Over the course of sixteen years, Dutch family business Bontrup has built up a thriving agricultural business in the northeast of Ukraine. Recently they purchased new machines and silos with financing from Invest International. “More storage capacity is desperately needed now that grain transport is complex due to the war. And, we also want to be ready for the growth we have initiated to 30,000 hectares,” says CEO Bram Bontrup. A conversation about continuing to invest, doing business in times of war and the future of sustainable agriculture.
Bram Bontrup: “Maize, wheat, rapeseed and sunflower are the four most important crops. These are grown on 22,000 hectares of farmland leased from the local population in Hlukhiv, in the Sumy region. At the beginning, we took over seven cooperative farms and now work on an area the size of the Dutch national park Utrechtse Heuvelrug.”
“About 400 inhabitants from the villages around the farm have jobs and livelihoods. In turn, that’s reaching 400 families. In addition to permanent employees, we hire casual workers and then there are the suppliers we work with too. The spin-off from what we do in Ukraine is huge. When the war broke out, the first question was: “Will you continue to pay the wages?” “Of course”, was our answer . “The flag will go out if we invest and expand. It means a lot to the residents,” says Bram Bontrup when asked to outline the company as it stands on Ukrainian soil, which operates under the name Bontrup Ukraine.
He adds to that: “We stand for our company and for the Ukrainian people. We strongly believe in Ukraine, as an agricultural country and in its people. If we invest more and innovate, this has direct consequences and impact. Growth provides additional jobs and in the long run more food. We are, ourselves, investing in the expansion of the agricultural land, we want to grow gradually to 30,000 hectares.”
“Invest International’s financing is a very necessary and welcome addition. Helping to fund new agricultural machinery, in order to work better and more efficiently on the land, and an elevator and silos for extra storage, it has proven more essential than ever given the current situation. And given the situation, more essential than ever. Bear in mind, not only are the Ukrainians dependent on the wages we pay and the harvests, the crops grown are almost entirely for export. Many countries – in North Africa, the Middle East but also Turkey – depend on what is grown in Ukraine.”
About 400 inhabitants from the villages around the farm have jobs and livelihoods. In turn, that’s reaching 400 families. In addition to permanent employees, we hire casual workers and then there are the suppliers we work with too. “The spin-off from what we do in Ukraine is huge”, says Bram Bontrup.
The Sumy region was under attack at the beginning of the war between Russia and Ukraine, but was abandoned by the Russians in mid-April on their way to Kiev.
How is the situation now? “The work, the sowing, the reaping, everything goes on. You have to. When the war broke out, residents and employees of ours were drafted into the army. Of course the war is still there; shots can sometimes be heard, we sometimes find casings on land, but overall I can say that it is almost the same as before. People want to go back to normal, to the supermarket, to the cafe. Ukrainians are a proud and strong people. We try to help as much as possible and ensure that life and work can continue. Even if it is sometimes quite challenging.”
“Extra investment and innovation in agriculture in Ukraine has direct impact. Growth will create extra jobs and, in the long run, more food.”
Bram BontrupCEO Bontrup
By that you mean obtaining seed, sowing, being able to store grain and the transport problem of exporting the grain? “Getting seed was a problem, which has improved. You have to pay in advance. We can do that. If you’re less wealthy, it’s a different story. In a war situation, anything is possible, as long as you pay immediately. And, you have to keep sowing, otherwise the harvest and the food supply will stop.”
“Then there is the transportation problem. In Ukraine, rail transport has always been important. The country wanted to expand that infrastructure, but due to the war, large parts of the tracks for goods transport are no longer usable. Transport is now by trucks, which is much more expensive to begin with, and there are not many trucks available. That has an impact on price, but it can be done with a little creativity.”
Storage is another matter. “Storing grain was already important, but especially now. If you have to sell under pressure, it’s not good for the price. So you want to store it. Also, the majority is harvested in the fall, a season with more rainfall. Wet crops need to be dried. This requires space and storage. If you are limited in this, you will delay or lose the harvest, with all its consequences.”
Invest International’s finances Bontrup via the Dutch Trade and Investment Fund (DTIF), which offers loans, guarantees and export financing. This fund is part of Invest International’s SME product offering, managed on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The investment provides an immediate boost in economic and social terms in Hlukhiv and the surrounding area and affects SDG 2 (Zero hunger), SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth) and SDG 13 (Climate impact).
“As a company, we contribute to job security and food security. For our employees and worldwide. The new machines are better for tilling the soil and we can now do precision farming. The technology ensures that the soil and crops receive just the right amount of treatment, which is better for the environment.”
Picture: Bram Bontrup (right) shaking hands with a farmer in Hlukhiv.
This is the situation for now. What does the future look like? “For Ukraine, the people want to rebuild the country and continue what they were doing. Pick up the thread of life again. That happens. The grain price is still high but that was already the case before the war. Due to climate change more and more areas are either too dry or too wet. There was already a decline in production which caused prices to rise. The war came on top of that.”
“It is important that Ukraine should be able to continue to export grains. If that can’t be done, things really go downhill and it hurts enormously. We cannot accept that. The established Black Sea grain corridor must hold. The infrastructure must be restored as soon as possible: ports and railways. Then Ukraine’s major contribution to the food supply chain can also be restored. That is important for the country itself, and for the whole world.”
Maize, wheat, rapeseed and sunflower are the four most important crops of Bontrup Ukraine. These are grown on 22,000 hectares of farmland leased from the local population in Hlukhiv, in the Sumy region.
And, for Bontrup as a company and an entrepreneurial family? “In terms of growing, investing and sustainable farming, we have plenty of plans. In the future, we will work from a control room with screens and operators, who control light machines with minimal pressure on the ground. Large fields are planted with machines running on hydrogen or electriconicallycontrolled. We are already working with GPS-controlled drones and are developing biogas from maize. The developments are continuing. This is really nice for me as an entrepreneur. Ukraine is ready for that too. But first, restore peace”, concludes Bram Bontrup.Read more on Bontrup Ukraine