ZELENODILSK, Ukraine — Their uniforms are dusty jeans and T-shirts, and they drive tractors, not tanks, along the front lines in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But Ukrainian farmers face many of the same grave dangers as soldiers as they harvest this year’s harvest. Across Ukraine, Russian artillery and mines have killed tractor drivers. Thousands of acres of ripe wheat have been burned by the strikes. Fields are pockmarked where incoming shells have left craters.
Serhiy Sokol, a wheat, barley and sunflower farmer in southern Ukraine, said he and his fellow farmers pulled dozens of aluminum tubes from Russian missiles out of the black earth as they worked his fields. Last month, he said, a neighbor’s combine drove over a mine, blowing out one of its fat tires but sparing the driver.
“There were a lot of cluster munitions in the fields,” Mr. Sokol said with a shrug. “We just took a chance and thank God no one got hurt.”
And after all Mr. Sokol’s troubles, with his barley crop drying in storage, a Russian artillery shell hit his silo. About twelve tons of grain were burnt.
The breakthrough deal that allowed ships carrying grain to depart from Ukraine’s southern ports this week may have solved a diplomatic problem, but it has left a more realistic problem for Ukraine’s farming community: growing and harvesting crops in a war zone. , as powerful weapons wreak havoc on some of the world’s richest farmland.
Farmers say they have few options. Much of Ukraine’s grain crop is winter wheat and barley, sown in early fall and harvested the following summer. After planting before the war began, farmers near the front must take risks now, lest they lose the entire year’s investment.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain-exporting nations, and its profitable agricultural industry is a cornerstone of the country’s economy, accounting for about 11 percent of gross domestic product and creating about 1 million jobs. Agriculture is even more important to export earnings, accounting for 41% of all Ukrainian exports last year. But the Russians had hampered Ukraine’s ability to export by blocking shipping lanes on the Black Sea and, Ukraine says, by stealing grain in the occupied territories.
Hopes for Ukrainian agriculture rose this week as the first grain ship, carrying 26,000 tonnes of corn, left the port of Odessa under a Turkish-brokered deal ratified by the United Nations aimed at reducing hunger in the developing people.
Escorted by sea mines protecting the port and Russian warships further out to sea on Monday, the ship arrived in Turkish waters on Wednesday, where it was inspected and cleared to travel to Lebanon. More ships will follow. The deal is expected to allow the export of about five million tonnes of grain per month, reducing a backlog of about 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 painstaking undertakings that Ukraine will inevitably have less to export this year and into the future, given the obstacles in agriculture. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, has forecast that Ukraine’s wheat exports, worth $5.1 billion last year, will be halved after this year’s harvest.
Our coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war
Out in the fields along a section of the front line where the Ukrainian army is pressing a counterattack against Russian forces, crops of sunflowers, wheat and barley stretch to the horizon.
This is Ukraine’s big sky country: vast expanses of tableland, laid out on a chessboard of giant fields.
Closer to the front, Ukrainian military timber trucks along the back roads, along with tractors and combines bringing in the harvest.
Every few minutes there is a distant boom from the artillery. On the horizon, swirls of smoke blow in the wind from burning fields.
Farmers and Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian military is deliberately shooting at 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 setting the fields on fire.
“They see the combines and shoot at them,” Yevhen Sytnychenko, head of the military command in the Kryvyi Rih region, said in an interview next to a burning field on a recent tour of front-line farms. “They’re doing it so we don’t have grain, so we can’t eat and we can’t export.”
Sgt. Serhiy Tarasenko, whose soldiers with the 98th Infantry Brigade are fighting in rural areas south of the city of Kryvyi Rih, said Russian artillery has targeted tractors and combines, which are spotted by drones.
“They are shooting at the locals who are gathering the grain,” he said. “These are people who invested their money and now need the harvest. But now they’re doing it under fire, under attack.”
For Ukrainians, the burning fields are an emotionally charged and infuriating development even in a war with no shortage of other outrages. It is reminiscent, Mr. Sytnychenko said, of the Soviet Union’s grain checks in the 1930s that caused a famine that historians say killed at least three million Ukrainians, a tragedy known as the Holodomor. “They used to confiscate the grain and today they are burning it,” he said.
Ukraine also faces immediate economic consequences. The Department of Agriculture has cited studies showing the war will cost farmers and agribusiness companies $23 billion this year in lost profits, damaged equipment and higher transportation costs.
Ukrainian farmers and the government have adapted, finding solutions to blocked transport routes, creating temporary locations to store grain and trying to clear mines from fields to bring in the harvest. The most affected crops are wheat, barley and sunflower, as they are grown in areas close to the fighting, according to the agriculture ministry.
“While Russia is blackmailing the world with hunger, we are trying to prevent a global food crisis,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said of efforts to keep Ukraine’s farms producing.
Crop fires set off by artillery strikes limit the harvest. More than 3,000 fires have broken out, according to Olena Kryvoruchkina, a member of parliament.
Tractors and machinery have hit mines in northern Ukraine even months after Russia’s retreat. Late last month, for example, a tractor hit a mine outside Kharkiv, killing the driver. The tractor burned in the field.
Outside Mr Sokol’s hometown in south-central Ukraine, two combines, including a John Deere operated by his neighbour, hit mines in the last two weeks of July.
Rocket debris from Mr. Sokol’s fields now lies in a yard along with tractor tires and sacks of grain. A pile of a dozen or so gray slates, dented pipes and fins rest against a wall.
“I’m angry,” he said. “How angry? I want them to die. That’s how I feel now.”
In the fields on a recent, stormy afternoon during harvest, flames raced through the stubble of Vasiliy Tabachnyuk’s newly harvested wheat crop, gusting with wind.
Mr Tabachnyuk, whose fields are just a few miles from the front, said he was lucky to have harvested early. After previous strikes, he sent tractor drivers into the burning fields to cut off firefighters, trying to save as much grain as he could. One strike burned about 200 acres of ripe wheat.
If the Ukrainian counteroffensive does not push back the Russians before winter wheat is sown in September, he said, he would not plant for next year.
“All agriculture will be out of business,” he said, standing in the scorched field, where the soil was covered with charred kernels of wheat.
“The wheat was ripe,” he said. “He should have pulled himself together.”