Cheese industry of Ukraine: then and now

In this exclusive piece, Oksana Chernova, a professional cheese expert at the ProCheese Academy in Ukraine, discusses the state of the cheese industry in Ukraine during the war.

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 cheese makers and cheese mongers, and much more. We had huge plans for this upcoming year, such as hosting the World Cheese Awards (WCA) 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.

In Ukraine, 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 cheese makers and their products, due to the national cheese competition ProCheese Awards, which we held last year for the first time. Before the war, average annual cheese production in Ukraine was about 190 thousand tons.

We all looked forward to the World Cheese Awards this year because we have something to surprise cheese professionals from around the world. But now, during the war, the situation has shifted, and some cheese makers have temporarily stopped working, while others have readjusted their production. Currently, there is no official data on how much the production level has decreased.

The state of the industry

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:

• Damage from missile strikes and shelling

Almost all businesses that were in the hotspots were affected. Thus, Lactalis Ukraine, a large enterprise, 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 Ardis Group warehouse was also destroyed, and the car fleet was partially damaged. It was where we have stored imported cheese, located in Myla in the Kyiv region. It was a huge logistic centre.

Image: Ardis Group

• Supply disruptions

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

Craft producer 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 ceased working, especially in combat zones.

• 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.

• 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 saw sales drop by almost three times.

At our production site, Molochna Maysternya the sales volume since the beginning of the war fell five times. However, this did not stop the 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 charities and to support the armed forces.

• Mastering the role of a cheesemonger

For many industries, both large and craft, sales to stores and retail chains are currently limited. Cheese makers and production workers are now mastering the role of cheese making 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 Molochna Maysternya have started in a new role as cheese sellers at the market in Uman in the Cherkasy region in central Ukraine. The Dooobra Ferma artisan cheese manufacturer has now resumed direct sales in its region.

• 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 internally displaced persons.

• Changing customer needs

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

Many productions froze aged cheeses in their warehouses, began to alter their production processes and began working with fresh cheeses and sour-milk products. Those companies that are able to work continue to work. Some of the products go to the military forces.

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.

The situation is slowly recovering, but logistics and consumer capacity are still weak. According to official data, about five million people have left Ukraine, so right now, we can’t even imagine when the industry will return to normal.

• Outflow of labour

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.

• 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 ploughing, 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.

Positive moments and prospects

Despite the difficult situation, cheese makers are actively providing assistance to the defence, migrants and the armed forces in their regions. The farmers who faced the problem of selling milk in the first weeks of the war travelled to villages and towns and distributed milk to people in need.

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

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