War’s Disruption to Ukraine’s Farms Seeds Global Food Crisis

The farmer was working in his field one recent morning when a neighbor called to say his warehouses had been bombed. He hurried back to find them on fire and one of his workers lying on the ground with shrapnel lodged in his head.

“In a word, it was destruction,” said farmer Yuriy Gumanenko, 48. “Everything was destroyed in pieces.”

The 62-year-old farmworker was hospitalized and had little chance of survival, Gumanenko said. Three of Mr. Gumanenko’s four tractors were destroyed, as were the roofs of his warehouses. The wheat he hoped to sell and many of his seeds were lost.

“My whole life was spent growing my farm,” he said, adding, “Now it’s all gone.”

In the past six weeks, Russian shells have destroyed Ukrainian cities, homes, hospitals and schools. But the war has also entered the fertile plains of a region known as the breadbasket of Europe, crippling harvests, destroying barns and crops, and bringing potentially devastating consequences to a country that produces much of the world’s grain.

Ukraine has already lost at least $1.5 billion in grain exports since the war began, the country’s deputy agriculture minister said recently. And the economic fallout from the war has also disrupted supplies from Russia, the world’s leading grain exporter.

The combination is creating a global food crisis “beyond anything we have seen since World War II,” the head of the United Nations World Food Program has warned.

In Ukraine, warehouses are full of grain that cannot be exported. Russia has blocked access to the Black Sea, Ukraine’s main export route, freight trains face logistical hurdles, and road transport is hampered because most truckers are men between the ages of 18 and 60 who don’t they can leave the country and cannot transport agricultural exports across the border. .

Ukraine has also banned some grain exports to ensure it has enough food to feed its people.

On Tuesday, the Agriculture Ministry said that six large barns had been destroyed by Russian bombardment. Farmers say they face fuel and fertilizer shortages, and some of their workers have gone to the battlefield.

Some farmers have been driven off their land by the fighting, with shells and rockets destroying their machines, injuring their workers and killing their livestock.

“My farm has turned into ruins,” said Grigoriy Tkachenko, a farmer in the village of Lukashivka, near the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv. “There’s almost nothing left.”

His farm was bombed one recent night at milking time, he said. A rocket hit the milking parlor and the workers ran to another building for shelter. When the attack ended, Mr. Tkachenko’s farm had been reduced to rubble and dozens of cows and small lambs lay dead.

The farm—its cattle, stores, and machinery—was the product of his life’s work. After working on collective farms when Ukraine was under Soviet rule, Mr. Tkachenko bought about 15 acres of land and seven cows in 2005. Over the years, he expanded his operation to 3,700 acres and 170 cows, and also produced corn, wheat, sunflowers and potatoes.

“What we built for decades,” he said, “they destroyed in just a few days.”

Farmland covers 70 percent of the country and agricultural products were Ukraine’s main export, accounting for almost 10 percent of its gross domestic product. Ukraine was one of the world’s leading exporters of corn and wheat and the largest exporter of sunflower oil.

The country now has 13 million tons of corn and 3.8 million tons of wheat that it cannot export via its usual routes, mainly by sea, Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotsky said last week.

A farmer in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine said he had 1,500 tons of grain and 1,000 tons of corn stored on his farm.

Some 400 miles to the northwest, near Chernihiv, Ivan Yakub fled his farm after Russia occupied the area, leaving 100 tons of corn and wheat in his warehouse.

Farming has become impossible in several areas where there is heavy fighting or Russian occupation.

Farmers are also concerned about whether they will be able to plant crops this spring, putting next season’s crops at risk. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denis Shmygal said the government expected a 20 percent decline in the crops to be sown this spring.

Russian forces mined some farmland, blew up machinery and destroyed fuel stocks, in an effort, Ukrainian authorities say, to disrupt planting.

“I don’t know if I will plant,” said Oleksandr Kyrychyshyn, a farmer from the village of Blahodativka in the Kherson region. “We were told that every car that enters the field will be shot.”

Mr. Yakub, who fled his farm near Chernihiv, still wakes up at 6 am out of habit. He makes tea, but he can’t get to his tractor and fertilize his land to prepare it for planting sunflower seeds. His fields, under Russian occupation, lie fallow.

“I paid for the seeds but I can’t put them in the ground,” he said. “I’m just a farmer, I want to grow what people need.”

In less-affected areas, farmers have started planting, but many lack fuel, fertilizer and seeds because ports have been blocked and imports from Russia and Belarus have been halted. A government survey last month found that farmers had 20 percent of the fuel needed for spring planting.

Anatoly Guyvaronsky, who represents the Dnipro region in the association of farmers and private landowners of Ukraine, said his grain truck driver and grain elevator operator had gone to fight in the war.

The Ukrainian government has temporarily exempted farm workers from military duties, but some have chosen to fight. Women and children are now helping out in the fields, Guyvaronsky said.

In Ukraine, farmers have shown great resilience and determination to do their best to grow crops and feed their people and the army.

Mr. Tkachenko, whose farm was destroyed in a Russian attack last month, stayed on his land as long as possible, feeding Ukrainian soldiers and the local population with meat, milk and potatoes.

He, his wife, his daughter and his six grandchildren slept a few hours at night in the cellar where they put potatoes and preserves.

“This is our land, this is our farm, this is our village,” Mr. Tkachenko said. “Until the last moment we wanted to be with our people.”

They fled after their farm was attacked, but returned last week as soon as they learned that the Russian army had withdrawn by a few miles.

“Our land is our land,” he said in a phone call as he drove home. “Everyone will rush back to work as soon as they can.”

Mr. Gumanenko, whose farm near Dnipro had been destroyed, spent the days after the attack sifting through the rubble to see what he could salvage so he could start planting as soon as possible. “If you don’t plant on time, you lose the harvest,” he said. He said that he probably couldn’t find soybeans, but his friends would give him other kinds.

“They can shoot us, but we are going to keep working,” he said, adding: “I don’t know another life. I was born a farmer and I will die a farmer.

valerie hopkins contributed report.

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