Farmers in Ukraine risk losing their lives or livelihoods

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POTOMKYNE, Ukraine — A grassy lane with tire tracks leads to the farm of Volodymyr Zaiets in southern Ukraine. He is careful, driving just inside those shallow trenches – moving away could cost him his life in the minefield.

Weeds grow tall where rows of sunflowers once grew. The land of​​​​​​Zaiets has not been touched since the fall of 2021, when it was finally seeded with wheat. Now, it is a minefield left by the retreating Russian forces.

Zaiets avoided official warnings and destroyed this piece of land himself, determined not to lose the year’s harvest. He estimates that 15% of his 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) of farmland has been saved.

Workers like Victor Kostiuk still see mines, but he is ready to start the tractor.

“We have to do it,” he says, “Why are you afraid?”

Across Ukraine, the war has forced grain growers into a dire dilemma. Farmers in areas now free from Russian occupation are risking their lives to remove their explosives before the spring planting season. Even then, they have to deal with high production and transportation costs caused by Russia’s blockade of many Black Sea ports and the restrictions placed on Ukrainian grain by neighboring countries. short.

The double crisis is forcing many farmers to cut back on planting crops. Barriers to transporting grain by land and sea are creating losses, with an expected 20% to 30% reduction in grain yields, poorer quality crops and possibly thousands of outages next year, according to businessmen, Ukrainian government officials and international organizations.

The “significant reduction” of grain crops could pose a threat to global food security, said Pierre Vauthier, head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Ukraine. “That’s the main thing everyone eats. So that’s why it’s a big concern. ”

More than a year since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s agricultural industry is beginning to see the full impact of what has been dubbed the “breadbasket of the world,” which has an affordable supply of wheat, barley and vegetable oil than vital sun for Africa, the Middle East and the Middle East. parts of Asia where people are starving.

The FAO says 90% of agricultural businesses lost income and 12% said land was contaminated by mines. Land planted to cereals fell last year to 11.6 million hectares (28.6 million acres) from 16 million hectares (about 40 million acres) in 2021. That is expected to fall to 10.2 million hectares (25.2 million acre) this year.

In the southern Kherson region, between the threat of missiles from the sky and mines on the ground, farmers make the same calculation, often sad: Take the risk and plant or lose their livelihood.

The region is among Ukraine’s highest wheat producing regions and the most mined. Demining services are overburdened, with infrastructure and civilian homes prioritized over farms.

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

“We have almost 40 large farmers in our area, and almost all of them can’t get to their land ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ and and or and or and in the future, the head of the administration of Vysokopillya, Hanna Shostak-Kuchmiak said. -in several towns in the north of Kherson.

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

“Our heroes,” said Shostak-Kuchmiak, “who were driving their cars around picking up mines and taking them to our democrats.”

Farmers did not feel they had a choice. Both knew that without a harvest this year, they would be disappointed by the next.

Everyone understands the risks, said Shkuropat, who had a large 2,500 hectares (more than 6,000 acres) of land that once grew peas, barley, millet and sunflowers. He thinks that half can be planted.

Last month, one of his workers was killed and another was injured while picking up the remains of metal missiles.

“If we plant, if we grow crops, people will have jobs, salaries and a way to feed their families,” Shkuropat said. “But if we do nothing, we will have nothing.”

Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports removed the advantage it once had over other grain exporting countries. Transportation costs, now four to six times higher than prewar levels, have made grain production prohibitively expensive.

High costs of fuel, fertilizers and quality seeds do not add to farmers’ problems. Most have to sell their grain at a loss.

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

“No one is paying attention to the fact that 40% less wheat has already been sown (this year), and we expect 50% less corn to be sown in Ukraine,” said e, drawing on data from 3,000 farmers.

Nibulon once paid an average of $12 to ship a ton of grain from the southern port city of Odesa. Now he pays $80-$100 per ton, Vadaturskyi said,

The CEO of HarvEast, Dmytro Skornyakov, said that his agricultural company pays almost $110 in logistics costs for each ton of corn exported.

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

Negotiations are underway on renewing the agreement approved by the UN that allows Ukrainian grain to safely leave three ports in the Black Sea. Passengers say that the agreement is not working effectively.

Russian inspections are causing long waiting times for ships, piling up fees and making the sea route expensive and unreliable, Ukrainian grain shippers say. Russia denies slow investigations.

“We had some ships that waited almost 80 days in the queue just to be loaded,” said Vadaturskyi of Nibulon. “Someone has to lose that money, either the buyer, the ship owner or the trader.”

Transit routes through​​​​​​Europe are open even as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary have temporarily banned Ukrainian wheat, corn and some other products over concerns about their farmers’ profits himself.

But these routes are slow and costly. Sea shipping accounted for 75% of Ukraine’s grain exports at the beginning of the year.

At the same time, some farmers risk planting their fields.

Oleh Uskhalo’s land in Potomkyne is littered with weapons, the vast wheat farms reduced to a graveyard of burnt equipment.

Inside a bombed out grain shed piles of wheat grain – Ushkalo’s entire harvest before the war – are rotting under the sun.

“We can go on for another year,” he said. After that, he doesn’t know. He is hoping for government compensation.

“I can’t send (my staff) to a field where I know there are mines and bombs,” Uskhalo said. “To send someone to blow themselves up? I can’t do that.”

He is against his workers, who are eager to earn wages.

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

It’s too dangerous, he told them.

In the distance, he sees a tractor equipped with disc tillers, a type of plow. “I wonder if it’s Volodymyr Mykolaiovych,” he said, referring to Zaiets.

“All you have to do is hit one of those discs on a mine and that’s it. “

That’s what happened to Mykola Ozarianskyi.

In April, the farmer took a chance: he jumped on his tractor in his village Borozenske, in Kherson, to go to a friend’s sunflower field to cut stems.

He drove down a side farmer’s road. He remembers the explosion, then waking up in a hospital bed with a collapsed lung and broken ribs.

Every day, he thinks about his 16 hectares (about 40 acres) of land, still seedless.

“I’ll do it,” he said, struggling to speak as a tube drained blood from his chest. “For a farmer, planting does not mean death. “


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