In the rain and rockets, Ukrainian farmers continue to work the soil

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine seems a long way from Dergoff Farm in the farming town of Tetiiv, as tractors spray fertilizer on freshly planted cornfields on a sunny May day.

The reminders come in the form of solid checkpoints at the entrance to the city – where “infiltrators” were caught smuggling weapons and night goggles – and a warplane crossing the blue sky light. Veteran farm workers see their presence in their fields as a necessity and worry about the future.

“What will people eat if we don’t work here?” asks Valentyn Maksymenko, who has been a farmer for 25 years. “Everyone depends on us. The army. All Ukrainians. Everybody.”

Yet just a few miles away, in one of the farm’s cavernous warehouses, unsold corn forms golden dunes. The war in Ukraine – a major breadbasket thanks to its highly fertile black soil – has shaken the global food system. Russia and Ukraine supplied almost a third of the world’s wheat and barley before the outbreak of full-scale war. But last year’s corn and other cereal crops did not reach the international market because of the Russian invasion. Moscow warships block sea routes connecting the strategic southern port of Odessa to the world.

In the front -line regions, farmers work in the fields knowing that the risk of bombing and rockets competes with the risk of spring showers. In the territories seized by Russia, they adapted to the occupation. Shortages of fuel, fertilizer and storage space pose a challenge in all regions. The farmers’ motivation to continue under such adverse circumstances ranges from the pragmatic to the patriotic.

“We are not on the front line now, but the day may come when we will be on the front line or needed on the front line,” says Mr Maksymenko’s colleague, Anatoliy Stelmakh. “We have children and grandchildren, so of course we are worried.”

With millions at risk of starvation due to war, Ukrainian farmers find themselves on the front lines of a global emergency, even if conflict does not immediately threaten them.

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we will plant our seeds,” says Oleksandr Chornyi, agricultural manager of Dergoff Farm. “Agriculture is the key to food security and economic security.”

Harvest, interrupted

Agriculture is a mainstay of the Ukrainian economy, with around a third of the population working in this sector. In recognition of the farmers’ strategic importance, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy temporarily exempted them from military conscription. Of the approximately 600 people who work on Dergoff’s vast farm, 10 have gone into battle.

“Many of our employees are ready to fight, but the conscription office put them on hold because they need experienced fighters,” explains Bohdan Balagura, who is the mayor of Tetiiv but knows the commercial operations of the farm, which he oversaw until 2020. “They’re more useful here.”

Dergoff Farm is relatively well positioned to weather the economic storm through diversification. Still, they expect a loss of revenue of no less than 50% compared to last year.

“We are ready to go through difficult times because we are sure that victory will come,” said Balagura, designating a giant nest on the fireplace of the farm office, considered a good luck omen because it was built By a stork, the national bird of Ukraine. “Our family can easily leave the country, but we decided to stay here because we believe in winning.”

Ukraine produces enough grain to meet domestic consumption and exports three-quarters of its production. But blocked ports mean producers can’t sell their grain. Rail alternatives via Europe have not been viable on the scale needed. Moscow said it would only lift the blockade if Western sanctions were lifted.

“Ukraine, which can feed half the world, is isolated,” laments Mykola Gorbachov, president of the Ukrainian Cereal Association, which brings together producers, processors and sellers of cereals.

The export of agricultural products is crucial for Ukraine. “More than 50% of Ukraine’s foreign exchange earnings come from the export of agricultural products,” Gorbachev explains. “Depending on the prices, this amount can be between 22 and 28 billion dollars per year. You can conclude how important it is for our GDP. Wheat, maize and sunflower are produced in all regions of the country. »

In the fall, Ukraine planned to export about 70 million tons of grains and oilseeds in the first half of 2022. It managed to export only 43 million tons by February 24, when Russia invaded the country, he notes. About 27 million tonnes of wheat and maize for export are blocked. Of the 33 million tonnes of cereals planted this year, 26 million were for export.

The war meant a 40% drop in production. “If last year we produced about 107 million tons of grains and oilseeds, this year we should harvest about 65 million tons,” Gorbachov said.

“It’s a danger to be here”

Most of the fields on Ihor Tkachov’s farm are devoted to winter wheat, a variety sown in autumn and harvested in summer. It is well adapted to the cooler climate of northeastern Ukraine. “We have to do something to save this crop,” he said. “It is important to transfer grain out of frontline areas because these are the most vulnerable areas.”

Intermittent shivers shake the fertile ground beneath his feet as he speaks. This is the impact of incoming shells. Guttural pops mark outgoing shots and they have increased in intensity while Ukrainian troops pushed the Kharkiv Russian forces. Mr. Tkachov’s farm is located near the border with Russia, in the village of Skovorodynivka.

Russian troops did not march on his property, but countless rockets landed in his fields. Ukrainian forces laid mines in the area to stop Russian advances. Both cost farmers’ lives. He refuses to show his grain silos for fear they will be targeted by Russia, as has happened elsewhere in Ukraine.

“It’s a danger to be here,” said Mr. Tkachov, sporting a black vest against the morning chill. “I have never seen a planting season like this. Traders were supposed to come on February 24 or 25. Instead, Russian planes arrived. Rockets flying over the village.

Two courageous agronomists who work with him, Sasha Serdytyi and Slava Khrolenko, risked their lives twice by venturing into the neighboring city of Kharkiv. They procured seeds and fertilizers as street battles raged and tank shells rained down. “Suppliers understand that we need chemicals, seeds and fertilizers,” says Tkachov. “Even though they had evacuated from Kharkiv, they came back to open the storage facilities.”

“Everything has to be done at the right time in agriculture,” says Serdytyi. “All we think about is whether we’re going to wake up the next morning. All we want is to collect this harvest. »

“We are working so that our children do not experience a Holodomor,” Khrolenko adds, referring to the 1932-33 state-induced famine in Soviet Ukraine that killed millions of Ukrainians. The three farmers grew up with stories of the horrors of hunger. Mr. Tkachov credits his grandmother with teaching him the value of bread.

Failure to work could mean hunger for their Ukrainian compatriots and for the world. “It’s not just about Ukraine,” says Serdytyi. “Many countries depend on our exports.”

Dealing with the Russians

About 20% of Ukrainian land is now under Russian occupation, blocking 6-10 million tonnes of grain. Dmytro, who declined to give his surname for security reasons, works for four agricultural companies employing 80 workers in the occupied Kherson region of southern Ukraine. The agronomist, who once served in the Soviet Army’s rocket forces, decided to stay with his mother and wife after Russia took control of Kherson in early March. His sons are gone.

“The Russians passed through the Kherson region as if marching. So easy,” he said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not – sometimes we have to communicate with them. They are so polite, it’s almost disgusting. »

Agriculture continued largely as normal under Russian occupation, he says. They planted wheat, barley, rapeseed and sunflower on schedule. The area was spared the relentless bombardment endured in other parts of Ukraine, so there was no war-related damage to agricultural facilities and fields. The necessary inputs for the spring – fuels, seeds, chemicals, pesticides – were secured after the autumn harvest.

“We have everything, and we have … nothing,” says the farmer, particularly upset by the acts of the lacins and the difficulties he has in obtaining medication. “The Russians came and took a car from each farm. And now they lead to our cars. »

Russia’s occupation of Kherson has also led to the rise of ‘dodgy merchants’ who walk around buying grain for 4,000 hryvnia ($135) a ton, around 50% less than the normal price, he says . Some travel in cars with Crimean license plates, then haul the grain to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea’s second-largest city, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March 2014. Ukrainian authorities believe that around half a million tonnes of cereals have been transported in Crimea by land and exported in the form of Russian cereals.

Despite the circumstances, the farmer is optimistic. The region, he says, expects an above-average harvest. And he is one of those who have not given up hope that the Ukrainian army can liberate Kherson by the end of the summer.

“We plan to harvest wheat, rapeseed and barley under occupation, and sunflowers once back in Ukraine,” he says.

Oleksander Naselenko contributed reporting for this story.

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