HomeTechnologyFrontline agriculture: Bombs disrupt Ukraine's critical industry

Frontline agriculture: Bombs disrupt Ukraine’s critical industry

By ELENA BECATOROS Associated Press

NOVOMYKOLAIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — An unexploded rocket sticks out of a field and another is embedded in the ground of the farm compound. Workers found a cluster bomb while clearing brush, and there is a large hole in the roof of the cattle barn with shrapnel scars.

All work has come to a halt on this large farm in eastern Ukraine, whose fields and buildings have been hit so many times by mortars, rockets, missiles and cluster bombs that its workers are unable to sow the cratered earth or harvest crops such as wheat.

Going back to planting and harvesting “will be difficult, very difficult,” said Viktor Lubinets, who manages crop production at the Veres farm. Even if the fight ends, the fields must first be cleared of unexploded ordnance and shrapnel.

And the fight is far from over. The roar of an incoming shell fills the air, the nearby detonation shaking the ground and sending a plume of black smoke into the sky. Lubinets barely flinches.

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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 smoke cleared behind him. “And we have to work. If we give up all this, we will give up, other farmers will give up, what will happen then?

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 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The country is often described as the breadbasket of Europe and millions depend on its affordable supplies of grains and sunflower oil in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, where many already face hunger.

But Russia’s invasion in late February dealt a heavy blow, damaging farmland, crops, livestock, machinery and storage facilities, as well as severely hampering transportation and exports.

The FAO estimated in July that the preliminary damage to the industry ranges between 4.3 and 6.4 billion dollars, between 15% and 22% of the total value of Ukraine’s agricultural sector before the war, estimated at 29,000 million dollars.

The Veres farm is a clear example. His 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land used to grow wheat, barley, corn, and sunflowers, and he had 1,500 head of cattle.

But its location made it particularly vulnerable in what has been largely an artillery war. It lies on an almost direct line between the strategic city of Izium, seized by Russian forces in early April and retaken by Ukraine in September, and Kramatorsk, the largest city in the eastern Donetsk region still in Ukrainian hands. .

The agricultural complex has been hit 15 to 20 times, Lubinets says, and he has lost count of how many times the fields have been hit. The grain storage was bombed, the electricity generation facility was destroyed, and multiple rockets rained down on the cattle barn, empty since the cattle were sold when the war began. Of a pre-war workforce of 100 employees, most have been evacuated and only about 20 remain.

The workers managed to plant wheat, but did not have time to harvest it. Crops were burned during a bombardment on July 2.

Lubinets was devastated. As an agronomist, he hoped to examine the results of five new types of wheat he had planted as part of the annual crop yield survey.

“All this investigative work was destroyed,” he said. “See, how can I feel? How can a person feel if he wanted to do something, but someone came along and ruined it?

Some farms in the area have been luckier. Nearly 10 kilometers (six miles) southwest of Novomykolaivka, a combine moves methodically up and down a field, cutting dry sunflowers from their stems and dumping their black seeds onto waiting trucks.

The war forms a jarring backdrop. The machine is scarred by shrapnel from an exploding rocket, and a nearby field is mined. Helicopters fly over sunflowers and corn, and fighter jets fly low over rolling plains.

Farm workers, eating lunch in the fields, ignore the sounds of distant bombing.

“It became very difficult and scary to work during the war, because you don’t know what to expect or where,” said Maksim Onyshko, a 36-year-old worker. “War has never brought anything good. Just pain and hurt.”

Sergiy Kurinnyi, director of the 3,640-hectare KramAgroSvit estate, said it had been risky to plant sunflowers in May without knowing whether the front line would engulf the fields.

“We were able to see the military action with the naked eye,” Kurinnyi said. “So, there was a risk that we might harvest these crops, but we decided to take this risk.”

It paid off, with the good weather helping to produce a decent yield from 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 animal feed crops. They lost 27 hectares of wheat in a fire caused by the bombing, but managed to harvest the rest.

A rocket attack killed 38 of the farm’s 1,250 head of cattle in April, prompting managers to sell off most of the remaining herd, keeping 215 head of cattle in their dairy production. The next day, a rocket hit the equipment storage area, destroying a grain harvester and damaging other equipment, Kurinnyi said.

Calculating the total loss from the war is not easy, Kurinnyi said, but he estimated that about 10 million hryvnias (about $270,000) were lost to crop production and about 1 million hryvnias ($26,700) to 38 cattle killed in the attack.

With Ukraine’s counteroffensive pushing the front line further east, he said they were more confident they could plant and were beginning to prepare the ground for winter crops.

But for the badly damaged farm where Lubinets works, a return to the fields is still a long way off.

“We had been living quietly before this war, we had been working, we had … achieved something, we had striven to do something, and now what?” he said. “Everything has been damaged, everything has been destroyed, and we have to rebuild all of this, starting from scratch.”

Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war and the food crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/food-crisis.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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