NOVOMYKOLAIVKA, Ukraine — An unexploded rocket rolls out of a field and another is embedded in the ground of the farm compound. Workers found a cluster bomb while clearing weeds, and there’s a gaping hole in the roof of the cattle barn scarred by shrapnel.
Going back to planting and harvesting “will be difficult, very difficult,” said Viktor Lubinets, who looks after agricultural production at the Veres farm. Even if the fighting stops, the fields must first be cleared of unexploded ordnance and shrapnel.
And the fighting is far from over. The roar of an incoming projectile fills the air, the nearby detonation shaking the ground and sending a plume of black smoke into the sky. Lubinets barely flinches.
” I got used to it. It was scary the first few days, but now a person can get used to anything,” the 55-year-old said, the smoke clearing behind him. “And we have to work. If we give up on all of this, we will give up, other farmers will give up, what will happen then?
Agriculture is an essential part of the Ukrainian 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 of people depend on its affordable supplies of grain and sunflower oil in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where many are already facing hunger.
The FAO estimated in July that preliminary damage to the industry ranged from $4.3 billion to $6.4 billion, or 15 to 22 percent of the total value of Ukraine’s pre-war agricultural sectorestimated at $29 billion.
The Veres farm is a striking example. His 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land usually grew wheat, barley, corn, and sunflowers, and he owned 1,500 cattle.
But its location made it particularly vulnerable in what was largely an artillery war. It lies in an almost direct line between the strategic city of Iziumseized by Russian forces in early April and recaptured by Ukraine in September, and Kramatorskthe largest city in the eastern region of Donetsk still in Ukrainian hands.
The agricultural complex has been hit 15 to 20 times, Lubinets says, and he has lost count of the number of times the fields have been hit. The grain storage was bombed, the power generation facility was destroyed and several rockets rained down on the cattle barn – empty since cattle were sold at the start of the war. Of a pre-war workforce of 100, most have been evacuated and only about 20 remain.
The workers succeeded in planting wheat, but they did not have time to harvest it. Crops burned in a bombardment on July 2.
Lubinets is devastated. As an agronomist, he was eager to examine the results of five new types of wheat they had planted, as part of the annual crop performance research.
“All that research work has been destroyed,” he said. “See, how can I feel? How can a person feel if you wanted to do something, but someone came along and messed it up? »
Some farms in the region have had better luck. Nearly 10 kilometers (six miles) southwest of Novomykolaivka, a combine harvester methodically moves through a field, cutting dried sunflowers from their stalks and pouring their black seeds into waiting trucks.
The war forms a discordant 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 over rolling plains.
Farm workers, stopping for lunch in the field, ignore the booms of distant bombardment.
“It became very hard 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. Only sorrow and hurt.
Sergiy Kurinnyi, manager of the 3,640-hectare KramAgroSvit farm, said it was risky to plant sunflowers in May without knowing whether the front line would swallow up the fields.
“We could see the military action with our naked eyes,” Kurinnyi said. “So there was a risk whether we could harvest these crops, but we decided to take that 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 fodder crops. They lost 27 hectares of wheat in a fire started by bombardment but managed to harvest the rest.
A rocket strike killed 38 of the farm’s 1,250 cattle in April, prompting managers to sell off most of the remaining herd, keeping 215 cattle in its milk production. The following day, a rocket hit the equipment storage area, destroying a combine harvester and damaging other equipment, Kurinnyi said.
Calculating the total loss of the war is not easy, Kurinnyi said, but he estimated that about 10 million hryvnias (about $270,000) were lost from agricultural production and about 1 million hryvnias ( $26,700) for the 38 cattle killed in the strike.
With Ukraine’s counter-offensive pushing the front line further east, he said they were more confident they could sow and were beginning to prepare the ground for winter crops.
But for the badly damaged farm where Lubinets works, the return to the fields is still a long way off.
“We lived calmly before this war, we were working, we had … achieved something, we were striving to do something – and now what?” he said. “Everything has been damaged, everything has been destroyed, and we have to rebuild all of that, starting from scratch.”