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Take Note: A Penn State professor who is a native of Ukraine and an assistant dean on the College of Agricultural Sciences' long history of working with Ukraine

Head and shoulder shots of Suzanna Windon and Deanna Behring
Photos provided
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Suzanna Windon and Deanna Behring spoke with WPSU about the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences' programs and partnerships in Ukraine.

Known as “the breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine is one of the top exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. For 30 years, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has been working with researchers and institutions in Ukraine, which had been in the process of reforming its farmland laws. WPSU's Anne Danahy talked with Suzanna Windon, a native of Ukraine and an assistant professor who became the director of the Ukrainian Rural and Agricultural Development Program last fall and Deanna Behring, assistant dean for International Programs.

Here is their conversation.

Anne Danahy 
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. Russia's invasion of Ukraine comes as Ukraine was in the process of making major reforms to its land laws. Sometimes referred to as "the breadbasket of Europe," Ukraine is one of the top exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. For 30 years, Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has been working with researchers and institutions in Ukraine. Joining us to talk about the latest work they're doing and how the invasion could affect it are Suzanna Windon and Deanna Behring. Suzanna Windon, is an assistant professor in the College of Ag, who became the director of the Ukrainian Rural and Agricultural Development Program this past fall. She's also a native of Ukraine and has family who live there. Deanna Behring is the college's assistant dean for International Programs, and has been extensively involved with the programs, including those in Ukraine. Suzanna Windon and Deanna Behring thank you so much for joining us.

Deanna Behring 
Thank you for making this possible.

Suzanna Windon 
Thank you for having us. Thank you.

Anne Danahy 
Before we talk about some of the work that both of you and the college have been doing with Ukraine, I wondered what your initial reaction was to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, given your ties to the country? And just what your thoughts are now? And maybe, Suzanna, we'll start with you.

Suzanna Windon 
Yeah, thank you so much. I'm native of Ukraine. And it definitely... it was 7 a.m. in the morning, when I received a text message from my brother that basically telling that the Russian basically invade Ukraine. And I don't remember what that moment I was thinking, but I definitely, it's like, you know, automatically I start to worrying about that. Because you know, that war, it is an armed conflict, right. And all the consequences about that. We are all familiar about that. So I have so mixed feelings about you know, love and grief and fear, you know, for their life. And I was in panic. I was in panic. Yeah.

Anne Danahy 
And are you still in contact with them?

Suzanna Windon 
Yes, I am. I try to check with them several times a day and see if they're OK. Is everything fine? You know, because they have little children. And, you know, because they experience bomb shelters several days and nights and days, and now they move to western part of the country. But still being there does not mean it's safe, you know, because you never know what can happen. You know, in another hour or now the next day. So yeah, it is really, it is unsafe there.

Anne Danahy 
It is. And Deanna it's obviously there's a different situation for you. It's not your family, who are over there. But it sounds like you've been working with people in that country. You have contacts over there. What were your reactions when you first learned about this?

Deanna Behring 
Well, first, let me send a message to all our Ukrainian friends and colleagues that we are here thinking of you every day trying to raise funds, be proactive with our governments at the local, national and international levels to impress upon them the need for the protection of the free and open democratic Ukraine that so many of us have worked to build and partner with over the years.

As you said in your opening comments, Penn State has been working with Ukrainian partners since 1992. We were getting ready to celebrate 30 years of partnership in April of 2022. And I know many of us who have great friends and colleagues in Ukraine, like Suzanna, but not quite the same, suffered a degree of shock and heartbreak when we not only heard the news, but continue to watch the news and see the ongoing devastation. We have groups that are working together to try to communicate with our colleagues over there. And we have former colleagues that spent time at Penn State who are back in Ukraine. They're professors, and they're now taking up arms to protect their country. These are professors like Suzanna and me, who are so proud and so brave and so committed to the country of Ukraine, that they're willing to pick up arms and defend their people and their country. So these stories are reaching us daily here in State College, Pennsylvania. And I think we all struggle with, and really comprehending the scope and magnitude of what's going on, the long-term potential ramifications, not just on Ukraine, but the rest of the world as well.

Anne Danahy 
One of the long-term ramifications or even short and long term could be on agriculture, the agricultural industry. Ukraine's national flower is the sunflower, and it's a symbol, but it's more than just a symbol. Together, Russia and Ukraine produce about 60% of the world's sunflower oil. And about two thirds of Ukraine is this fertile farmland. I wonder if you could talk just a little bit, Suzanna, maybe we'll start with you about how important Ukraine is as an agricultural producer and exporter to other countries.

Suzanna Windon 
Thank you for your question. As you mentioned from the beginning, that for centuries, Ukraine has been known as "the breadbasket of Europe." And this title is entirely accurate because Ukraine is home to around a quarter of the world's super fertile, or we can say "black soil," right. At this point, I should again emphasize that Ukraine became as the top three grain exporters and the world leader in the areas such as soybean, sunflower oil and wheat production. And Ukraine … I mean, during the decades right now, we can say that exported to the global markets, such as China, Egypt, India, Turkey, and also in European Union countries. Of course we are talking today about commodities, such as grain, sugar, because sugar beets is another really huge market in Ukraine, right, sunflower seeds, vegetables, beef and milk. And especially in the late recent years, because of large increase of the production of the crops like wheat, barley and maize, positively affected in given great increase of their livestock production as well. So we will see some broken chains, not only among the crops, right, markets, but we will see issues related to the livestock production in their products.

Anne Danahy 
So it could have across the board ramifications, right? Ukraine has just actually banned the export of wheat and other grains, understandably, the situation they're in. And as you were talking about some of the statistics, I think I read that Russian and Ukraine produce about a third of the world's wheat products together. Ukrainian farmers that are not going to be able to plant the crops this coming season if this continues?

Suzanna Windon 
Yeah, I think this is a big question. Right now today, I have listening, watching and reading and try to understand what our Ukrainian farmers plan to do right now. But it's difficult to say when you're under bombing, you know. And I didn't know is it safe to go to — I mean go to your fields and start to do things. Because even if you put a lot of efforts there you don't know what would happen tomorrow. No one can give a guarantee of the peace.

Deanna Behring 
And also driving the price up globally too, right. So not just the agricultural products, but the energy. The issue as well is bound to increase prices around the world. And some places where, you know, the economy's already very unstable, and people pay a high percentage of their income on energy and food, this can really be a destabilizing force in some other places around the world.

Suzanna Windon 
Oh, yeah.

Anne Danahy 
Russia's invasion comes as changes to Ukraine's land laws were underway and there has actually been a freeze on land sales, if I'm understanding correctly in Ukraine. Can you explain how those land laws for farmers have worked for the past 20, 30 years

Suzanna Windon 
Before July 1, 2021, Ukraine had a moratorium on the sale of arable land. So the moratorium means that large farms depend on land leases, right, which hampers access to finance in for the most part that affected investment in irrigation, in drainage system. So the ban of the purchase and sale of agricultural land had the negative impact in different areas of the agriculture and rural development generally. So the first, we can say that it was like negative migration balance of the rural population. Low rent paid to landowners. Soil depletion, because before people didn't care. They just paid cents for the land lease with no investment. So of course, if you buy the land, you care about that land, right, you invest a lot of money in, let's say, an irrigation system, especially in the southern part of Ukraine was high in wheat production. So besides that, it could be, like a negative effect on the development of the shadow economy or budget revenue shortfalls across the country. So we saw this kind of things there over the years.

However, with implementing land reform, one of the main purposes actually to implementing that land reform, that increase on let's say, enforce the people's constitutional rights to dispose of their property freely, right. And help to empower local communities by transferring public agricultural land to them, which can help increase economic development in each region. And also, I think, implementing that land reform, can help create more transparent agricultural land market functioning, that bring to more effective land management. All of these things like positive things that will be based on the implementation of the land market reform will bring us to the higher yield, right, and better prices, and balance world market. So this is all about this.

Anne Danahy 
Yeah, I think that's kind of hard, coming from an American perspective, to wrap your head around this idea that there's this, this rule right now, this is "Oh, you can't sell this farmland." Why was that in place? Or was there resistance to change? Is there concerns about negative effects — kind of the other side of it, too?

Suzanna Windon 
I think it is just the mindset, OK. I personally, feel it is a mindset that people inherited of the Soviet Union time. For people, giving them permission to sell the land, that means, they are afraid that land can be sold to some big investors, and people will not be able to compete without high prices and never have the opportunity to own their own land. And, the second biggest problem for large agricultural enterprises, I think from perspective of paying for a land lease only cents compared to having land, as the main production assets. We see here huge differences in the cost, right, of ag production. So they need to take more responsibility, and really increase investments. And why they should to do this while they can use all the land almost for free?

Anne Danahy 
If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Anne Danahy. We're talking with Suzanna Windon, an assistant professor in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, and the director of the Ukrainian Rural and Agricultural Development Program, and Deanna Behring, the college's assistant dean for International Programs. Suzanna, you were appointed to lead the college's Ukrainian Rural and Agricultural Development Program just this past fall. And one of the initiatives you were working on is assisting with Ukraine's land law reform that we were just talking about. Where will that stand now? I mean, I imagine all of that work is just on hold?

Suzanna Windon 
When I joined the team, we decided to do the needs assessment and we collaborate with our colleagues from Ukrainian institutions. And had a conversation about the gaps in needs of the Ukrainian farmers in Ukraine, basically, generally related to their land reform. We in our future plan were two big events in next couple months. The first one, it was planned to have 30 years anniversary celebration with signing next agreement with NULES which is National University of Life and Environmental Sciences in Ukraine. And as a continuation, we plan to design a workshop as a follow up, based on discussion that we initiate during the 30 years anniversary celebration is bringing more specialists and professionals in the area of agriculture, specifically in land valuation in the United States and Ukraine. And people who did research on this issue from German universities, Halle, specifically, in the open the discussion for the much bigger audience. This is a question today and we work and try to adjust our agenda and think about how we can do this due to all the situations, war situations in Ukraine. Because everything what we doing we try to help Ukraine move forward with this land reform.

Deanna Behring 
Yeah, I would just add to that, you know, we remain committed. We are planning to continue these programs with our Ukrainian partners. We don't know when, but it will happen. We are inspired every day by our Ukrainian friends and colleagues on the ground and what they're standing up for and fighting for. And so we carry that inspiration with us. And we will see this workshop that Suzanna just talked about happen. I know it. You know, we have 30 years of history. There are these ties between Pennsylvania and Ukraine that nobody can deny. The reason agriculture is such a cornerstone of our partnership, is that Pennsylvania and Ukraine share a lot of similar climactic, you know, characteristics. And so we have a lot to share with one another in the agricultures field. Pennsylvania is home to more Ukrainians than most other states in the United States. And right here in State College is the Woskob family. Because of their foresight of Alex and Helen, the matriarch and patriarch who have both passed away. Because of their foresight, fleeing the Soviet Union, coming to Pennsylvania, and investing in the agriculture partnership, we understand that. We understand that linkage, we appreciate that linkage. We value that linkage between Pennsylvania and Ukraine. And we stand by it. Penn State's partnership with Ukrainian Ag institutions goes back to 1992, when Alex and Helen Woskob had the great foresight to donate private funds to Penn State. And we created, back then the 1992, Ukrainian Agriculture Center at Penn State. Over the years, that small initiative has grown to something even bigger, that engages almost all of our different departments across the College of Agricultural Sciences and in collaboration with the College of Liberal Arts. Where, as you might know, Penn State has a wealth of knowledge and information about Ukrainian language, history, culture, religion. So we, you know, are looking forward to the future, at some point, in you know, carrying all of these ideas through and helping Ukraine be as strong of a country as they can be.

Anne Danahy 
And Suzanna, so you've been at Penn State since 2018. And you have experience doing research and teaching in Ukraine as well. What, you talked a little bit about this, the types of work the types of projects and research that Penn State would be partnering with people in Ukraine on. But talk a little bit more about what you see as the is most needed in Ukraine, when it comes to being able to continue to progress, achieve more economic independence.

Suzanna Windon 
One of our priority working with CURAD (Consortium for Ukraine's Rural and Agricultural Development) fellows for this year...

Anne Danahy 

Is CURAD, that's an acronym for the program? Is that right?

Suzanna Windon 
Yes, so was to conduct a research that helped us to learn about Ukrainian farmers perceptions about land reforms. Conduct real research, and connect with Ukrainian farmers and ask their perceptions, what they think about land reform, and how they feel about that and how they see the progress okay. Because we learned not too long ago communicating with our Ukrainian faculty and our colleagues, that Ukraine right now have about 7, 8% of farmers is kind of new generation farmers who never have experienced being part of agriculture. However, their families, their grandparents own some little piece of land right now, right. And the people inherited that land. And they're really passionate about, do some investment, learn about agriculture, and we're really interested in that target population as well in the future.

Anne Danahy 
And you said 7 or 8%? Is that right?

Suzanna Windon 
Yes, it's kind of new generation of farmers that never have any experience in, experienced before being in their agricultural production. So that is another interesting target population for us so that we can learn and think about how can we as Penn State, and part of being part of the global program in all our knowledge about the extension and transfer of technology and knowledge, help that new target to make better, do better, and succeed.

Deanna Behring 
One of the most successful and exciting programs that the Woskob Endowment has supported is something called the Vera Scholars Program. Wira, in Ukrainian, Suzanna, correct me if I'm wrong means trust. So we had a program called The Woskob International Research Associate, the WIRA program. And every spring we would bring two young faculty from Ukraine to spend the entire semester working side by side with Penn State faculty on research and teaching techniques to take back to Ukraine. We've had probably over the years, about 50 of those faculty come to Penn State. And so they've become kind of our research network, our teaching network. We have agreements with eight universities in Ukraine, where we do this program. Most recently, we renamed that program, the CURAD Fellows Program, and CURAD stands for the Consortium for Ukraine's Rural and Agriculture Development. So we took the Penn State program, and we broadened the scope of it to include other universities in the United States that cared about Ukraine. But it's still the same principle where we find young faculty, we like to call them our agents of change, right? They come here, we, we grow their research capabilities, our joint research with them, teaching techniques that will inspire that next generation of students back in Ukraine, to be passionate about agriculture. And as an investment in their country.

We've had faculty come over in food science and learn some of our techniques on improving flour to make longer lasting bread, for example. Food safety is an enormous issue right now. And we've had a number of exchanges in the Food Safety arena, because you know you can grow all the food you want, but if it's not safe from disease and spoilage and microbes, you know, you're gonna have problems. You can't export it either. So food safety is a really important area. Other areas of forestry, you know, the Carpathian Mountains are right there. Right, Suzanna? And so our forest partnership is really, really strong in terms of forest protection, forest biodiversity, fire prevention, right? Penn State is a really strong program in fire prevention. That program is really, really near and dear to our heart. And it's through that program that we have come to know these individuals so intimately, and become friends with them for forever, right. And those are the people that we're going to stand by. Those are the people that are going to help us rebuild Ukraine once this is over.

Anne Danahy 
Are you concerned, as a question for both of you, but maybe we'll start with Suzanna, are you concerned — So all of this work that's being done and the headway that's being made that this it's all going to be frozen for now, or we don't know what the future will hold that some of this is going to get to get lost?

Suzanna Windon 
I don't believe that things, all the efforts will be lost. But I truly believe that people gain knowledge. People stay connected. We always check in with all our, alumni, program alumni. So we still in the communication and I think one of the proof of that, that it was numbers, emails right now, especially during this week, couple weeks. It's amazing how people reconnect that and faculty to work with when Penn State faculties those who worked with Ukrainian faculties who being part of this program in the past, they check in, ask about their families ask about how they're doing. But I just personally think this is a strong connection that Penn State built with Ukrainian colleagues will not go away. You know, I think this will grow. I think Ukraine, after this war will be ended, I truly believe that Ukraine will start to build new society, new world, and they will invest all the knowledge what they received here in the United States, and try to implement even in the higher level, you know, with great approach with a particular goal. Building the new system, incorporate all the knowledge that they learned from here in there. So I know, don't have any doubt about that. It's going to be forgotten. They're very enthusiastic, right. We are all enthusiastic about their, that they will win this war and they will take to the another level and rebuild the country. I think they will not lose the knowledge from what they got here.

Anne Danahy 
Deanna, do you feel that way? Or do you hear that from the colleagues? You said, you've been hearing from colleagues who are overseas, people you've worked with in the past? Is there that hopefulness?

Deanna Behring 
Yeah, that's one of the things that I think anyone who has met someone from Ukraine will be quick to point out that the bravery, the passion, the dedication, the optimism, the spirit, I think will prevail. And, of course, I don't know. Nobody knows what's going to happen in the short term. But I think Suzanna is absolutely right, in the long term.

Suzanna Windon 
Being a native Ukrainian, I have the same spirit that Ukraine will win the war and I really have a great hope for the best. And that's why I have this outlook on their life, you know that. That helped to move forward. That spirit.

Anne Danahy 
Suzanna Windon and Deanna Behring, thank you both so much for joining us.

Suzanna Windon 
Thank you.

Anne Danahy 
We've been talking with Suzanna Windon an assistant professor in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and the director of the Ukrainian Rural and Agricultural Development Program, and Deanna Behring the college's assistant dean for International Programs. To listen to this and other episodes of Take Note, go to wpsu.org/takenote, I'm Anne Danahy, WPSU.