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An Earth Team Astronaut on Spaceship Earth

The renowned American philosopher Buckminster Fuller wrote the “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” to promote his belief that humans should collaborate harmoniously on this planet of finite resources for the benefit of all.  In it he says, “Take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate and don't hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another.”

Taking a chapter from Fuller’s book, Perry County Ohio farmer Thad Cooperrider welcomed Mark Khasyanov, an Ukranian teenager, to his farm this summer.  Cooperrider, an “astronaut” himself, traveled to the Ukraine for business in 2001 where he met Mark’s father, Alex, an Ukranian farmer.  At the time Alex managed a large chicken processing facility near Harkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.  Harkiv lies near the eastern border Ukraine shares with Russia, a fertile region of gently rolling hills referred to as the Black Earth belt.

DC Justin Hunter presents Earth Team hat to volunteer Mark Khasyanov
Earth Team volunteer Mark Khasyanov checks the stream while surveying with DC
Windbreaks around Ukraine fields

As a proponent of conservation, Cooperrider works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to manage the natural resources on his farm using programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the expertise of Ohio District Conservationist Justin Hunter.  When Alex sent his 16 year old son Mark to spend time on Cooperrider's livestock farm, Cooperrider suggested Mark sign up for the Earth Team volunteer program to expose him to farming and conservation throughout the county. 

Ohio is a happening place, but signing up a foreigner for the Earth Team doesn’t happen every day.  In fact, only one or two foreigners have ever signed up for Ohio’s Earth Team Program.  And, nationally you can count the yearly number of foreign Earth Team volunteers on one hand!  However, when NRCS established the Earth Team program in 1985, someone had the forethought to include provisions that allow non-citizen volunteers.  The state volunteer coordinator followed the process by sending Mark’s application to NRCS headquarters in Washington, DC for approval, which they granted the same day. 

District Conservationist Hunter embraced Fuller’s Spaceship Earth philosophy and didn’t hold back, he gave Mark work just as he would any employee.  They traveled the county with NRCS Civil Engineering Technicians Dave Snider and  Antonio Carrillo.  Because students in the Ukraine learn English, Mark could communicate pretty well, according to Hunter.  They made visits to both livestock and crop farms in Perry and Licking Counties, where they did the things needed to develop conservation plans, such as surveying the land for designing conservation practices. 

While Mark learned about farming and conservation in the United States, Hunter and his crew learned a lot about the same in the Ukraine.  More cultivated land than any other European country and a climate similar to Kansas earned Ukraine the moniker “Europe’s breadbasket.”  Popular crops include barley, sunflowers, wheat, corn, and sugar beets. Mark explained how row crops sell for around $14 per acre whereas in the U.S. they can sell for up to fifty times that.  An average Ohio farm has about 200 acres compared to a typical farm operation in the Ukraine of several thousand acres, like the 10,000 acre farm Mark’s brother Dema operates back home.  In villages, residents have small farm plots and grow much of their own food.  Mark missed the fresh food he typically eats, lots of fruits, vegetables and grains, although he did enjoy bacon flavored ice cream and hamburgers!

Ukranian farmers face environmental challenges much like American farmers.  The big differences between conservation in the U.S. and in the Ukraine lies in the Ukraine’s shortage of farming equipment and in the lack of government backed financial support to help offset the cost of adopting conservation practices. Cooperrider explained that in the 1940’s farmers started planting windbreaks around 500 hectare plots to combat wind erosion, a labor-intensive but low-tech conservation measure. Farmers would like to practice no-till farming and some do, but the special equipment needed is still a major barrier.  They also lack access to technical experts, like Justin Hunter, to help them identify natural resource problems and develop conservation solutions, although the 2001 Land Code of the Ukraine mentions developing a conservation delivery system similar to the Soil Conservation Service.

Mark aspires to raise livestock, either beef or dairy cattle, following in the footsteps of his father and brother.  When Mark starts his 11th and final year of school this fall (Ukranian’s only go to school for 11 years) he’ll follow the agriculture curriculum the school offers.  His awareness of American farming and the importance of protecting natural resources on the farm gained from his Earth Team volunteer experience, combined with his formal education, put Mark a step ahead in realizing his aspirations. 

The economic and political changes happening in eastern European countries like the Ukraine give young adults like Mark opportunities for improving their lives only dreamed of by their parents. Fortunately, Mark’s dad Alex and Thad Cooperrider became “astronauts,” adding their own chapter to the “Operating Manual” of Fuller’s imagination to bridge the vast space between their respective “galexies,” for the benefit of the universe.  Now that’s a true Earth Team!