Thomas Drumm is a dairy farmer in Collinstown, Co Westmeath. Yevhen Viter is a Ukrainian software engineer from Zaporizhzhia. On the surface, they were unlikely to ever work together, let alone see their collaboration disrupted by a brutal war.

Yet this is exactly what happened.

Their story illustrates how the global thirst for technology – down to every blade of grass on Irish farms – combined with the rise of remote working and the skills of Ukrainian engineers has brought the country closer to the West than ever; and the choices you face when your life and your business find themselves on a vicious frontline.


On their farm, Drumm and his sons Charlie and James are on a mission to robotise grazing. Maximising grass utilisation is the holy grail for Irish farmers: the climate is ideal to grow the green crop and avoid importing expensive, environmentally-damaging feed from around the world. 

The most efficient farmers measure grass growth and constantly move mobile fences to steer their cows towards the paddock that needs to be grazed right here, right now. With their start-up Freshgraze, the Drumms have been developing technology to perfect this.

“Originally, we started developing a moving fence system for what we now call traditional intensive grazing,” Drumm explains. The machine could be programmed to pull wire fences mounted on giant spoke wheels around their field.

Then they realised they could go a lot further. Freshgraze could incorporate connected sensors to manage field conditions, different plants in the grass sward and their benefits to animals. “It would allow us to farm in a very different way,” Drumm says.

“So, we thought about developing the engineering aspect, which is a cyber-physical system. And we needed very specialist engineering support,” he adds. Some of these skills initially came from Athlone Institute of Technology (now part of the Technological University of the Shannon), but Freshgraze soon hit the limits of what was locally available – or affordable.

In 2019, Drumm says one of his sons posted a job on Upwork, a global online platform for freelance contractors. “We met up with a small Ukrainian company, and they solved a piece of that puzzle. And then we kept giving them bigger pieces of the puzzle,” he recalls. “Over a period of a year, often with my guys coming in from football at nine o’clock in the evening and working till four o’clock in the morning, they created the cyber-physical system.”

When Drumm says Freshgraze and its Ukrainian contractor “met up”, that was purely remote. “A lot of what we did was based on trust. We gained the trust of our Ukrainian counterpart, and he of us,” he says.

That counterpart was Yevhen Viter.


On a video call from an apartment in Lviv in western Ukraine, where he has been displaced by the war, Viter tells me that he is a software engineer by training – but not only. “My specialisation is software for plants manufacturing magnesium” and other commodities produced in his country’s sprawling factories, he says – “software for industrial projects,” closely integrated with the hardware embedded in manufacturing operations. 

After working with a local R&D company, 39-year-old Viter says he joined friends who were working on machinery development projects and decided to become an independent contractor. In 2015, this led him to Upwork, which became his main channel to find contracts.

“90 per cent of my customers are in the US and the rest in the EU,” he says, adding that he has worked with clients employing anything between five and 1,200 people. Business was good and Viter says he started an “Upwork agency”, employing two full-time engineers from his home city of Zaporizhzhia.

This is how he started to work with Freshgraze, his only Irish customer to date. What was intended as a short-term collaboration became more complex as successive waves of disruption affected the world – and their project.

First, Viter said the manufacturer of their radio modules changed components because of US restrictions imposed on Huawei amid tensions with China.

As they approached a milestone in product development, Drumm says he and his sons decided to go to Ukraine and “build that relationship that we had developed with our engineering partner”. They had flights booked to Zaporizhzhia for January 2020, then pushed them back until March because of last-minute delays. “And Covid happened,” says Drumm.

Needless to say, they are still waiting for their first chance to visit Ukraine.

As early as December 2019, the virus was throwing electronics supply chains in disarray in China. Weeks later, the pandemic reached northern Italy. “We were having 3D-printed components arriving from Bergamo, the heart of Covid at the time,” Drumm says. “The box would arrive and we’d actually disinfect it outdoors before we opened it.”

“I had a clear understanding of what was going to happen before the war.”

Yevhen Viter

An order of supplies from a US marketplace by an Irish buyer for delivery to Ukraine arose suspicion: “The FBI stopped a batch of our parts,” Viter remembers. He soon had a much bigger threat to worry about, however. 

“I had a clear understanding of what was going to happen before the war,” Viter says. “I moved my business, all my equipment to Lviv” – and his family, including two daughters now aged seven and nine. The city is just 40km from the Polish border, allowing for a quick escape if things got out of control. “Now we’re completely safe and we have internet and electricity,” Viter says, adding that his children can go to school, too. 

Their move proved prescient when Russia invaded Ukraine and Zaporizhzhia ended up on the frontline, with troops attacking and occupying the nearby nuclear power plant. 

Viter and his family returned home in July, after the Russian advance had stopped. But in the autumn, the Kremlin’s strategy changed. “Russia started to use missiles again in Zaporizhzhia,” Viter says. “My apartment and that of my parents are in the centre, where the missiles were. Maybe I’ll go back to Zaporizhzhia but not in the centre.”

On his screen, he shares photos he took on the last morning he was in his home city in September. His nine-year-old daughter Olha stands next to the crater left by a strike, surrounded by debris. Other pictures show pieces of shrapnel he says he collected around the impact. “This is very near my home,” he says. “All the glass was broken.” Within hours, the family left again.

Olha (9) stands next to the bomb site near her home in Zaporizhzhia. Photo: Yevhen Viter

Drumm witnessed this back-and-forth through their business relationship. Things were looking up after Viter moved back home in the summer. “We had built part electronics out there, and he was basically saying they could build the additional elements out there because, actually, things had got easier to do, there was less red tape.” he says. “Within a month of that, Zaporizhzhia was being attacked and they have to leave again. So it’s incredibly difficult.”

In Lviv, Viter has kept his business going in the face of countless difficulties. “Many customers decided to stop cooperating with us. They were afraid of the risk of disruption by war, I can understand that,” he says – though he adds that others have made donations, which his team has directed to support the Ukrainian army. Lower demand means he’s had to lower his prices. “We earn less but we continue the work,” he says.

Another issue is that Ukraine used to be a great place to have printed circuit boards assembled at a low cost, which Viter says can be 10 times lower than in the EU. But several of the companies he worked with for this task are no longer available, and he now often shuttles between Lviv and Poland to have jobs done there instead.

Yet his main worry, it emerges on several occasions during our interview, is that political differences have split his team. “I know an engineer in Donetsk,” in eastern Ukraine, Viter says. “We’ve had differences in attitude to the situation. Some think Ukraine provoked the war. I said goodbye to these guys. This my big problem – more than the war, lead generation, etc. – the lack of qualified guys.”

Even in Lviv, which Viter describes as “the centre of Ukrainian patriotism”, he says some people are sympathetic to Russian views and open to working for Russian companies, which he refuses to do.

I ask Viter if he has faced the decision of staying with his family and his business or volunteering to fight. “I think about it a lot. It’s a hard decision,” he says. “My military specialisation is air bombs and missiles. For the moment, the Ukrainian military doesn’t use aviation so there is no work for me as a military engineer.” He says that the army has had sufficient regular soldiers not to call him up so far.

Keeping his composure, Viter adds: “I’ve lost many friends, said goodbye to many, many people. It was a complex year.”

Thomas Drumm on a recent trip with the AgTech Ireland group to Brussels. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Back in Ireland, Drumm reflects on the issues their collaboration and the impact of the war has brought to his attention. “You really have to feel for them,” he says. “And prior to that, we would have discussed politics and how Ukraine was developing – the fact that as an engineer, he was being paid 10 times what a doctor was being paid in his village and yet the work he was doing for us was very high quality and very reasonably priced.”

By the second time Viter moved to Lviv, his initial work with Freshgraze was coming to an end, with only snags left to iron out. “It’s a major project, you know, the cyber-physical system,” Drumm says. “We’ve been told that nobody else has built a robotic system that goes out and works in the field, and is only interacted with over the Internet of things.”

Some time down the line, there may be new features to add on, though. “There would be some further work that we wish to do with our Ukrainian friends,” Drumm says.