Mykhailo Travetsky is a farmer and veterinary doctor based in Pryluky, Chernihiv Oblast, close to one of the main roads connecting the eastern city of Sumy with the capital, Kyiv. He’s no ordinary cattle farmer: besides being a qualified veterinary doctor he’s a committed custodian of several rare Ukrainian cattle breeds, including the Grey Ukrainian Cow, the Lybedinka Cow, and the Red-spotted Ukrainian Cow. Many of these cows number in the hundreds nationwide and are at high risk of extinction: a risk which has been exacerbated significantly by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Though he is a small-scale farmer today, caring for just 35 animals, Mykhailo had worked in every kind of agricultural business across Europe before turning his attention to saving the rare breeds of his homeland. He spent many years living and working on a dairy farm in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and has worked with agro-industrial conglomerates both in the Netherlands and in Ukraine, at one point being responsible for the management of 30,000 animals across seven Oblasts.
From 30,000 to just 35: because Mykhailo could see what big corporations were doing to agriculture: homogenization, mechanization… dehumanization. The number of small-scale farmers was rapidly declining. So he decided to start his own business to help other small-scale farms to remain economically viable.
“I’m a country boy. My mother and grandmother raised cows. But that was all on its way out. So I started my own project to improve knowledge and the use of technology among small-scale farmers. I started a YouTube channel to try and help people who want to get into farming, to show them how you can run a small-scale dairy business successfully. The lack of knowledge is really the most serious obstacle we have to overcome.”
What kinds of knowledge? “How they should manage and treat cows, on the day-to-day level and also on the veterinary level. How to feed them without using silage, just using hay, barley, oats. How to obtain high-quality milk without the use of antibiotics. How to sell that milk. How to run a dairy business from top to bottom, basically.”
But the war has changed everything.
One of the only other places in the country which kept these rare breeds, the Askania-Nova nature reserve in Kherson Oblast, is now occupied by the Russian Army. This is where Mykhailo initially got many of his own cows. “The people there don’t know what will happen to the animals. Food is scarce, electricity is rare; it’s a terrible situation.”
Being able to feed his own cows is now Mykhailo’s highest priority. Not just for them: but for the people they feed.
“When the war started I went to my local Army recruitment office and asked them what I could do. I was ready to fight for my country. But I knew that if I joined the Army there’d be nobody to run the farm, because my family escaped the country in the first days of the war. The Army told me to stay on my farm and to provide as much milk and dairy products as I could to them and to the local population, so that’s what I’m doing.”
And what of his family? “My wife, my mother and my three kids… they have all safely left the country. As soon as the war started my old friends from Northern Ireland called me, and told me to send my family to stay with them in Armagh. They took the family car and headed to the western border… a journey which would normally take six hours took them two and a half days. They traveled through Poland and eventually managed to fly to Belfast. So that’s where they are. They worry about me, but they know I have a duty here. I have to stay here, otherwise the animals will die and there will be no milk for the people who have chosen to stay, or cannot leave.”
“It’s hard now. As my family took the car to escape the country, so I have to get around on a bicycle now. Many of the roads and bridges have been destroyed by the fighting, so there isn’t far I can go anyway. This makes it very hard for me to get the hay and other supplies I need to feed my animals. That’s all I focus on: getting food for them, and getting milk to the other people around me.”
There are further problems for the Ukrainian food supply on the horizon. “The fields around my village are empty. Nobody is working them. Nobody is planting seeds for the spring. It’s just too dangerous. There are tanks and other military vehicles moving around this area every day, firefights between armies. Most of the farmers have either escaped or swapped their plows for guns.”
But Mykhailo perseveres with his duty. “Every day I go to the local bomb shelters and give my milk away for free. Nobody has any money to pay for anything anyway. I don’t have enough milk for everybody, but I do what I can. But getting food for my animals is getting harder and harder. I will stay here with them no matter what, to save my animals, and save my people. This is life.”
My conversation with Mykhailo is interrupted frequently by his poor phone reception—another war gift—but his message is loud and clear. “I will do whatever I can to feed whoever I can. There are lots of alarms for air attacks, but I have to milk my cows even while tanks roll past the village. I cannot go and sit in the bomb shelter… because my cows couldn’t come with me. I am one of the last guardians of these Ukrainian cattle breeds, and I want to save them. They need me.”
Slow Food salutes the enormous courage of Mykhailo Travetsky, and affirms its intention to help him financially: for his direct benefit, for the benefit of Ukrainian biodiversity and indeed, for all Ukrainians.
Donate today to help us provide direct support to farmers, producers and chefs who have stayed behind to protect their animals and their lands.