Written by Andrew E. Kramer
Their uniforms are dusty jeans and tank tops, and they drive tractors, not tanks, along the front line of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But Ukrainian farmers face many of the same grave dangers as soldiers as they harvest this year’s crop. Throughout Ukraine, Russian artillery and mines have killed tractor drivers. Thousands of acres of ripe wheat burned because of the strikes. The fields are pockmarked where incoming shells left craters.
Serhiy Sokol, a wheat, barley and sunflower farmer in southern Ukraine, said he and his farm workers ripped dozens of Russian rocket aluminum tubes from the black earth as they worked in his fields. Last month, he said, a neighbour’s combine crushed a mine, blowing on one of its large tires but sparing the driver.
“There were a lot of cluster munitions in the fields,” Sokol said with a shrug. “We just took the risk, and thank God no one was hurt.”
After all of Sokol’s troubles, as his barley crop dried up in storage, a Russian artillery shell hit his silo. Ten tons of burned cereals.
The groundbreaking deal that allowed ships carrying grain to leave southern Ukrainian ports this week may have solved one diplomatic problem, but it left a more pragmatic one hanging over Ukraine’s farming community: cultivating and reaping crops in a war zone, as powerful weapons rain down destruction. on some of the richest farmland in the world.
Farmers say they have little choice. Much of Ukraine’s grain harvest is winter wheat and barley, sown in early fall and harvested the following summer. Having planted before the war started, farmers close to the front must take risks now, lest they lose the whole year’s investment.
Ukraine is one of the largest grain exporting countries in the world and its profitable agricultural industry is the backbone of the country’s economy, accounting for around 11% of gross domestic product and creating around 1 million jobs. Agriculture is even more important for export earnings, accounting for 41% of all Ukrainian exports last year. But the Russians had hampered Ukraine’s ability to export, blocking shipping routes in the Black Sea and, according to Ukraine, stealing grain from the occupied territories.
Hopes for Ukrainian agriculture rose this week when the first grain ship, carrying 26,000 tons of maize, left the port of Odessa under a deal brokered by Turkey and endorsed by the United Nations and destined alleviating hunger in the developing world.
Escorted through sea mines protecting the port and Russian warships further out to sea on Monday, the ship reached Turkish waters on Wednesday, where it was inspected and cleared to sail to Lebanon. Other ships will follow. The deal is expected to allow the export of around 5 million tonnes of grain per month, reducing a backlog of around 20 million tonnes of grain in silos from last year, freeing up storage space for this year’s harvest.
But planting and harvesting have become such arduous undertakings that Ukraine will inevitably have less to export this year and in the future, given the obstacles to agriculture. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, has forecast that wheat exports from Ukraine, worth $5.1 billion last year, will drop by half after this year’s harvest.
In fields along a section of the frontline where the Ukrainian army is fighting a counter-offensive against Russian forces, crops of sunflowers, wheat and barley stretch as far as the eye can see.
This is the country of the great sky of Ukraine: huge expanses of flat land, laid out in a checkerboard of gigantic fields.
Closer to the front, large Ukrainian military trucks drive along secondary roads, along with tractors and combine harvesters bringing in the harvest.
Every few minutes there is a distant thud of artillery. On the horizon, curls of smoke blow in the wind from the burning fields.
Ukrainian farmers and soldiers say the Russian military intentionally shoots ripe wheat and barley to start fires, as a form of economic sabotage. There is also random destruction, as Russian fire aimed at military targets also risks burning fields.
“They see the combine harvesters and shoot at them,” said Yevhen Sytnychenko, head of the Kryvyi Rih district military administration, when questioned next to a burning field during a recent visit to frontline farms. . “They do it so that we don’t have grain, so we can’t eat and can’t export.”
sergeant. Serhiy Tarasenko, whose soldiers from the 98th Infantry Brigade fought in farmland south of the town of Kryvyi Rih, said Russian artillery targeted tractors and combine harvesters, which are spotted by drones.
“They are shooting at the locals who are collecting the grain,” he said. “These are people who have invested their money and now they have to reap. But they are doing it now under fire, under attack.
For Ukrainians, the burning fields are an emotionally charged and infuriating development, even in a war that has no shortage of other outrages. It’s reminiscent, Sytnychenko said, of the Soviet Union’s grain requisitions in the 1930s that caused a famine that historians say killed at least 3 million Ukrainians, a tragedy known as the Holodomor. . “Before, they confiscated the grain, and now they burn it,” he said.
Ukraine also faces immediate economic consequences. The Department of Agriculture cited studies showing the war will cost farmers and agribusinesses $23 billion this year in lost revenue, destroyed equipment and higher transportation costs.
Ukrainian farmers and the government have adapted, finding workarounds to blocked transportation routes, setting up temporary sites to store grain and trying to clear fields to bring in the harvest. The hardest hit crops are wheat, barley and sunflower, as they are grown in areas close to the fighting, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
“While Russia is blackmailing the world with hunger, we are trying to prevent a global food crisis,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said of efforts to maintain production on Ukrainian farms.
Crop fires started by artillery strikes cut the crop. More than 3,000 countryside fires have broken out, according to MP Olena Kryvoruchkina.
Tractors and combine harvesters have hit landmines in northern Ukraine, even months after Russia withdrew. Late last month, for example, a tractor hit a mine outside Kharkiv, killing the driver. The tractor burned in the field.
Outside the hometown of Sokol in south-central Ukraine, two combines, including the John Deere operated by its neighbor, hit landmines in the last two weeks of July.
Rocket debris from the fields of Sokol now lies in a yard along with tractor tires and sacks of grain. A pile of a dozen dented slate gray tubes and fins lean against a wall.
“I’m angry,” he said. “How angry? I want them dead. That’s how I feel now.
In the fields on a recent sweltering afternoon during harvest, flames crackled through the stubble of Vasyliy Tabachnyuk’s recently harvested wheat crop, picking up with gusty winds.
Tabachnyuk, whose fields are only a few kilometers from the front, said he was lucky to harvest early. After previous strikes, he sent tractor drivers into burning fields to cut through firewalls, trying to salvage whatever grain he could. A strike burned about 200 acres of mature wheat.
If the Ukrainian counteroffensive does not repel the Russians before the winter wheat sowing season in September, he said, he will not sow next year.
“All agriculture will be bankrupt,” he said, standing in the scorched field, where the ground was covered with charred wheat grains.
“The wheat was ripe,” he said. “It should have been harvested.”