The founders of the farm, the Koval family, had had ambitious plans for the new year – doubling the number of cows being milked from 300 to 600; holding workshops at the confectionery school based on the farm; and developing tourism.
However, Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 turned those plans into dreams. Today, the farm is struggling to survive, find new markets for its dairy products, and establish production with a new team.
In a conversation with LIGA.net, Natalia Koval, the founder of Pani Yupiter, discussed how her farm managed to survive the occupation and the extent of the losses it incurred.
The Pani Yupiter farm started operating back in 2013 with a herd of 150 cows and 300 hectares of land. Originally, they planned to set up their own dairy production.
The most interesting thing is that the new company has been run by a couple who have never been involved in agriculture, let alone livestock farming. They, however, had a dream, investments, and experience in entrepreneurship.
"I was a lecturer at the Kharkiv National University of Economics. My husband was a top manager at a large production facility," Natalia says.
"We had the Midas touch and an understanding of production processes. However, the farm was a big gamble for us. After all, we are pretty much urban people."
She was encouraged to start her own business by her experience and acquired competences. However, it was parenthood that drew her to the dairy industry.
Natalia was concerned about her children’s nutrition and wanted to provide them with fresh and tasty food.
"The lactic cheese in city stores is very mediocre," she says. "At the market, dairy products are sold next to meat, and milk is poured into plastic bottles. I don't know what was in them before. I didn’t like it all."
"I was trying to find a way out, and my husband was observing [my efforts] and eventually suggested that we open a farm."
Natalia agreed, still not fully believing it would work out. Her husband, however, was determined.
With an engineering degree from the Kharkiv Aviation Institute and an MBA, he started studying animal husbandry at the zooveterinary academy. While he was looking for a place for a farm, Natalia helped him find a new job.
In 2012, both their efforts paid off. He got an interesting job offer and a plot of land on a former state farm in the village of Khotimlia.
The farm was dilapidated.
The couple hired architects and created a project for a modern farm. The old buildings were demolished.
"We realized that the farm required a lot of investment. So we decided that my husband should get a new job," Natalia says. "At first, he wanted to combine everything, but he couldn't work here solely on weekends. So I gradually took over the farm."
The main task was to create a place where safe and high-quality dairy products would be produced. That's why the project included brand new cowsheds and a dairy shop.
Gradually, the farm’s capacity and livestock increased.
By 2022, there were 700 cattle, 300 of which were milked cows, and 40 staff – from livestock farm operators to a confectionery shop chef.
There were also two sales outlets – in Kharkiv and near the farm itself.
But it wasn't just about production.
Pani Yupiter is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kharkiv Oblast. The idea of giving tours, though, came about by accident, Natalia admits.
"I don't invent anything. Most ideas come from people. I just think them through and bring them to life," she says.
"Once a primary school teacher approached us and asked if we could bring her summer camp students on a tour. We agreed."
However, Natalia didn’t stop at the farm tour. She wanted to treat the children to some of the products. Since not everyone drinks milk, she decided to make cocoa and serve it with vatrushkas, a ring of dough with traditional white cheese, and acid-set cheese made in-house.
It was launched in December 2021 under the guidance of a chef.
Schoolchildren and later adults flocked to Pani Yupiter. To make the route more interesting, the farm teamed up with the local historical and archaeological museum "Verkhniy Saltiv" and later the tropical plant greenhouse, also based in Khotimlia.
"In 2022, we planned to add a barge to the route, which would ferry people from Khotimlia to [the village of] Verkhniy Saltiv across the reservoir. But we never ushered in that tourist season."
Natalia did not believe in a possible invasion. Therefore, they made plans rather than prepare for relocation.
On February 22, the farm owner together with the farm’s economist and chef went to Kharkiv for two days. Her husband returned to Khotimlia instead, planning to stay for only two days. Instead, he stayed there until the summer.
"I remember that on the way to Kharkiv, we were talking with our colleagues about the likelihood of an attack. We came to a common conclusion that it was just intimidation."
"How could such a thing happen in the XXI century?"
On February 24, Natalia woke up to explosions in Kharkiv.
"I wanted to go back to sleep and wake up in peace. Even now, sometimes it seems like I'm watching a dream," she recalls.
Russian troops quickly covered 46 kilometres from the state border to Khotimlia; the village, therefore, was occupied immediately.
That it is located in a nook between the road and the river saved it from devastating consequences. In the early days, the locals saw the occupiers only from their gardens as they travelled along the road and heard the sound of shells flying towards Kharkiv.
In the basement of the confectionery shop, Natalia’s husband and the workers set up a bomb shelter where they spent the night. Gradually, the workers left because they had children. Out of a staff of 40, about 15 workers stayed on the farm permanently.
"We talked to everyone and offered to leave. No one forced anyone to stay, but it’s not true that someone here was waiting for the 'Russian world', as I sometimes hear," Natalia recalls.
"Those who had the opportunity and desire to leave did so, those who did not, stayed and worked on the farm."
On February 24, 15 tons of milk were supposed to be taken to a Danone plant, but the products remained on the farm. The farm distributed it to the locals and fed it to the calves, but some had to be poured out anyway. They could not deliver it to other villages because all the roads were controlled by the Russians.
When it became clear that Russia would not pull out of Ukraine in ‘two to three weeks’ and there would be no one to take the milk, the farm decided to gradually stop milking the cows. They were fed, rested, and gave manure, but not milk.
Some calves died, too, due to logistical problems and lack of vitamins and minerals for feeding.
There was also a problem with electricity. In April, the power poles were smashed and the nearby area was mined. The generator, purchased back in 2012 as an alternative power source – and a must for connecting electricity to farms at the time – saved the day.
"By September, when Khotimla was de-occupied, the generator had worked for 1,000 hours. Experts say we were lucky it had held out for so long without maintenance," Natalia says.
"Diesel was also in short supply. Someone brought it, but it was very diluted. We still have one barrel with half water, half fuel."
All this time, the village was cut off from other settlements. The bridges and the dam were destroyed.
There was a problem not only with medicines for animals, but also with bread for people.
"A few days before the invasion, the chef tried to bake a loaf. That's why there was some yeast and flour left on the farm," Natalia recalls. "The lack of bread caused hysteria among the locals. So the workers started baking it."
"When they ran out of flour, they ground fodder corn in a grain grinder for the cows. Of course, the bread was rough on the teeth because of the poor grinding, but it was better than nothing."
Before the de-occupation, Natalia stayed in Kharkiv. Her husband and employees refused to let her move because the farm owners were forced to cooperate with the new "authorities". But even in the absence of the owner, the occupiers made their presence known.
At first, they broke into resorts, summer cottages, and deserted houses. They took everything they could carry, Natalia says. She was afraid that the same fate awaited the farm. However, the enemy had other plans for the farm.
"Probably, the soldiers were ordered not to touch the farm, because the whole farm is worth more than the stolen parts. Then we realized that someone was interested in the farm. Commissions came and asked if the owner was there. When they were told that ‘no’, they said: ’then there will be a new one’. They would go and take pictures and then come back again," Natalia says.
The workers were told not to antagonize this pseudo-commission, not to take pictures of the license plates and not to argue, because the property was not worth their lives.
"Later they told us that we were working illegally. We had to register in Kupyansk, the capital of the new republic, by September 1. I believed and still believe in victory, so I refused. I realized that the farm would remain, but in what condition? That was a big question."
On September 10, Natalia read in the news that Ukrainian troops had landed in Khotimlia. She couldn't call her coworkers because the network was only available in one place near the river bank. So they called the manager themselves.
"Iwas shaking inside. When I got a call from the farm, they said they hadn't seen the landing party, but that the de-occupation had probably really happened. Now I think the news was fake, but at the time I wanted to believe it."
The village was eventually de-occupied, but the good news was mixed with sad. The temporary electricity supply to Vovchansk was interrupted. And there was no diesel to run the generator. The founder of the farm went to great lengths to look for a way to get gasoline trucks, but no one dared to go because of the risk of road mines.
A volunteer center helped to solve this issue. Natalia received permission to transport fuel in a KamAZ truck. Unexpectedly, she was also offered to go to Khotimlia.
"We left at 11 a.m. and arrived only at 6 p.m. Because there was no information about where the bridges were destroyed, where there was no road. We drove past the remains of people, cars, and shells. There were pits everywhere. But such a long and winding road was worth that trembling meeting."
The issue of logistics still remains open. To deliver dairy products outside the village, you have to go to a pedestrian ferry crossing and carry the boxes in your hands to a car on the other side.
This problem has also made it difficult to deliver fodder for livestock. Last year, the weather allowed the farmers to harvest the first hay crop, but they didn't have enough resources for the second. So they still have to use silage prepared in 2021.
For the same reason, they could not sell bullocks for a long time. This led to a lack of not only money but also feed for the cows. They had to share it with the calves.
During the six months of occupation, the farm lost about 138 cows. But the total number of cows is now about 600, because the cows managed to give birth to new calves. Before the invasion, 7 tons of milk were milked daily; at the time of de-occupation, this amount decreased to 600 liters. Now it has been partially restored – up to 2.5 tons. However, the number of cows being milked has significantly decreased to 180, and the fat content of milk has dropped to 2.5% due to lack of feed and hunger.
The only established market for the products is local residents and workers. They buy cheese and milk. The confectionery shop currently produces only dumplings and cheesecakes instead of the usual cakes and pastries.
"We are basically starting from scratch. The staff has changed, and sometimes I have to join the production myself. No matter how difficult it is, we try to do what is currently in demand," Natalia says.
When asked what she dreams about now, besides Ukraine's victory, the farm owner answers: "I would like to return to the production of the items and plans we had before. And also to organize excursions and professional seminars at our farm. I want us to develop our cheeses, establish delivery to Kharkiv, and restore the website. I am doing everything possible for this."