Ukraine’s black soil is what everyone talks about. “It looks like Iowa,” says Cary Sifferath, a Midwesterner who monitors Ukraine for the U.S. Grains Council. Tim Burrack, an Arlington, Iowa, farmer, is almost poetic about it: “It’s a black, deep, beautiful soil with good drainage, and after perestroika and the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was just lying there idle.”

Historically the breadbasket of Europe, Ukraine sits in the continent’s black earth belt, spanning Moldova, two-thirds of the Ukraine and deep into Russia. Containing as much as 15% humus, its soils range from a foot deep to 150 in.

The weather, too, is similar to the Upper Midwest.

“Its grain producing area is about the size of Texas, with growing conditions similar to Iowa. But if it’s too hot or too dry, they are much more susceptible across their whole production,” says Sifferath. “But yields are far below the U.S.”

That reflects many years of stagnation under the old Soviet communal farming system, which underutilized land and undercapitalized its agriculture.

As recently as 2010, one-third of its Ukraine’s 104 million arable acres lay fallow, and another third was badly exploited. Ukraine’s corn production has almost quadrupled since 2006-2007, from 250 million bushels (mbu) to 900 mbu. Its exports last year equaled Brazil’s sales (topped 570 mbu), and were only 60 mbu below Argentina’s exports.

In 2000, Ukraine’s agricultural potential and the outlook for growing world grain demand prompted Burrack, the Iowa farmer, to join several other U.S. growers in a Ukraine farming venture.

Soon, they were managing a couple thousand acres but also running into problems that slowed Ukraine’s productive potential.