Ukraine news: Farmers are surrounded by risks


A rutted grassy road leads to Volodymyr Zaiets’ farm in southern Ukraine. He was careful, only driving in those shallow trenches – turning could cost him his life in a field littered with explosives.

Weeds grow high where rows of sunflowers used to bloom. Zaiets’ land has not been touched since the fall of 2021, when it was last sown with wheat. Now, it is a minefield left by the retreating Russian forces.

Zaiets ignored official warnings and cleared the land himself, determined not to lose the year’s crop. He hopes that 15% of his 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of farmland are already utilized.

Workers like Victor Kostiuk still spot mines, but he’s ready to start the tractor.

“We have to,” he said, “why fear?”

Across Ukraine, war has forced grain growers into a dilemma. Farmers in regions that are no longer under Russian occupation must decide if it is worth risking their lives to strip off explosives before the crucial spring planting season.

They have high production and transportation costs due to Russia’s blockade of many Black Sea ports, and several neighboring European countries that have imposed import restrictions on Ukrainian grain to prevent a glut. redundant.

The double crisis is causing many farmers to cut back on planting. According to industry insiders, Ukrainian government officials and international organizations, bottlenecks in grain transportation by land and sea are causing damage, with grain output expected to fall. 20 to 30%, poorer crop quality and potentially thousands of bankruptcies next year.

Pierre Vauthier, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Ukraine, said a “dramatic reduction” in grain production has the potential to threaten global food security. “It’s the main thing that people eat. So that’s why it’s a big concern.”

More than a year since the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s agricultural sector is starting to see the full impact of what has been dubbed the “world’s breadbasket,” where supplies of wheat, barley and sunflower oil are available. Reasonable oceans are important for Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where people are starving.

The FAO says 90% of agribusinesses lose revenue and 12% report land contaminated with mines. Grain land fell last year to 11.6 million hectares (28.6 million acres) from 16 million hectares (about 40 million acres) in 2021. This figure is expected to fall to 10.2 million hectares (25.2 million acres) this year.

In the southern province of Kherson, amid the threat of rockets from the sky and land mines, farmers calculate the same, often tragic: Take risks and grow crops or lose their livelihoods.

The area is one of the highest wheat-producing regions in Ukraine and the most heavily mined. Demining services are overwhelmed, with infrastructure and civilian housing taking precedence over farms.

But growers can’t wait: April and May are prime planting months for corn, harvest months for wheat. More people are turning to less expensive oilseeds.

“We have almost 40 large farmers in our area and almost everyone is inaccessible,” said Hanna Shostak-Kuchmiak, head of the Vysokopillya administration that covers several villages north of Kherson. their land, except for two.”

Zaiets is one, and Valerii Shkuropat from the nearby village of Ivanivka is the other.

“Our heroes,” said Shostak-Kuchmiak, “who are driving their cars around picking up mines and delivering them to our deminers.”

Neither farmers feel they have a choice. They both know that if they don’t have a good harvest this year, they will default next year.

Shkuropat, whose 2,500-hectare (more than 6,000-acre) estate has grown peas, barley, millet and sunflowers, said everyone understands the risks. He estimates that half can be planted.

Last month, one of his workers was killed and another injured while collecting metal rocket remnants.

“If we plant seeds, if we plant crops, people will have jobs, wages, and they will have the means to feed their families,” Shkuropat said. “But if we do nothing, we will have nothing.”

Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has stripped Ukraine of the advantage it once enjoyed over other grain exporters. Transportation costs, now four to six times higher than pre-war levels, have made grain production extremely expensive.

The cost of fuel, fertilizer and high-quality seeds only add to the difficulty for farmers. Most had to sell their grain at a loss.

Andrii Vadaturskyi, CEO of Nibulon, a leading Ukrainian grain shipping company, said farmers are responding by sowing less.

“Nobody pays attention to the fact that 40% less wheat has been sown (this year) and we predict 50% less corn will be sown in Ukraine,” he said.

Nibulon used to pay an average of $12 to ship a ton of grain from the southern port city of Odesa. Now it pays 80-100 USD per ton, Vadaturskyi said,

HarvEast CEO Dmytro Skornyakov said his agricultural company pays nearly $110 in logistics costs to export every ton of corn.

“It covers our costs, but doesn’t bring us any profit,” he said.

Negotiations are underway to extend a UN-brokered deal that would allow Ukrainian grain to safely leave three Black Sea ports. Shippers say the deal doesn’t work.

Russian inspections are causing long waits for ships, piling up fees and making the sea route expensive and unreliable, Ukrainian grain shippers say. Russia denies delaying the inspection.

“We have some ships that have been queuing for almost 80 days just to be loaded,” said Nibulon’s Vadaturskyi. “Someone has to lose that money, be it the buyer, the shipowner or the merchant.”

Transit routes through Europe are open even as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary temporarily banned wheat, corn and some other Ukrainian products due to concerns about the profits of their own farmers. .

But those routes are slow and expensive. Shipping by sea accounted for 75% of Ukraine’s grain exports at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, some farmers won’t risk growing crops in their fields.

Oleh Uskhalo’s land in Potiomkyne was overflowing with ammunition, vast wheat farms turned into graveyards of scorched equipment.

Inside a bombed grain warehouse were piles of wheat – the entire prewar harvest of Ushkalo – rotting in the sun.

“We could go on for another year,” he said. Then he didn’t know. He hopes the government compensates.

“I cannot send (my workers) to a field that I know has landmines,” Uskhalo said. “Send someone to blow themselves up? I can’t do that.”

He faces resistance from his employees, who expect a paycheck.

“The tractor drivers said, ‘We can go, we can sign a document that says we take full responsibility,'” Uskhalo said.

It was too risky, he told them.

In the distance, he could see a tractor equipped with a disc cultivator, a kind of plow. “I wonder if it’s Volodymyr Mykolaiovych,” he said, referring to Zaiets.

“All you have to do is let one of those plates hit a landmine and that’s it.”

That’s what happened to Mykola Ozarianskyi.

In April, the farmer took a chance: He hopped on his tractor in the village of Borozenske, in Kherson, to go to a friend’s sunflower field to cut the stalks.

He changed direction to turn onto a nearby farm road. He remembers the explosion, then wakes up in a hospital bed with a collapsed lung and broken ribs.

Every day, he thinks about his 16-hectare (about 40-acre) piece of land, still unseeded.

“I will,” he said, trying to speak as a tube drained blood from his chest. “For a farmer, not cultivating means dying.”

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