ZELENODILSK, Ukraine — Their uniforms are dusty jeans and T-shirts, and they ride tractors, not tanks, along the front lines in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But Ukrainian farmers face many of the same grave dangers as soldiers as they harvest this year’s crops. All over Ukraine, Russian artillery and mines are killing tractor drivers. Thousands of acres of ripe wheat were burned by the strikes. The fields are covered with pockmarks where incoming shells left craters.
Serhiy Sokol, who grows wheat, barley and sunflowers in southern Ukraine, said he and his workers pulled dozens of aluminum tubes from Russian rockets out of the black soil as they worked his fields. Last month, he said, a neighbor’s harvester ran over a mine, blowing out one of its fat tires but sparing the driver.
“There were a lot of cluster munitions in the fields,” he said. Sokol said with a shrug. “We just took a chance and, thank God, nobody got hurt.”
And after all, Mr. Bedy Sokol, when his barley crop dries in a warehouse, a Russian artillery shell hit his silo. About a dozen tons of grain burned down.
Breakthrough deal that allowed ships to carry grain this week will depart from the southern ports of Ukraine The diplomatic issue may have been resolved, but a more pragmatic one remains over the Ukrainian farming community: growing and harvesting in a war zone while powerful weapons destroy some of the richest farmland in the world.
Farmers say they have no choice. Most of the grain harvest in Ukraine comes from winter wheat and barley, which are sown in early autumn and harvested the following summer. Having sown the land before the start of the war, farmers living near the front must now take risks so as not to lose a year’s capital.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporting countries, and its lucrative agricultural industry is the cornerstone of the country’s economy, accounting for about 11 percent of gross domestic product and creating about 1 million jobs. Agriculture is even more important to export earnings, accounting for 41 percent of all Ukrainian exports last year. But the Russians blocked Ukraine’s export opportunities by blocking shipping lanes in the Black Sea, and according to Ukraine, grain theft in occupied territory.
Hopes for Ukrainian agriculture were raised this week as the first grain ship carrying 26,000 tons of corn left the port of Odessa under an agreement brokered by Turkey and approved by the United Nations to alleviate famine in developing countries.
On Monday, after passing through sea mines guarding the port and Russian warships further out to sea, the ship reached Turkish waters on Wednesday, where it was inspected and cleared to sail for Lebanon. Other ships will follow. The deal is expected to export about five million tons of grain per month, closing the backlog of about 20 million tons of grain in elevators from last year, freeing up storage space for this year’s crop.
But planting and harvesting has become such a pain in the ass that Ukraine will inevitably export less this year and in the future, given the hurdles to agriculture. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, forecast that Ukraine’s wheat exports of $5.1 billion last year will halve after this year’s harvest.
Our coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war
In the fields on the front line, where the Ukrainian army is conducting a counteroffensive against Russian troops, crops of sunflower, wheat and barley stretch to the horizon.
This is the country of the big sky Ukraine: vast expanses of flat earth, laid out in a checkerboard pattern with giant fields.
Closer to the front, bulky Ukrainian military trucks plod along country roads alongside tractors and combine harvesters.
Every few minutes there is a distant artillery strike. On the horizon, clouds of smoke are blown by the wind from the burning fields.
Farmers and Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian military is deliberately shooting at ripe wheat and barley to start fires as a form of economic sabotage. There is also occasional destruction, as Russian fire directed at military installations also risks setting fields on fire.
“They see harvesters and shoot at them,” Yevgeny Sytnichenko, head of the military administration of the Krivoy Rog region, said in an interview by a burning field during a recent tour of front-line farms. “They do it so we don’t have grain, so we can’t eat it, and we can’t export it.”
Sergeant Sergei Tarasenko, whose 98th Rifle Brigade soldiers are fighting in farmland south of Krivoy Rog, said Russian artillery had targeted tractors and harvesters that had been spotted by drones.
“They are shooting at the locals who are gathering grain,” he said. “These are people who have invested their money and now they need to harvest. But now they are doing it under fire, under fire.”
For Ukrainians, burning fields are an emotionally charged and infuriating event, even in a war where there is no shortage of other outrages. Reminiscent, Mr. Sytnichenko said, of the grain requisitions by the Soviet Union in the 1930s that sparked a famine that historians say claimed the lives of at least three million Ukrainians, a tragedy known as the Holodomor. “Before, grain was confiscated, but today they are burned,” he said.
Ukraine is also facing immediate economic consequences. The USDA cited studies showing that the war will cost farmers and agribusinesses $23 billion this year in lost profits, destroyed equipment and higher transportation costs.
Ukrainian farmers and the government are adapting, finding workarounds for blocked transport routes, creating temporary storage sites for grain and trying to clear fields to harvest crops. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the most affected crops are wheat, barley and sunflowers, as they are grown in areas close to the fighting.
“While Russia is blackmailing the world with hunger, we are trying to prevent a global food crisis,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said of efforts to keep production on Ukrainian farms.
Fires caused by artillery shelling reduce crops. According to Verkhovna Rada deputy Elena Krivoruchkina, more than 3,000 field fires broke out.
Tractors and harvesters have been blown up by mines in northern Ukraine, even months after the Russian retreat. For example, at the end of last month, a tractor hit a mine near Kharkov, the driver died. The tractor burned down in the field.
Outside the city In Sokol’s hometown in south-central Ukraine, two combine harvesters, including a neighbor’s John Deere, were hit by mines in the last two weeks of July.
Rocket wreckage Falcon fields are now in the yard along with tractor tires and sacks of grain. A pile of a dozen or so slate-grey dented pipes and fins is leaning against the wall.
“I’m angry,” he said. “How angry? I want them to die. That’s how I feel now.”
In the fields on a recent sultry afternoon during harvesting, flames crackled on the stubble of Vasily Tabachnyuk’s recently harvested wheat crop, picked up by gusts of wind.
mr. Tabachniuk, whose fields are only a few miles from the front, said he was lucky to have an early harvest. After previous strikes, he sent tractor drivers to burning fields to cut firebreaks, trying to save what grain he could. One strike burned about 200 acres of ripe wheat.
If the Ukrainian counter-offensive does not push back the Russians before the start of winter wheat planting in September, he said, he will not sow next year.
“All agriculture will be out of work,” he said, standing in a scorched field where the soil was littered with charred wheat grains.
“The wheat is ripe,” he said. “He had to be collected.”
Yuriy Shivala provided a report from Zelenodolsk.