NOVOMYKOLAIVKA, Ukraine (UKTN) – An unexploded rocket sticks out of a field and another is embedded in the farm’s soil. Workers found a cluster bomb while weeding, and there is a gaping hole in the roof of the shrapnel-battered cattle shed.
All work on this large farm in eastern Ukraine has come to a standstill. The fields and buildings have been hit by mortars, rockets, rockets and cluster bombs so often that the workers are unable to sow the crater-strewn land or harvest crops such as wheat.
Returning to planting and harvesting “will be difficult, very difficult,” said Viktor Lubinets, who takes care of crop production on the Veres farm. Even when the fighting ends, the fields must first be cleared of unexploded ordnance and shrapnel.
And the battle is far from over. The roar of an incoming projectile fills the air, the nearby blast shakes the ground and sends a plume of black smoke into the air. Lubinets hardly shrinks.
“I’ve gotten used to it. It was scary for the first few days, but now a person can get used to anything,” the 55-year-old said, as the smoke cleared behind him. “And we have to work. If we give up all this, we abandon it, other farmers leave it, what will happen?”
Agriculture is a critical part of Ukraine’s economy, accounting for about 20% of gross national product and 40% of pre-war export earnings, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Often described as the breadbasket of Europe, millions depend on affordable supplies of grain and sunflower oil in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where many are already starving.
But the Russian invasion in late February dealt a heavy blow, damaging farmland, crops, livestock, machinery and storage facilities, and severely hampering transport and exports.
The FAO estimated in July that preliminary damages to the industry range from $4.3 billion to $6.4 billion – 15% to 22% of the total value of Ukraine’s pre-war agricultural sector, estimated at $29 billion.
The Veres farm is a strong example. The 5,700 hectare (14,085 acres) land would normally grow wheat, barley, maize and sunflowers, and it had 1,500 cattle.
But its location made it particularly vulnerable in what was largely artillery warfare. It lies in an almost direct line between the strategic city of Izium, taken by Russian forces in early April and recaptured by Ukraine in September, and Kramatorsk, the largest city in the eastern region of Donetsk that is still in Ukrainian hands.
The farm complex has been hit 15 to 20 times, Lubinets says, and he’s lost count of how many times the fields have been hit. The grain store has been shelled, the electricity generating facility has been destroyed and multiple rockets have rained down on the cattle shed – empty since the cattle were sold when the war started. Of the pre-war workforce of 100 employees, most were evacuated and only about 20 remain.
Workers managed to plant wheat, but they didn’t have time to harvest it. The crops burned down in a bombing raid on July 2.
Lubinets was devastated. As an agronomist, he had been looking forward to examining the results of five new wheat varieties they planted as part of annual crop performance surveys.
“All this research work has been destroyed,” he said. ‘See, how can I feel? How can anyone feel if you wanted to do something, but someone came and ruined it?”
Some farms in the area have been luckier. Nearly 10 kilometers southwest of Novomykolaivka, a combine harvester methodically moves up and down a field, cutting dried sunflowers from their stems and pouring their black seeds into waiting trucks.
The war is a shocking backdrop. The machine is damaged by shrapnel from an exploding missile and a nearby field is mined. Helicopters skim over the sunflowers and corn, and fighter jets shoot low over the rolling plains.
Farm workers, having lunch in the fields, ignore the blasts of distant shelling.
“It became very hard and scary to work during the war, because you don’t know what to expect and where,” said 36-year-old worker Maksim Onyshko. “The war has never brought anything good. Only grief and damage.”
Sergiy Kurinnyi, director of the 3,640-acre KramAgroSvit farm, said it was risky to plant sunflowers in May without knowing if the frontline would flood the fields.
“We could see the military action with our naked eyes,” Kurinnyi said. “So there was a risk that we could harvest these crops, but we decided to take this risk.”
It paid off, because the good weather ensured a decent yield of the 1,308 hectares of sunflowers. They also planted 1,434 hectares of wheat, 255 hectares of barley, 165 hectares of winter rapeseed and some fodder crops. They lost 27 hectares of wheat to a fire caused by bombing, but managed to harvest the rest.
A rocket attack killed 38 of the farm’s 1,250 cattle in April, prompting managers to sell most of the remaining herd, leaving 215 cattle in milk production. The next day, a rocket hit the equipment storage facility, destroying a grain harvester and damaging other equipment, Kurinnyi said.
Calculating the total loss from the war isn’t easy, Kurinnyi said, but he estimated that about 10 million hryvnias (about $270,000) had been lost to crop production and about 1 million hryvnias ($26,700) for the 38 cattle killed. were killed in the strike.
With Ukraine’s counter-offensive pushing the front line further east, he said they were more confident in being able to plant and began preparing the soil for winter crops.
But for the badly damaged farm where Lubinets works, a return to the fields is still a long way off.
“Before this war we had lived quietly, we had worked, we had … achieved something, had striven to do something – and now what?” he said. “Everything has been damaged, everything has been destroyed and we have to rebuild this all from scratch.”
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