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On the front lines: Red River Valley marketer talks about visit to Ukraine during escalating protests

Submitted Photo by Martin Tubby Martin Tubby of Climax, Minn., stands in front of protester tents in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Feb. 12, the week before the deadly Feb. 18 protests that killed 26 and wounded hundreds. Tubby is a marketer of grain storage products and has been to Ukraine a dozen times in the past two years.

A Red River Valley grain bin equipment marketing executive was in Kiev, Ukraine, during the deadly riots in mid-February. Martin Tubby says he’ll be going back as early as April to support his friends and clients, despite political unrest.

Tubby, 45, of rural Climax, Minn., is an English native and director of International sales for AgriDry LLC of Edon, Ohio, which markets stored crop protection equipment and products. Tubby said he’s been in Ukraine 12 times since February 2012. Typically, he meets with clients in Odessa or Kiev, the oldest capital city in Central and Eastern Europe.

Protests started in late November 2013, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced the government would abandon an agreement to strengthen European Union ties. Three protesters had died by the time Tubby visited in early February. Tubby stayed where he usually does, in a hotel near Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport on the eastern outskirts of town.

Scary yet peaceful

Sergey Palyeugnuk, one of Tubby’s longtime friends and clients, asked if he wanted to go downtown to “see the revolution.”

“That’s what he called it,” Tubby said. “I said, ‘Only if you’re comfortable going there.’” So Tubby and Palyeugnuk were in the square at about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 12. The two walked through around the entrance of the famous Dnipro Hotel near Maidan Square.

Tubby was greeted by the specter of destruction — burned-out minibuses, tractor tires, bricks, sticks and stones, garbage cans and oil drums.

The protesters lived in tents, set up on a six-lane street, sometimes across the street from high-end retail stores. Riot police were camped out beyond where the burning was done. Tubby was told many of the protesters were from rural areas, not Kiev.

“It was like being in a haunted house, where things are dark. Pitch black,” he says. “I didn’t want to attract too much attention. It was the scariest, saddest, yet most peaceful place I’ve been to, if that makes any sense,” Tubby said. “It was sad like a funeral and scary like a roller coaster.”

Tubby flew out of Ukraine Feb. 18 — the day 26 people died and hundreds were injured.

Selling, inquiring

Tubby sells grain spreaders, mechanical devices placed in the tops of steel bins, or silos as the Europeans call them. The rotating spider-like devices use gravity and centrifugal force to spread grain so broken kernels, grain dust and other trash don’t concentrate in the middle of a bin.

“The technology we have is not complicated, but it’s new to them,” he said. “Regardless of how old Ukraine is, they have only had grain bins the past 10 to 15 years. Small to medium farmers to whom we market in the U.S. are as yet unaware of the advantages of grain bin storage, or have a lack of funds to purchase them, or don’t know how to fully use them. There’s some mistrust, or anticipation that we’re trying to sell them something that they don’t need, when in fact they need it.”

Some Ukrainians are concerned about regulations the European style of governance under Russian control might imply. Farmers there often burn straw in the fields, a practice that most European governments have banned.

Unusual RRV figure

Tubby grew up about 100 miles northeast of London near Norwich, England. He worked on Drayton Farms where his father and two grandfathers drove tractors before him. The farm is connected to a construction company and produced sugar beets, wheat, potatoes, barley and milk.

In 1986, Tubby came to the University of Minnesota-Crookston as an exchange student. He returned to England and later replaced his retiring father as a tractor driver and became assistant farm manager of Drayton Farms. In 2001, he returned to Crookston to finish his two- and four-year degrees.

Out of school, Tubby worked for two years on a crop farm for Tom Grabanski of Grafton, a farmer whose operations ended in a tangle of lawsuits and bankruptcies from North Dakota to Texas.

When Grabanski built a grain elevator facility in Grafton, Tubby was hired away as a sales representative by Northern Grain Equipment of West Fargo a steel bin dealer. In the past, Tubby met Ukrainians, mostly through contacts from Amity Technology in Fargo.

“In early 2008, everybody was going gangbusters, selling the ‘gold rush,’” Tubby recalled, of the Russia/Ukraine market. Tubby traveled to Ukraine for the first time and hosted Sergey and his brothers at the Big Iron trade show in West Fargo.

In May 2009, Tubby left NGE before that company’s collapse. He took a regional sales post for Sioux Steel of Sioux Falls, S.D., and then went to work for himself as Atlas Grain Systems, before adding the AgriDry LLC product lines.

Despite the troubles, Tubby says he enjoys the new contacts he’s been able to make there. He expects to stick with his customers, whatever complications arise.

“These guys want me back in June for another outdoor farm show,” Tubby said. “My own personal opinion is I don’t want to run from this situation because these guys will do anything for me. If I turn my back and don’t do any business there, I’m going to lose friends, lose respect. It’s up to me to find ways for these guys to continue to do business with me.

“How I do that, I don’t know.”