Usually the priest in the Ukrainian village of Prybuzke, south of Mikolayiv, blesses the agricultural land before sowing. This year, his salmon-pink church and the surrounding land were destroyed by Russian shelling. The priest enlisted in the army and went to the front. This is just one of the setbacks facing Ukrainian agriculture.
Ukraine is known as the ‘world grain magazine’. Two thirds of the total area consists of agricultural land. Last year, 10 percent of global wheat exports came from Ukraine. The country produces the calories that feed 400 million people worldwide. This year, about 20 to 30 percent of all sown crops will not be harvested due to the war, the UN estimated in March.
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The port of Mikolayiv on the Southern Bow River has accounted for about one-fifth of Ukraine’s wheat exports in recent years. This year, the city gained the status of a Geuzen city that managed to stop the Russians’ advance to Odessa. Nearby Kherson fell to the Russians shortly after the war began. Mikolayiv was surrounded and besieged for weeks, but the Russians were unable to seize it and were eventually pushed back about 15 kilometers south of the city, towards the Crimea.
A colorful procession of military vehicles drives back and forth on a country road to the front, southeast of Mikolayiv. Passenger cars with improvised camouflage, from graffiti and paint stains to cloths or nets with branches. Ukrainian soldiers collapsed, looking half-laughing out of the open windows. The sun is shining and the Russians have not made progress in the area for several weeks. Every now and then a green truck with equipment drives by, and a howitzer is even picked up.
The main problem for wheat and other agricultural production is that many farms have been destroyed and the land has been occupied, extracted or destroyed. Such as the farm of Sergei Nikolaevich Tyunnik (61). He’s wearing a Tommy Hilfiger cardigan, his belly is round like an apple. Tyjoennik stands along the country road to Pryboezke. Pryboezke is the last village in Ukrainian hands, further south are the Russians. In 1989, the farmer became head of a collective farm, a kolkhoz. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he managed to buy the 1,000-hectare piece of land and has been working on it ever since.
“90 percent of my equipment has been destroyed,” Chutjunnik said. His office deeds are also burnt out, making it difficult for him to get rid of the equipment that is still intact. Tyunnik will NRC show his ruined farm in the village. Will not shoot there? “A lot is being shot!” exclaims Chutjunnik. So he shows pictures of the damage on his phone. The metal roof of his storage shed has caught so many bullets that it looks like a disco ball inside during the day. Holes have fallen through his plow through shrapnel. Even a bullet in the wrong place can completely harm a tractor, the farmer exclaims.
Vlogs on YouTube
About 5,300 hectares of agricultural land are located right at the front in the Mikolayiv region and are in comparable condition. It is quieter on the west side of town. There is the land of Roeslan Neroda. Neroda is not a ‘typical Ukrainian farmer’, he says. He is in his forties, wearing a white polo shirt and passionate about innovation. He vlogs about his work on YouTube.
A few rockets have so far landed on Neroda’s land. “It was not serious, but it was scary,” Neroda says. “The first time it happened, no one would come near them, but now we’re pulling ourselves out of the ground with tractors.”
Although his farm is largely undamaged, he has major problems due to the war. For example, he could not get a loan from the bank this year. “The banks consider this a dangerous area. They think that if they give us a loan, we will be hit by the Russians in a few weeks.” Because the money for a farmer only comes in after the harvest is sold, such a loan is often necessary to be able to do the work. “We use it to buy fertilizer, or pesticides or fuel, we pay wages and make investments,” says Neroda In fact, everything has become more difficult because of the war. “Buying plastic bags to transport flaxseed used to be a phone call, now it took us two weeks.” There is not much diesel available either. Without fuel, Neroda’s tractor and other machines work not, so he has already been delayed a few weeks.
In his shed are piles of flaxseed – last year’s harvest. Many companies that are still working are sitting on heaps of food because there is much less that can be exported: By far the bulk of the supplies went through the Black Sea, which is closed.
All silos are full
Nibulon, a large Ukrainian company that stores, trades and transports wheat and seed oil by sea, is the first to see a shortage of storage space. “We have 23 powerful grain suckers and 445 silos in Ukraine, where the wheat can be stored for a long time under controlled conditions,” Oleksandr Pirozhenko said on behalf of Nibulon. “Everything is completely filled. We get a lot of calls from local farmers who are still trying to sell their harvest, but we can not add more. ”
Farmers in the Mikolayiv region still have tens of thousands of tons of wheat lying around, according to Pirozhenko. Outside the silos, the crop may be destroyed or ruined and the farmers may go bankrupt because they lose their income.
Nibulon itself has not yet made up for the damage. “It could be tens of tens of millions or hundreds of millions of euros, we have had to cancel a lot of contracts,” says Pirozhenko. Even if the war is over tomorrow, Ukraine will probably not be able to export again immediately, because there are still sea mines in the Black Sea.
Pirozhenko believes that it can be done faster. He would like to start again now and hopes that Ukraine can organize a ‘green water corridor’ with NATO help so that exports can be completed before the end of the war. This solution is unlikely – Russia still has many ships in the Black Sea and has no interest in exporting wheat and sunflower oil. In the occupied territories, warehouses are also looted and the contents transported to Russia. It also happened with Nibulon silos in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, it gets busier on the country road towards Pryboezke. Tyjoennik’s son-in-law also got out of the car. Neighbor Andrej Aljoha, also a farmer, drives by and parks immediately to join the business. A police captain and a member of the special forces arrive to take a look. A woman on her way to the bus stop sees the group. “What a line! Has anything been sold there or something?” she asks from across the street. The peasants are silent. Nothing is sold from their land for a while.
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on May 25, 2022