After Emmigrating from Ukraine, Gavel's Farm Gives Back to the Community Abroad

Selina Knowles, Communications Coordinator
April 15, 2022

In the springtime, Gavel’s Farm is a much-anticipated farmstand at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, famed for their flavorful hothouse-grown tomatoes, but shoppers may not be familiar with how they got started in the United States after emigrating from Ukraine. Like many immigrants who make up so much of California’s farming community, the Gavelovskyys relocated for their family’s safety, wellbeing, and future. Now, as Ukraine is under siege by Russia, they are raising money for their friends and family in their homeland. 

Uprooting from Ukraine and Resettling in Sacramento

In 1999, farmer Sergii Gavelovskyy started growing tomatoes, bell peppers, and cucumbers for his family and local community in Ukraine, using greenhouses to protect his crops from the cold regional climate. 

During the Soviet Union’s occupation of Ukraine, the Gavelovskyy family was vulnerable to persecution based on their religious beliefs. “We are Christian. All of our family are Baptists, not the typical branch for Eastern Europe,” says Sergii’s nephew, Valeriy (“Val”), “so my family during the Soviet Union era, we were pretty badly oppressed.” 

Over a decade after Ukraine declared independence from Russia in 1991, public protests broke out in response to the president’s efforts to revive economic ties with Moscow. Amidst growing unrest, the family trickled out of Ukraine. “My family came here as refugees,” says Val. “My parents moved here in 2011, and we moved to Sacramento, California, because we had some relatives here.” 

In 2016, Sergii, his wife, Tanya, and their two sons, Daniel and Mark, followed the footsteps of Val and his family and moved to Sacramento, home to the largest population of Ukrainian immigrants in California.

Once in California, Sergii sought to take advantage of the warm climate and restart the family farm, with the help of Tanya, Val, Daniel, and Mark. The family responded to a Craigslist post advertising farming equipment for sale, which led them to Bart, Eva, and Paul Bruins of Bruins Farm in Winters, California, west of Sacramento.

A longstanding vendor in the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, the Bruins family was preparing to retire, and in 2016, the Gavelovskiy family took over the 25 leased greenhouses. According to Val, connecting with the Bruins family and finding the space to start growing “was a matter of luck and possibility.” After securing a place to grow, the work had just begun.

 The First Tomatoes of the Season

Gavel’s Farm now grows over 20 varieties of tomatoes and their signature Baby Blanca cucumbers, all in greenhouses. The greenhouses give Sergii and Val some control over the growing environment and allows them to start planting earlier in the year.

Planting on the farm starts in November and continues through the winter. In late March or early April, the walls of the greenhouses are removed, and besides a protective net, the vegetables reach full ripeness in the natural environment. Finally, in spring, they are the first farm to bring tomatoes and cucumbers to the farmers market, a couple months earlier than farms who are growing these summer crops in the fields. 

While many tomatoes available in stores are picked prematurely to preserve their freshness during lengthy transportation, Gavel’s Farm takes pride in bringing only fully-ripe tomatoes to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Val says, “Because we are growing in the greenhouse and selling through the farmers market, we always pick our tomatoes in actual ripeness. It helps customers have the full flavor.” 

Direct-to-customer has proven to be the best way to sell their greenhouse-grown produce. “In the past we have worked with wholesalers, but with time we realized that working with the farmers markets was much better in every way.” says Sergii. In addition to the practical benefits, Val says, “My personal favorite thing about having the farm is talking to customers at the market.” 

“When you go to the farmers market, make sure that you show your support to the farmers,” he says. “It is really hard work to provide people with high quality produce, and it is extremely helpful when people come to your booth and they really appreciate what you do and acknowledge the value of the work.”

Sending Support to Family and Friends in Ukraine

In February, Sergii’s wife, Tanya was visiting her mother in Ukraine when Russian troops attacked and set up a blockade around the city she was staying in, Energodar. Tanya and her friends organized a volunteer group to help citizens access food and shelter. Weeks later, when the opportunity to leave arose, Tanya fled to Poland, taking two families with her. 

Now, the Gavelovskyy family remains in close contact with friends and families in Ukraine, and they are raising funds for essential civilian aid such as food and medicine, collecting donations at the farmers market and online. They are also using funds to support refugees who, like themselves, have come to the U.S. for a better life.

While Gavel’s Farm continues to grow tomatoes and cucumbers for the Bay Area, the farmers market has been a source of connection for the Gavelovskyy family in this difficult time for the Ukrainian community. Sergii says, “When the need for help in Ukraine arose, we started fundraising at the farmers market because we knew that you all would help us and those in need. Thank you all very much.”

Support Gavel’s Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.