The front line of the conflict runs along both sides of Ukraine’s richest agricultural land. Accidentally or deliberately, the fires that darken the summer sky are eating away at crops that have always been difficult to harvest and even more difficult to export.
Pavel Sergienko is the focus of this battle. A 24-year-old man in the third generation of his family owns a farm in the Vasilyevsky district of Zaporozhye. Since his father died of the coronavirus, Sergienko runs the 3,000-hectare farm on his own.
But nearly half of the land is now too dangerous to cultivate, he told CNN on Saturday.
“We can’t even get there. It’s either mined or next to the occupied territories, literally on the front line. We had occupiers in part of the fields.”
Sergienko literally saw how his family’s business went to dust.
“The last four days we have all our knees in blood, we are extinguishing [fires in] fields. They are [the Russians] hit the fields especially—the fields of wheat and barley—every day.”
He said that he had lost 30 hectares of wheat and 55 hectares of barley over the past few days. And “the 1,200 hectares that I can’t get to are also on fire. But what can I do? I won’t even go there.”
The sowing season was no less dangerous. “We have planted a field of 40 hectares. We had to leave the field four times to finish it. Every time we left, they immediately shelled the place. Once there were 23 mortar hits.”
Its buildings and equipment were also damaged – a livestock farm and all warehouses built over the past 20 years were destroyed.
“The planter is crushed, the winter workshop where we repair tractors and combines is also broken.”
Hundreds of farmers are in the same situation. Many are likely to go 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 Kherson region, one of Ukraine’s most productive arable regions, opened a criminal investigation into “targeted destruction” of crops by the Russian military.
The police accused the Russian forces of “shelling farmland with incendiary projectiles. Large-scale fires occur daily, hundreds of hectares of wheat, barley and other grain crops have already burned down.
“In order to save at least part of the harvest, the villagers work on machinery next to the wall of fire,” the police said.
Once fires start, there is little chance of putting them out. Many contested areas do not have running water and it is often too dangerous to try to fight the flames.
The Kherson police claim that “the Russians deliberately do not let anyone put out the fires,” referring to a fire that engulfed 12 hectares and adjacent pine forests in the occupied territory near the village of Rozliv.
The active front lines in the conflict stretch for more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), mostly through farmland. In the Donetsk region, the head of the regional state administration, Pavel Kirilenko, said that “the enemy began to use the tactics of destroying the fields where the harvest is underway.”
Ukrainian emergency services have published photos of the fires that engulfed Donetsk farmland last week.
Igor Lutsenko, a former member of parliament and now a military man, posted an image showing a massive fire south of Bakhmut, an area of Donetsk that is under almost constant shelling. “Fields are burning here,” Lutsenko told CNN last week. “We witnessed the Russians launching incendiary ammunition. This was done in order to burn our positions.”
The image was reposted by the Ministry of Defense, adding: “It is not Ukrainian wheat that is burning, the food security of the world is burning.”
A little further west, the city council of Kramatorsk, an area under increasing Russian shelling, has also released images of scorched fields, some of which still bear the remnants of Russian missiles. It says that as a result of the latest fires, 35 hectares of crops were destroyed.
Battle on multiple fronts
The summer harvest is just beginning, so it is not yet possible to estimate the total damage from the fires. On Friday, the Ministry of Agriculture said that farmers had harvested the first million tons of grain in the 2022 season from just over 400,000 hectares, but that this represented only 3% of the planted area.
In addition to fires, Ukrainian farmers face many problems. Those close to the front lines must contend with the risk of harvesting and the lack of proper storage. Dozens of grain elevators and some of the largest export terminals have been destroyed by Russian bombing. One of the largest, in the southern city of Nikolaev, held about 250,000 tons of grain before it was burned in June.
In addition, some analysts say there are problems getting diesel due to the destruction of refineries, meaning some crops won’t be harvested.
Wherever they are, farmers face a logistical nightmare when exporting grains and oilseeds because the Black Sea ports are practically closed. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has launched a $17 million emergency program to help address storage issues. The US has also pledged to help build temporary bunkers in Poland, which borders Ukraine to the west.
Even before the fires, Ukraine predicted a sharp fall in grain and oilseed crops this year compared to last year’s record levels.
Last week, the Ukrainian Grain Traders Union said it expects a grain and oilseed crop of 69.4 million tons, slightly higher than previous forecasts, but well below last year’s 106 million tons.
Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotsky said the grain harvest could reach at least 50 million tons, compared to 86 million tons in 2021. According to the union, at least half of this crop is intended for export.
Wheat production and exports in an already tough global market could be at the highest risk. French consultancy Agritel said last week that it expects Ukraine to harvest 21.8 million tons of wheat this summer, up from 32.2 million tons last year.
Consultant Dan Basse of Chicago-based consulting firm AgResource told the AgriTalk podcast in late June that logistical problems left him doubtful that Russian exports could make up for the shortfall in Ukrainian wheat, and that the global market could be short of about 10 million tons of wheat. this year.
After a recent fall, wheat prices are close to their highest levels in a year.
Some of what could have been Ukrainian production is now in territory held by the Russians and their allies in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR). DPR leader Denis Pushilin said last week that the wheat harvest there will be much higher than in 2021.
Pushilin posted photos of meetings with farmers and said that they discussed “selling products.” He also said that the DPR plans to use the port of Mariupol to export crops.
It is unclear whether Russian-backed authorities in the occupied territories are paying market prices for products. Ukrainian officials said the Russians are pushing for big discounts in some areas. There is anecdotal evidence that some Ukrainian farmers preferred not to harvest at all.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last week that Russia has a “well thought out and cynical strategy” to destroy Ukraine’s agriculture.
“The Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian ports has already severed global food supply chains,” Kuleba said. “Adding insult to injury, Russia is stealing Ukrainian grain and bombing Ukrainian granaries.”
“Russia, in fact, is playing hunger games with the world, holding the naval blockade of Ukrainian ports with one hand, and shifting the blame for this to Ukraine with the other,” Kuleba added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Ukraine of paralyzing merchant shipping by mining coastal waters. Negotiations on the safe passage of merchant ships mediated by Turkey have so far not brought any progress.
It’s not just this year’s crop that’s at risk. Independent farmers make up the bulk of Ukraine’s agricultural sector and don’t have deep pockets.
AgResource’s Basse told AgriTalk: “Funding is coming to an end. I will tell you that when I talk to my friends and clients, we will have farmers going bankrupt. And then, of course, when that happens, we will really have problems. with the next crop of wheat and the next crop of corn. So I’m actually more worried about production in 2023 than 2022.”
So does Sergienko, who says the combination of port closures, higher transport costs and lower prices means there is “no doubt” that his profits will disappear this year. He estimates his losses at about $10 million in terms of lost produce and destroyed infrastructure, and does not know if the family farm will survive until 2023.