International 01/04/2022

Kalashnikov-toting farmers defend harvests in Ukraine

Farming activity in one of Europe's leading grain producers resumes after a month of war

4 min
Ukrainian farmers unload sacks of fertilizer to fertilize fields in the village of Kovalivka, south of Kiev.

Special Envoy to Kovalivka (Ukraine)An hour's drive south of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv fields start to appear. The road that runs through the fields is lined with checkpoints. However, the guards are neither military nor police, but men who do not seem to have much experience with weapons. Some wear military uniforms and have a certain look of authority, but others stand in the middle of the road wearing jeans and a sweater, a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulders. The sight of them makes you want to run.

At one of the checkpoints there are tyres, sandbags and even large iron structures across the middle of the road. There are Ukrainian flags and two scarecrows at the bottom of the road, as if they were welcoming drivers. The men with the Kalashnikovs stop every vehicle and check their documents and then let them continue on their way.

Despite their appearance, the men are gentle when you get closer and are willing to be interviewed by this journalist as long as she does not take pictures of them or of the checkpoint. Most of them are farmers, like Alexander, who is 57 years old, owns 25 hectares of land and grows wheat, soya and other grains. He also has pigs. He says that if he had been told a year ago that he would guarding the road with a Kalashnikov, he would not have believed it. Yet this is what he now spends a large part of his day doing. The rest he spends on the land and tending the livestock. "We are Ukrainians, we can do everything," he says. "We are not afraid of the Russians. If Europe gives us weapons, we can fight and gather the harvest."

Sowing wheat

In fact, Ukrainian farmers have just resumed their activity after several weeks of standstill since the war broke out. In Kovalivka, a village about 75 kilometres south of Kyiv, tractors can be seen driving through the fields from one side to the other, sowing wheat. These are dark brown lands, almost as if they were wet, and occupy wide steppes dotted only by large silos. These are the famous Ukrainian black soils, hugely fertile, which have made it the breadbasket of Europe.

A tractor with a wheat sowing machine in full operation in the village of Kovalivka.

In fact, Ukraine is the world's fifth largest wheat exporter. Countless countries depend on its production, and the effects of the war have already begun to be felt as far away as the Middle East and Africa, where the price of basic foodstuffs has soared after Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky ordered a ban on grain exports. "We must first ensure that our people are fed," Nadia Asanshvili, deputy director of the National Agricultural Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, who fully supports the president's decision, explains by phone.

"We started sowing wheat a little over a week ago," a 29-year-old farmer Oleg explains, as he stops the tractor in the middle of the field and comes over to talk calmly. He says they are behind schedule because they should have started sowing two weeks ago, but many farmers joined the so-called Territorial Defence Forces at the beginning of the war, and the curfew from eight in the evening to seven in the morning is also a difficulty. Land is so extremely extensive in Ukraine that, when it needs to be sown, farmers work night and day.

The curfew is still in place and many farmers are still part of the Territorial Defence Forces, but, over a month into the war, these two initial drawbacks no longer seem to be a problem. "I work during the day and am at a checkpoint at night," Oleg says, who, like Alexander, also now combines the two jobs. He does not seem worried that it is not possible to export wheat. "I am paid by the number of hectares I farm, and this year I will sow the same as last year: four hundred," he assures.

Another farmer who works in a field a few kilometres away is also calm. His name is Sergey and he is very young, only 24 years old. "What is important is to plant now. What happens later, we'll see," he says casually. He doesn't own the land either, he just farms it. In fact, in this area south of Kyiv, most of the fields are owned by Svitanok, one of the largest companies in the sector in Ukraine, which also provides farmers with agricultural machinery and fertilizers. One of its managers, Maxim Kornienko, explains that in the Kovalivka area they have 10,000 hectares of wheat, 10,000 hectares of sugar beet and 60,000 hectares of corn, and that all of them have resumed agricultural activity. "The same applies to the rest of the country. In 80% of the lands, the season will start," he assures. In short, the harvest is assured, he says.

24-year-old Sergey with the tractor with which he has started sowing the land in Kovalivka.

What is not guaranteed is export, not only because of the presidential decree, but also because the ports through which these grains were transferred abroad are threatened by Russian troops. One is Odessa, and the other is located a few kilometres from the city of Mikolaiv, both on the Black Sea, in the south of the country. The grain is transported there by train, which has now stopped at Kovalivka, in the middle of the fields.

"Wheat is harvested around July or August, and corn and sugar beet around September or October. We are optimistic. We hope that by then the war will be over and exports can resume," says Kornienko. He also admits that local consumption could by no means absorb all the production, and even less so now that more than 3.8 million people have fled the country because of the conflict.

"We are worried about not having enough warehouses to store this amount of grain," says Ruslan, who is the representative of another agricultural company and who is uneasy about a future scenario no one is certain about. He is busy unloading sacks of fertilizer with a crane. According to him, they have no shortage of fertilizer and agricultural machinery. In addition, the Azerbaijani government said on Monday it could provide fuel to Ukrainian farmers so that they can sow.

Alexander is still at the checkpoint with his Kalashnikov. If the price of wheat collapses in Ukraine because of the impossibility of exporting it, he already has the solution: "Then I'll farm pigs". What he does not intend to do is to lay down his arms: "Russian soldiers should put seeds in their pockets. Then, when they die, we could at least benefit in some way," he says.

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