable service delivery has become much more difficult.

4. Product distribution

This is a painful question for everyone. Due to the failure of supply chains or the inability to deliver to combat zones and temporarily occupied regions, manufacturers have faced the problem of selling products. For example, the craft manufacturer Mukko sales fell by almost three times.

At our production Molochna Maysternya the sales volume since the beginning of the war fell 5 times. However, this did not stop our production. We have made a corporate decision to take all milk from suppliers and work in full gear. Some of the products were sent to charity and support the Armed Forces.

5. Mastering the role of a cheesemonger

For many industries, both large and craft, sales to stores and retail chains are currently limited. Cheesemakers and production workers are now mastering the role of cheesemaking and are going out to sell cheese where possible: in markets, in homemade kiosks, or in cities directly from cars. For example, the workers of our Molochna Maysternya have tried themselves in a new role as cheese sellers at the market in Uman, Cherkasy region. The Dooobra Ferma artisan cheese manufacturer with the beginning of the war resumed direct sales in its region.

6. Changing supply regions

Deliveries of products decreased significantly to the East, South, and center of Ukraine. There is a growing need to focus on the West of the country, where there are many IDPs.

7. Changing customer needs

People fled their homes, leaving everything behind. Most people who moved from the war zone to more quiet areas were left penniless and lost their jobs. This has had a strong impact on the reduction of purchasing power and the redistribution of the need to buy cheaper goods and basic necessities.

Many productions froze aged cheeses in their warehouses and began to alter their production processes and began working with fresh cheeses and sour-milk products.

For example, the Jersey artisan cheese producer stopped selling aged cheeses and rebuilt to produce more relevant products for today — fresh cheeses and dairy products.

8. Outflow of labor
With the start of the war, many women and children had to evacuate and go abroad. Men of the conscription age were also recruited to the Armed Forces. This is some cases has led to an increase in the burden on the remaining employees and the need to find and hire new ones.

9. The problem with animal husbandry 
Some territories are or were in occupied zones or zones of hostilities. The enemy destroys animals, agricultural machinery, and storages of combustible materials. This disrupts sowing and plowing, with a risk of food shortages. Many people fleeing the war zone are releasing cattle onto the streets. In addition, some farms were brutally destroyed.

A Ukrainian artisan cheesemaker

Positive moments and prospects

Despite the difficult situation, cheesemakers are actively providing assistance to the defense, migrants, and the Armed Forces in their regions. The farmers who faced the problem of selling milk in the first weeks of the war traveled to villages and towns and distributed milk to people in need. 

Almost no one has given up on the goals that were set before the war. For example, our production Molochna Maysternya did not stop its activity, has resumed its supply in Ukraine, and is actively seeking opportunities to export its products abroad.

Many European suppliers have supported us with humanitarian help. Among them are Zanetti, Philadelphia, Zott, Flechard, Mifroma, Alpenhain. We transferred a part of their products to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and another part of it to charitable foundations. We are sincerely grateful that the cheese world has not been left behind.

We are currently working on resuming and stabilizing Ukraine’s cheese industry: establishing a joint distribution partnership, involving the global cheese community in the needs of Ukrainian cheesemakers, communicating with cheese schools about training opportunities, communicating with WCA, and planning to develop a charity project to help Ukrainian cheesemongers and cheesemakers.

We hope that the World Cheese Awards will still come to Ukraine after our victory. All cheesemakers in Ukraine have been waiting for this event. Because no matter the outcome, not many people around the world know what kind of cheeses are in Ukraine and what kind of people create them. And everyone understands that when people unite around their passion from different parts of the world, it shows how global and diverse the world is, and at the same time it is welcoming to all people who love cheese. So we will be waiting for you later in Ukraine to introduce you to our huge potential with cheese and a desire to live and work under a peaceful sky.

Editor’s Note:

As soon as I received this piece from Oksana, I reached out to John and Tortie Farrand of the Guild of Fine Food (GFF), who organize the World Cheese Awards. Oksana was a Super Gold judge at the WCA in Oviedo in November, where I was a first-tier judge. Like so many others in the cheese world, I was thrilled at the prospect of the awards being held in Kyiv this year—and devastated by what has now happened to that beautiful city and to Ukraine.

“We got so many emails when the war started from people who had met up with the ProCheese gang in Spain and were asking if Oksana was OK,” says John. “We’ve been working with the team at Ardis Group and ProCheese for over four years to bring the World Cheese Awards to Ukraine. This has included trips to visit potential venues, absorb the culture of the country and, of course to meet cheesemakers. We’ve made friends with people there.”

Just yesterday (April 25) he and his team had a Zoom meeting with Oksana and her colleagues to break the news about the revised location, in advance of the public announcement that will be made by GFF on April 27. “It was emotional,” John says. “They understood, of course, but their attitude toward ensuring that the global cheese event does take place in the future is second only to their fervent flag-waving and awareness campaign for their nation’s cheesemakers. Wherever we are, we shall ensure that Ukrainian cheesemakers are represented and that the global cheese community can demonstrate solidarity, commercial support, and utter kind words to these proud people.”

— Susan Sherrill Axelrod

Oksana Chernova

Oksana is a cheese expert in the ProCheese community, co-founder of the ProCheese Academy and the Ukrainian ProCheese Awards, and a Super Gold judge at the World Cheese Awards.

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