Ukraine's farmers risk landmines to plant (2023)


A grassy track with tire tracks leads to Volodymyr Zaiets'farm in southern Ukraine. He is careful and only drives in the shallow grooves - swerving away can cost him his life in itfield strewn with explosive mines.

Weeds grow tall where rows of sunflowers once bloomed. Zaiets' land has not been touched since autumn 2021, when it was last sown with wheat. Now it's a minefield left behindRussian forces back.

Avoiding official warnings, Zaiets mined this plot of land himself, determined not to loseautumn of the year. He expects that 15% of his 4,000 hectares of farmland was saved.


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

"We have to do it," he says. "Why be afraid?"

Across Ukraine isRussian invasionthe beginning of last year has forced grain growers into a vicious dilemma. Farmers in areas now free of Russian occupation must decide whether it is worth risking their livesstrip land for explosivesbefore the critical spring planting season.

They have skyrocketing production and transportation costs caused by Russia's blockade of many Black Sea ports and several neighboring European countriesimposed import restrictionson Ukrainian grain to prevent a glut.

The double crisis is causing many farmers to cut back on sowing crops.Bottlenecks in grain shippingon land and at sea are causing losses, with expectations of a 20% to 30% reduction in grain production, poorer quality crops and potentially thousands of bankruptcies next year, according to industry insiders, Ukrainian officials and international organizations.


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The "drastic reduction" of grain crops potentiallythreatens global food security, said Pierre Vauthier, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Ukraine. "It's the main thing everyone eats. So that's why it's a big concern."

More than a year since Russia's invasion, the Ukrainian agricultural industry is beginning to see the full impact of what has been dubbed "the breadbasket of the world, whose affordable supplies of wheat, barley and sunflower oil are essential to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, wherepeople get hungry.

The FAO says 90% of agricultural enterprises lost income and 12% reported that land was contaminated with mines. Land planted to grain fell last year to 28.6 million acres from about 40 million acres in 2021. It is expected to fall to 25.2 million acres this year.

In southern Kherson province, between the threat of missiles from the sky and mines on the ground, farmers make the same, often tragic, calculation: Take the risk and plant orlose their livelihood.

The region is among the highestwheat producing areas in Ukraineand the most mined. Demining services are overburdened, with infrastructure and civilian homes prioritized over farms.

But the growers cannot wait: April and May are important planting months for maize, the autumn months for wheat. Many are switching to planting oilseeds, which are cheaper.

"We have almost 40 large farmers in our area, and almost all of them are unable to access their land except for two," said Hanna Shostak-Kuchmiak, head of the Vysokopillya administration, which, among other things,several villages in northern Kherson.

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

"Our heroes," said Shostak-Kuchmiak, "who drove around in their cars to pick up mines and brought them to our deminers."

Neither farmer felt he had the choice. Both knew that without a harvest this year they wouldbe insolvent next time.

Everyone understands the risks, said Shkuropat, whose large farm once grew peas, barley,milletand sunflowers. He estimates that half can be planted.

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

"If we sow, if we grow crops, people will have jobs, wages, and they will have a means to feed their families," Shkuropat said. "But if we do nothing, we will have nothing."

Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea portsdeprived the country of the advantage it once had over other grain-exporting countries. Transit costs, now four to six times higher than pre-war levels, have made grain production prohibitively expensive.

High costs of fuel,fertilizerand quality seeds only 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 top Ukrainian grain shipping company.

"No one is aware that 40% less wheat has already been sown [this year] and we expect 50% less corn to be sown in Ukraine," he said, citing data from 3,000 farmers.

Nibulon once paid an average of $12 moresend a ton of grainfrom the southern port city of Odesa. Now it pays $80-$100 per ton, Vadaturskyi said.

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

"It covers our expenses but doesn't give us any profit," he said.

Negotiations are underway regardingrenewal of the UN-brokered agreementthat allows Ukrainian grain to safely leave three Black Sea ports. Shippers say the deal isn't working effectively.

Russian inspections causelong waiting times for ships, piling on fees and making the sea route expensive and unreliable, Ukrainian grain shippers say.Russia rejects any slowdown.

"We had some vessels that were waiting close to 80 days in line just to be loaded," Vadaturskyi said. "Someone has to lose that money, either the buyer, the owner of the vessel or the dealer."

Transit routes through Europeare open even as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungarytemporarily banned Ukrainian wheat, corn and some other products over concerns about their own farmers' profits.

Men deroutes are slow and expensive. Shipping accounted for 75% of Ukrainian grain exports at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, some farmers don't want to risk planting their fields.

Oleh Uskhalo's land in Potomkyne is awash with ammunition, the vast wheat farms reduced to a graveyard of burned equipment.

Inside a bombed-out granary are piles of wheat grain - all of Uskhalospre-war autumn— rotting under the sun.

"We can go on for another year," he said. After that he doesn't know. He hopes for compensation from the public.

"I cannot send [my workers] to a field where I know there are mines and bombs," Uskhalo said.

He meets resistance from his employees,eager to earn wages.

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

It's too risky, he told them.

In the distance he can see a tractor equipped with disc cutters, a type of plough. "I wonder if it's Volodymyr Mykolaiovych," he said, referring to Zaiets.

"All it takes is for one of those discs to hit a mine and that's it."

This is what happened to Mykola Ozarianskyi.

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

He swerved to turn down a side farm 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 approximately 40 hectares of land, still unsown.

"I'll do it," he said, straining to speak as a tube drained blood from his chest. "For a farmer, planting does not mean death."

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