Black Dirt: Agricultural connections between Ukraine, North Dakota, and New York
A little note to welcome all of the new subscribers! Because the Historical Supper Club is dependent, in large part, on current events, and because I have a complicated work life with the tendency to be overextended, future newsletters are likely to be more sporadic, but for now I’m aiming for weekly, on Sundays. Also I just can’t stop thinking about Ukraine. So here we are. If you haven’t read my last post on Ukraine, you can catch up here. This post also contains Amazon affiliate links, so if you purchase anything from those links, Historical Supper Club will receive a small commission.
I grew up on black dirt. The Red River - the border between North Dakota and Minnesota - is one of the few rivers in North America to flow north, from the confluence of the Bois de Sioux River in Wahpeton, ND and the Otter Tail River in Breckenridge, MN all the way to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, which drains north into Hudson’s Bay. The Red River is all that remains of the southern tip of glacial Lake Agassiz, which was larger than all of the modern Great Lakes combined. When that lake finally drained, rich black dirt was left behind, periodically renewed by flooding from the Red River, which often melts in the south faster than it does in the north, causing flooding to spread sometimes for miles across the flat bottom of the valley.
That rich alluvial soil made the Red River Valley a wonderful place to grow wheat, potatoes, and sugar beets. Reliable rain made a big difference, too. Further west, where the rain was a little less reliable, sunflowers were a major crop, along with honey and dairy. The black dirt of the Northern Plains stretches from the Canadian Prairies all the way south to Kansas - also known as the breadbasket of America. But the soil is richest and deepest where Lake Agassiz once lay.
That black dirt was all I knew, growing up. When I got a little older, I was shocked to travel elsewhere in the U.S. and see red or yellow or pale brown dirt. I thought all soil was as black and rich as the stuff back home. I had no idea how rare and valuable it was.
Here in New York, we have a different kind of black dirt. The dirt in my yard is yellow-brown and full of clay and rocks. But less than an hour’s drive from my house is the Black Dirt Region, an area centered around Pine Island, NY that was once a glacial lake (albeit much smaller than Lake Agassiz). In the post-glacial period, it turned into a prehistoric swamp and is one of the largest sources of mastodon bones in North America. But in the 1880s it was drained by Polish and German immigrants. Land speculators had sought to dupe them by selling them the worthless “drowned lands” - but the immigrants came from regions rich in black dirt and had experience draining wetlands. Joke’s on the land speculators. Their efforts were successful, and the region became a major agricultural powerhouse in New York, close enough to New York City to enjoy its purchasing power and international shipping. In some areas of the Black Dirt Region there are as many as 30 feet of rich topsoil, even today after over a century of farming. In some places it is so deep, agricultural equipment runs on dual wheels and cannot be left in the fields overnight - or it sinks. This has also protected the agricultural land, as it is difficult or impossible to develop for housing or industry. By the 20th century, Pine Island, NY became known as the Onion Capital of the World, and onions are still a major crop.
Ukraine is also rich in black dirt, and, like North Dakota, specializes in wheat, sunflowers, potatoes, and sugar beets. In fact, Ukraine holds more than 25% of the world’s supply of black dirt, often known as chernozem, from the Russian words for black - chorny - and soil or earth - zemlya. The Eurasian steppe is the other even larger source of black dirt across the world - stretching from eastern Croatia long the Danube River, into Ukraine, and across central Russia to Siberia, but the concentration in Ukraine is high. The chernozem is what makes Ukraine Europe’s breadbasket, and what made it, historically, a contested and exploited region.
Last week I started reading Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules. It’s delightful and atmospheric and as someone who grew up going to great-grandma’s house out in the country, I felt kinship with her nostalgia for the past, and her urgency to save or revive it.
As I read her introduction, I was startled, but not surprised, that she mentioned quite casually and offhand that during the Nazi Occupation of Ukraine in WWII, the Nazis stole black dirt to send back home. They stole people, too, sending thousands of Ukrainian farmers to forced labor camps in Germany, in addition to murdering 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, largely to “free up” food supply from “useless eaters.”
But finding the back story to that offhand comment was tougher than expected.
In 2012 Lizzie Collingham published the book The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle For Food. Her main argument is that Nazi aggression in Poland and the Soviet Union was entirely predicated on a desire for more agricultural land to feed its industrial centers. The book is massive, 500 pages long with another 80 pages of footnotes. But for anyone interested in the food history of Ukraine and the Soviet Union (and Japan, and China, and Britain, and the US) during the war, it is invaluable.
“On the endless fields of the East [Soviet Union] surge waves of wheat, enough and more than enough to feed our people and the whole of Europe. . . This is our war aim.” This was the Nazi rationale for the occupation of Poland, Ukraine, and parts of Russia, but sadly for German citizens and especially Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian citizens and the millions of Jewish citizens rounded up and summarily slaughtered, there was never “more than enough.” Throughout the war, especially in Ukraine and Leningrad, starvation was a weapon of war. But there was never enough, even after the war.
Sadly, despite days of research, I was not able to find definitive confirmation of Olia’s comment regarding Nazi export of black dirt. I did find a few references. Norman Davies’ No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (2008) references Nazi exports of Ukrainian soil twice (pages 50 and 184), but only in passing, and without footnote. A 1997 issue of “Forum: A Ukrainian Review” has a snippet reading “German armies invaded Ukraine in June 1941 it is not generally known that they shipped trainloads of Ukrainian black earth back to Germany,” but I have not been able to get my hands on the whole article. Perhaps someone who is reading this can direct me to a more in-depth source!
A black market for chernozem was alive and well until quite recently. Sale of agricultural land in Ukraine was banned from the 1990s until 2021 - a law designed to protect small farmers - “land for those who work it” - by giving shares of land previously used in collective farms to the farm workers. So the black market for chernozem was largely based on topsoil stolen from abandoned land, that is, land whose owners died with no heirs, and land held, but not necessarily occupied, by retirees with no heirs. Abetted by corrupt government officials, this black market allowed the fertile Ukrainian soil to be sold elsewhere. But the end of the land sale ban was a condition of the latest loan package from the International Monetary Fund. For now, the land can only be sold to Ukrainians, but in the future corporations and foreign investors may be able to purchase the land. Foreign ownership of agricultural land is an increasingly large problem globally, including in the United States, which requires disclosure of purchases, but otherwise has few regulations.
If anything, living on or near black dirt my whole life has taught me how valuable it is. And scientists are increasingly aware of the importance of soil health in the future of agriculture. With the Russian invasion and subsequent closure of the Black Sea ports, global prices of agricultural fertilizers, already high, are on the rise. Many are suggesting that Russian aggression is a wakeup call for weaning the West off of its oil and gas addiction. Perhaps it is also a wakeup call for weaning the West off of its chemical fertilizer addiction.
The war has another consequence - while Ukraine is fighting invading forces, it may struggle to plant crops for summer and fall. And even if they are able to get in a decent harvest, farmers may find it difficult to export their crops. Globally, with rising fertilizer prices, this is likely to spike food prices. American farmers may be able to help pick up the slack, but unless they ramp down production once Ukraine recovers, that could result in an agricultural depression like the one following the end of the First World War. And some are calling for farmers who benefit financially from higher prices to help out their Ukrainian counterparts.
Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine has far less to do with its agricultural riches than previous invading and colonizing forces, it’s still worthwhile to understand the agricultural history of Ukraine, and its place within the global economy.
What I’m Reading:
AgWeek journalist Mikkel Pates’ (a family friend!) recent article about North Dakota-Ukraine agricultural connections.
The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle For Food by Lizzie Collingham
Between Hitler and Stalin: Ukraine in World War II - The Untold Story - a companion book (free online!) written to accompany the documentary film by the same name, produced by the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre in Toronto. This book is replete with footnotes, and makes for eye-opening reading.
And yes, I’m still working on Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules (I’m almost done!). It’s lovely, and my review is forthcoming.
How You Can Help:
If you don’t have money to spare, take the time to call your Congressional representatives to express your support for US sanctions against Russia and military and financial support for Ukraine.
Besides the Summer Kitchens review, I’m also working on pieces on the history of stagflation, food prices, and food riots, Ukrainian immigration to the United States, and more.
Have a request for context and coverage? Ask in the comments!