War’s Disruption to Ukraine’s Farms Seeds Global Food Crisis

The farmer was working in his field on a recent morning when a neighbor called to tell him that his warehouses had been shelled. He rushed back and found them on fire and one of his workers lying on the ground with shrapnel lodged in his head.

“In one word, it was destruction,” said the farmer, Yuriy Gumanenko, 48. “Everything was destroyed into pieces.”

The farmworker, 62, was hospitalized and had little chance of surviving, Mr. Gumanenko said. Three of Mr. Gumanenko’s four tractors were destroyed, and so were the roofs of his warehouses. The wheat he was hoping to sell and many of his seeds were lost.

“All my life went to growing my farm,” he said, adding, “Now it’s all gone.”

In the past six weeks, Russian shells have destroyed Ukrainian cities, homes, hospitals and schools. But the war has also reached deep into the fertile plains of a region known as Europe’s breadbasket, paralyzing harvests, destroying granaries and crops, and bringing potentially devastating consequences to a country that produces a large share of the world’s grain.

Ukraine has already lost at least $1.5 billion in grain exports since the war began, the country’s deputy agriculture minister said recently. And Russia, the world’s leading grain exporter, has been largely unable to export food because of international sanctions.

The combination is creating a global food crisis “beyond anything we’ve seen since World War II,” the chief of the United Nations World Food Program has warned.

In Ukraine, warehouses are filled with grain that cannot be exported. Russia has blocked access to the Black Sea, Ukraine’s main export route, cargo trains face logistical hurdles, and trucking is stymied because most truck drivers are men aged 18 to 60 who are not allowed to leave the country and cannot drive agricultural exports across the border.

Ukraine has also banned some grain exports to ensure that it has enough food to feed its people.

On Tuesday, the Agriculture Ministry said that six large granaries had been destroyed by Russian shelling. Farmers say they face shortages of fuel and fertilizer, and that some of their workers have gone to the battlefield.

Some farmers have been pushed off their lands by the fighting, with shells and rockets destroying their machines, wounding their workers and killing their cattle.

“My farm has turned to ruins,” said Grigoriy Tkachenko, a farmer in the village of Lukashivka, near the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. “There is almost nothing left.”

His farm was shelled on a recent evening at milking time, he said. A rocket struck the milking hall, and the workers ran to another building for shelter. When the attack ended, Mr. Tkachenko’s farm had been reduced to rubble and scores of cows and small lambs lay dead.

The farm — his cattle, warehouses and machinery — was the product of his life’s work. After working in collective farms when Ukraine was under Soviet rule, Mr. Tkachenko bought about 15 acres of land and seven cows in 2005. Over the years, he expanded his operation to 3,700 acres and 170 cows, also producing corn, wheat, sunflowers and potatoes.

“What we built over decades,” he said, “they destroyed it over just a few days.”

Farmland covers 70 percent of the country and agriculture was Ukraine’s top export, producing nearly 10 percent of its gross domestic product. Ukraine was one of the world’s main exporters of corn and wheat and the biggest exporter of sunflower oil.

The country now has 13 million tons of соrn and 3.8 million tons of wheat that it cannot export using its usual routes, primarily by sea, the deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotsky, said last week.

One farmer in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine said that he had 1,500 tons of grain and 1,000 tons of corn sitting in storage on his farm.

About 400 miles northwest, near Chernihiv, Ivan Yakub fled his farm after the area was occupied by Russia, leaving 100 tons of corn and wheat in his warehouse.

Farming has become impossible in several areas where there is heavy fighting or that are under Russian occupation.

Farmers also worry whether they will be able to sow crops this spring, putting next season’s crops at risk. On Thursday, Ukraine’s prime minister, Denis Shmygal, said that the government expected a 20 percent decrease in crops to be sown this spring.

Russian forces have mined some farmland, blown up machines and destroyed fuel reserves, an effort, Ukrainian authorities say, to disrupt planting.

“I don’t know if I will sow,” said Oleksandr Kyrychyshyn, a farmer in the village of Blahodativka, in the Kherson region. “They told us that every car that drives out into the field will be shot.”

Mr. Yakub, who fled his farm near Chernihiv, still wakes up at 6 a.m. out of habit. He makes tea, but cannot reach his tractor and fertilize his land to prepare for sowing sunflower seeds. His fields, under Russian occupation, remain fallow.

“I paid for the seeds but I can’t put them in the ground,” he said. “I’m just a farmer, I want to grow what people need.”

In less affected areas farmers have started to sow, but many lack fuel, fertilizer and seeds because ports have been blocked and imports from Russia and Belarus halted. A government survey last month found that farmers had 20 percent of the fuel needed for the spring sowing.

Anatoly Guyvaronsky, who represents the Dnipro region in Ukraine’s association of farmers and private landowners, said that his grain truck driver and grain elevator operator had gone to fight in the war.

The Ukrainian government has temporarily exempted agriculture workers from military duties, but some have chosen to fight. Women and children are now helping in the fields, Mr. Guyvaronsky said.

Around Ukraine, farmers have shown great displays of resilience and a determination to do everything in their power to sow and feed their people and the army.

Mr. Tkachenko, whose farm was destroyed in a Russian attack last month, had stayed on his land as long as possible, feeding Ukrainian soldiers and the local population with meat, milk and potatoes.

He, his wife, daughter and six grandchildren slept for a few hours a night in the cellar where they put up potatoes and preserves.

“This is our land, this is our farm, this is our village,” Mr. Tkachenko said. “Until the last moment we wanted to be with our people.”

They fled after their farm was attacked but returned last week, as soon as he heard that the Russian army had withdrawn by a few miles.

“Our land is our land,” he said in a phone call as he drove home. “Everyone will rush back to get back to work as soon as they can.”

Mr. Gumanenko, whose farm near Dnipro had been destroyed, spent the days after the attack going through the rubble to see what he could save to start sowing as soon as possible. “If you don’t sow it in time, you lose the harvest,” he said. He said he probably would not be able to find soy seeds, but his friends would give him other kinds.

“They can shoot at us but we’re going to keep working,” he said, adding, “I don’t know any other life. I was born a farmer and I’ll die a farmer.”

Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting.


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