23:44 PM Saturday, November 17, 2018
Belgian Billy Goat Butts Head Against Ukraine Farm Barriers
Foreign investor succeeds -- building goat herd, selling gourmet cheeses online, riding organic produce wave, and attracting farm tourists from Lviv
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DMYTROVYCHI - Belgian farmer Bernard Willem has a dream: to breed the perfect Ukrainian goat -- and to make money at it.

After a decade, Bernard and his Ukrainian wife, Mariya, have raised a herd of 600 goats of Alpine origin, have converted a run down Soviet collective farm into a charming destination for eco tourists from nearby Lviv, and have placed their cheeses into gourmet restaurants and supermarkets from Lviv to Kyiv.

But, along the way, this European investor has battled the challenges of doing business in Ukraine. There was the ban on importing goats from Europe. Then local workers snubbed milking goats for turning an easy euro smuggling cigarettes across the nearby Polish border. Now, some local officials seem happy to see abandoned farmland turn to forest -- if ‘facilitation fees’ are not made.

Bernard Willem, Lviv Oblast Belgian goat farmer and his daughter, Elise, namesake for their line of goat cheese, Fromages d'Elise. (Photo/Hanna Verzhbytska)

Riding Organic, Online Waves

But, perhaps with a stubbornness that comes with dealing daily with billy goats, this foreign investor is persevering on his farm in Western Ukraine, roughly midway between Lviv and the Polish border.

Today, Willem is hard pressed to keep up with Ukrainian demand for his main product -- organic goat cheese produced according to French technology.

As European tastes and standards have become popular in Ukraine, sales of organic produce have increased eightfold since 2010.

“Our products are very popular in Ukraine -- we supply the best restaurants,” Willem said speaking fluent Ukrainian, acquired during a total of 15 years working in Western Ukraine.

His goat cheeses, branded Fromages d’Elise in honor of his 11-year-old daughter, are on fine dining menus -- from Cafe 1 and Kumpel in Lviv to Ostannya Barykada and Tres Francais in Kyiv. Fromages d'Elise are also sold in the premium stores of Silpo, one of the largest supermarket chains in modern Ukraine.

Reflecting Ukraine’s boom in online commerce and courier package deliveries, about 80 percent of Willem’s sales are placed through the internet and delivered by Nova Poshta in iced containers.

Cheeses, jams and honey on the farm tasting table (Photo/Hanna Verzhbytska)

Goal: Ukraine’s Perfect Goat

All cheeses produced by“Fromages d’Elise” come from milk produced by his own goat herd.

The farm’s stock is made up mainly of two breeds of Alpine dairy goats -- Saanen originally from Western Switzerland, and Alpine, originally from the French Alps.

When Willem began farming here in 2007, Ukraine banned goat imports. The ban was lifted. But a goat purchased from Europe still costs a stiff $700, after transportation and duties.

In addition to importing for his herd, Willem tracked down Saanen and Alpine billy goats, some in the Carpathians and others elsewhere in Western Ukraine. Some were crossed with local goat varieties to work towards producing a breed better suited to local conditions.

“All the selection process is conducted according to the breed's’ standards,” Willem said. “We now have a 90% pure Saanen breed that is well adapted to the local climate. Newly bred goats also give better milk yields. This is my dream goat breed. Now we have 600 goats living at the farm and the creamery is working at maximum capacity.”

Willem greets goats -- and grazing cattle and donkeys -- as he walks across his busy farm. One goat kid was born a mere 10 minutes before this reporter’s arrival.

Wheels of cheese from March on a curing rack in the farmhouse cellar (Photo/Hanna Verzhbytska)

Gourmet Cheese

Farm visitors from Lviv, about one hour by car east of here, taste samples of the farm’s production “en famille” -- ricotta, buche, crottin, cigalon, feta, dessert cheese.

Willem is especially keen to have visitors try his latest production -- Lemberg cheese, named after Lviv’s name under Austrian rule before World War I. It is made from cow’s milk according to his own recipe.

Visitors can also try fruit jams and honey produced by the grandfather of one of his farm workers and marketed exclusively through Kyiv’s biggest wine shop chain, Good Wine.

The farm also produces a cosmetic cream based on goat fat with local herbs added.

There are other innovations.

Willem has built two new hen houses where he is breeding chickens that lay purple eggs that he sells to incubators for one euro per egg. As with the goats, he used to import the hens, but now breeds them himself.

Mariya, Willem’s wife, is chief technologist of cheese production for an enterprise that began in the kitchen of a rented apartment in Lviv.

The Willems have converted a dilapidated Soviet-era collective farm into a food and farm tourism attraction from Lviv, a booming city of 750,000 people, one hour to the east by car.(Photo/Hanna Verzhbytska)

Barriers to Farm Land

But the perennial problem comes up in discussion -- the farm cannot expand because it is unable to secure more leased land. Ukraine effectively bans sales of farm land, leaving control of land leases largely in the hands of village officials and descendants of collective farm members. Partly as a result of this chokehold, about 15 percent of Ukraine’s farmland is not being worked.

Economists say that the creation of an open market for farmland would attract billions of dollars of investment and would push Ukraine toward Western standards of agricultural productivity. The International Monetary Fund has made the creation of a farm land market a key condition for releasing as much as $1 billion in aid to Ukraine this summer.

In coming weeks, Ukraine’s parliament may vote on some form of a land market. But, members of parliament may opt for the path of least resistance, extending a moratorium on land sales which was imposed in 2002.

Willem is struggling to buy or lease 30 hectares, additional land he says is vital for grazing and hay production. Businessmen tell him local authorities are waiting for a “gift” before they will act. He and his wife refuse to pay bribes.

“A creamery needs milk,” Willem said stating the obvious. “For milk you need animals – goats or cows or sheep. Animals need land. Therefore, without land, without a proper law on land, nothing will ever happen.”

Goat husbandry is labor intensive. Goats require feeding and milking seven days a week (Photo/Hanna Verzhbytska)

Labor Shortage

Another hurdle is a rural labor shortage -- where official statistics do not show one.

Willem says he pays competitive salaries to his 30 workers. But he says many villagers prefer to work in Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine and a booming economy. Or they try to make a living smuggling cigarettes across the Poland-Ukraine border, only 35 km to the west.

Undeterred by these challenges, Willem believes there are good prospects in Ukraine. He is devising new plans to make his family business thrive.

A big empty room next to the cheese area is to become a restaurant designed to earn more money from an increasing flow of paying visitors here. To further boost revenues, he plans to build cottages for farm tourism.

Tourists -- and cheese sales -- come to him through his bilingual Ukrainian-French website: In Ukraine, goat products -- pasteurized milk and cheese -- generally sell for three times the price of their cow equivalents

“Ukraine has good land, water, and climate,” he summed up. “All these problems that we have now are transitory.”

for comments and story tips, please contact Hanna Verzhbytska at

Slider photo: A long way from Switzerland, a Saanen nanny goat and kid at Bernard Willem's farm.(Photo/Hanna Verzhbytska)

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