Ukraine’s harvest becomes the new battleground, as fires blacken its arable land
The frontlines of the conflict straddle some of Ukraine’s richest farmland. Whether caused by accident or intentionally, the fires darkening the summer sky are eating away at a crop that was always going to be hard to harvest and even harder to export.
Pavlo Serhienko is in the crosshairs of this battle. The 24-year-old is the third generation in his family to run a farm in Vasylivka district of Zaporizhzhia. Since his father died of coronavirus, Serhienko has managed the 3,000-hectare farm on his own.
But almost half of the land is now too dangerous to farm, he told CNN on Saturday.
« We can’t even get there. It’s either mined or near the occupied territories, literally the front line. We had occupiers on part of the fields. »
Serhienko literally saw his family’s business go up in smoke.
« For four days all our knees have been covered in blood, we have been turning off [fires in] the fields. They [the Russians] especially hitting the fields – fields of wheat and barley – every day. »
He said that in the past few days he had lost 30 hectares of wheat and 55 hectares of barley. And « those 1,200 hectares that I can’t reach are also burning. But what can I do? I won’t even go there. »
The sowing season was equally dangerous. « We sowed a field of 40 hectares. We had to leave the field four times to finish it. Every time we left, they bombarded the place instantly. Once there were 23 mortar rounds. »
Its buildings and equipment were also affected – the cattle farm and all the warehouses built over the past 20 years were destroyed.
« The planter was crushed, the winter workshop, where we repair tractors and combines, was also ransacked. »
There are hundreds of farmers in a similar situation. Many are at risk of going bankrupt.
Ukrainian officials have no doubt that part of Russia’s strategy is to destroy Ukraine’s agricultural wealth.
Last week, police in the southern region of Kherson, one of Ukraine’s most productive arable areas, opened criminal charges for « deliberate destruction » of crops by the Russian military.
Police accused Russian forces of « pounding agricultural land with incendiary shells. Large-scale fires occur every day, hundreds of hectares of wheat, barley and other cereals have already burned. »
“In order to save at least part of the harvest, the villagers are working on machines next to a wall of fire,” police said.
Once fires start, there is little chance of putting them out. Many contested areas are without running water, and it is often too dangerous to try to fight fires.
Kherson police allege that « the Russians deliberately do not allow anyone to put out the fires », citing a fire that burned 12 hectares and adjacent pine forests in the occupied area around the village of Rozlyv.
The active front lines in the conflict stretch for more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) – mostly through farmland. In the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the regional military administration, said that « the enemy began to use the tactic of destroying the fields where the harvest is in progress. »
Ukrainian emergency services have released footage of fires that swept through Donetsk farmland last week.
Ihor Lutsenko, a former deputy now in the army, posted an image showing a large fire south of Bakhmut, an area of Donetsk that is almost constantly under attack. « The fields are on fire here, » Lutsenko told CNN last week. « We saw the Russians throwing incendiary munitions. It’s to burn our positions. »
The image was reposted by the MoD, which added: « It’s not Ukrainian wheat that’s on fire, it’s the world’s food security that’s on fire. »
A little further west, the city council of Kramatorsk – an area increasingly coming under Russian fire – also released images of scorched fields, some with the remnants of Russian rockets still present. He said 35 hectares of crops had been destroyed in the latest fires.
Battle on many fronts
The summer harvest has only just begun, so it is not yet possible to assess all the damage caused by the fires. On Friday, the agriculture ministry said farmers had harvested the first million tonnes of grain of the 2022 season from just over 400,000 hectares, but that is only 3% of the sown area.
Besides the fires, Ukrainian farmers face multiple challenges. Those close to the front lines face the risk of harvesting and lack of adequate storage. Dozens of silos and some of the largest export terminals were destroyed by Russian bombing. One of the largest, located in the southern city of Mykolaiv, held some 250,000 tons of grain before it was burned in June.
Additionally, some analysts say it’s hard to get diesel fuel due to the destruction of refineries, which means some crops won’t be harvested.
Wherever they are, farmers face a logistical nightmare exporting their grains and oilseeds as Black Sea ports are essentially sealed off. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has launched a $17 million emergency program to help overcome storage problems. The United States has also pledged to help build temporary silos in Poland, which borders Ukraine to the west.
Even before the fires, Ukraine had forecast a sharp drop in grain and oilseed harvest this year, compared to last year’s record output.
Last week, Ukraine’s Grain Traders’ Union said it expected a grain and oilseed harvest of 69.4 million tonnes, slightly higher than earlier forecast but well below the 106 million tonnes harvested. last year.
Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotskiy said the grain harvest could be at least 50 million tonnes, up from 86 million tonnes in 2021. At least half of this production is for export, according to the trade union.
Wheat production and export in an already tight global market could be most at risk. French consultancy Agritel said last week that it expects Ukraine to harvest 21.8 million tonnes of wheat this summer, up from 32.2 million last year.
Consultant Dan Basse of Chicago-based consultancy AgResource told the AgriTalk podcast in late June that due to logistical challenges, he doubts Russian exports can make up for the Ukrainian wheat shortfall, and the global market could miss about 10 million tons of wheat. This year.
After a recent decline, wheat prices are close to their highest levels for the year.
Some of what would have been Ukrainian products are now in territory held by the Russians and their allies in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). DPR leader Denis Pushilin said last week that the wheat harvest there would be much larger than in 2021.
Pushilin posted photos of meetings with farmers and said they discussed « selling produce ». He also said that the DPR plans to use the port of Mariupol to export the harvest.
What is unclear is whether the Russian-backed authorities in the occupied areas are paying market prices for the products. Ukrainian officials said that in some areas the Russians insist on deep discounts. There is anecdotal evidence that some Ukrainian farmers preferred not to harvest at all.
« Cynical Strategy »
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last week that Russia had a « well thought out and cynical strategy » to destroy Ukrainian agriculture.
« Russia’s naval blockade of Ukrainian ports has already shredded global food supply chains, » Kuleba said. « To add insult to injury, Russia is stealing Ukrainian grain and bombing Ukrainian granaries. »
“Russia is essentially playing hunger games with the world by maintaining the naval blockade of Ukrainian ports on the one hand and blaming Ukraine on the other,” Kuleba added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has accused Ukraine of paralyzing merchant shipping by mining coastal waters. Negotiations on the safe passage of merchant ships, brokered by Turkey, have not yet resulted in any progress.
It’s not just this year’s crop that’s in jeopardy. Independent farmers make up a large part of the agricultural sector in Ukraine, and they don’t have deep pockets.
Basse, from AgResource, told AgriTalk: « The funding is running out. I will tell you that as I talk to my friends and customers, we will have farmers going bankrupt. And then of course when that happens , we’re really going to have problems with the next wheat crop and the next corn crop, so I’m actually more concerned about the 2023 production than the 2022 production.”
The same goes for Serhienko, who says a combination of port closures, rising transport costs and falling prices means « there is no doubt » that his profits will disappear this year. He estimates his losses so far at around $10 million, in terms of lost production and destroyed infrastructure, and does not know if the family farm will survive until 2023.