Coming to America

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By: 
Matt Geiger
Roksolana Viter with her mother, Svetlana, at the Greenway Station Farmers Market. The market takes place every Thursday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

A Ukrainian family is forging a new life in America’s heartland, working the land together and embracing a vibrant, organic farming philosophy.

Roksolana Viter enjoyed life in her native Ukraine. Living in Kyiv, the fifth largest city in Europe, she worked as an architect, creating modern designs and assuming that was what she would do for the rest of her life.

Then, in 2014 Russia made several incursions into Ukrainian territory, breaking the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and throwing the region into a state of unrest, political turmoil and in some places, violence.

“I thought, the boys in my family could die,” recalls Viter, her two-year-old daughter, Olga, munching on a crisp, ruby red sweet pepper in the late summer humidity of a greenhouse at Terra Growers on County Highway K. Her eight-year-old son, Roman, is in class at Northside Elementary. But when not at school, he and Olga, along with Roksolana and her mother, Svetlana, spend their days working the Wisconsin soil.

“When Russia started aggression against my country I made [a] decision for all family that life is [the] most important thing in [the] world,” Viter explains.

Viter, who had friends, including Elliott Long, living in Wisconsin, saw the Middleton area as a safe haven.

“We started our new life here with [the] main idea … that we have to care for us, have to care for others and the world generally,” she says. “And the best way … to show that respect for life is to start grow[ing] food. We are what we eat. That is what we believe.”

While Viter was trained in architecture and comfortable amidst the bustle of modern urban life, she says agriculture is an important part of her heritage. It is, she says, “in our blood.”

“Ukraine is [a] very old county,” she says. “About 2,000 years of farming. Very rich soil and lots of experience in our blood.”

When Viter and her family fled to the United States, they noticed something familiar about Wisconsin, despite being more than 5,000 miles from their homeland.

“[The] most funny thing about our move to here [is] that my mom, Svetlana, found that soil, weather, and even weeds [are] absolutely the same here,” she says. “We are on the other side of world and keep doing what [we] used to do.”

Like her daughter, Svetlana is a highly skilled professional. But despite being an immunologist in Ukraine, she also had experience working the land with her parents. It is a set of skills she passed along to her daughter at an early age. Roksolana, or “Lana” to many of her American friends, says some of her earliest memories involve harvesting food to store for the cold winter months.

While she speaks English with gusto, Lana also exudes a gregarious enthusiasm – for her family, for the land, for the food they produce, and for the customers who eat it – that transcends any language barriers.

They are farming land owned by Long, who, while he is part of nearly everything Terra Growers does, defers credit to the close-knit family that spends its days converting silos into root cellars, pulling weeds and harvesting homegrown sorghum and corn for their flock of chickens.

Together, they run Terra Growers, growing fresh, organic vegetables – including green peppers, rotund pumpkins, onions, peas, garlic and more - and tending to the aforementioned free range, organic, “happy chickens.”

Taking a short break, their faces and hands streaked with soil untouched by harmful chemicals, they gather around a small kitchen table for loose leaf green tea and a rustic, moist fruit cake Svetlana has just pulled from the oven.

“There really seems to be something happening on our farm, some kind of shared vision that keeps us motivated and we really hope it lasts, because if we can keep the same kind of energy we had this year, we will really do well in the coming years,” says Long.

Long went on to say the young children who pluck fresh fruits and vegetables from the ground serve as a daily inspiration to farm the land in a responsible way.

“We starting by growing our own fruit and vegetables, became mesmerize by the quality and taste of fresh organic food, not to mention the peace of mind of knowing our food is non-toxic,” says Long. Eventually, he continues, they began to “fantasize about a much larger production and, who knows, maybe even the possibility of turning a profit someday.”

Eventually, they were ready to grow more food than they could eat. They were already feeding their families, and the next step was to feed others as well.

But growing food isn’t easy, especially for those who choose to farm in the old ways. The weather rarely cooperates, customers can be fickle, and swearing off pesticides and herbicides, while it is at the core of Terra Growers’ philosophy, does mean more work.

“Elliott is a big dreamer,” says Viter.  “Our same goal is to save the planet for [the] next generation.”

“We [are] trying to restore old traditions and grow food without any chemicals,” she continues. “Our main rule on our farm - nothing besides water!”

“We have lots of veggies, [an] orchard with fruits and berries, nut trees, chickens, bees,” she says. “We are in love with our farm and with what we are doing.”

She says the work can be grueling, but the end result is worth the toil.

“When [you] see one-pound tomatoes or 2,000 plants of peppers, or 5,000 garlic plants on your field and realize that [you] never used chemicals to have this success, it gives you energy to do even more,” she adds.

Long says the days are full. “Caffeinate, hydrate, motivate, think about our long term plans for five minutes, then immediately forget about them and start panicking about all the short term emergencies that change day by day: watering, feeding, planting, cultivating, harvesting, cooking,” he says of the  average day at Terra Growers. “We have clear daily chores but they always seems to be taking a backseat to whatever Mother Nature throws our way.”

Last year, Terra Growers began attending the Greenway Station Farmers Market in Middleton. This year, the farm is increasingly its presence. At the farm’s tent, Viter’s enthusiasm is palpable.

“Everyone responds really well to our message, which Lana delivers so well,” says Long. “She is a natural spokesperson and very informative.”

It feels, he says, “like we have arrived.”

And while it would mean increased competition, Long says he hopes to see more small, local growers selling fruits, vegetables and meats in the greater Middleton community.

“I am always surprised to hear that many of the organic or simply small growers like us are from places far away, and many of them drive up to an hour to bring their produce to market,” Long says. “We are right next to Middleton and just a couple of miles from the Greenway Station Market. Despite the fact that it might mean more competition I would really like to see more near-urban small growers.”

“In fact,” he concludes. “We dream of an entire region in the north Middleton area that could be a mecca for local growers.”

 

Editor’s note: While many western readers are used to seeing this Ukrainian city spelled “Kiev,” most Eastern Europeans, including Viter, spell it “Kyiv.”

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