NOVOMYKOLAIVKA, Ukraine (AP) – An unexploded rocket sticks out of a field, and another is embedded in the farm’s compound. Workers found a cluster bomb while clearing weeds, and there is a gaping hole in the roof of the livestock barn scarred by shrapnel.
All work has stopped on this large farm in eastern Ukraine, whose fields and buildings have been hit so often by mortars, rockets, missiles and cluster bombs that its workers are unable to cross the crater-dotted ground to plant or harvest crops such as wheat.
“It will be difficult, very difficult to return to planting and harvesting,” said Viktor Lubinets, who handles crop production on the Veres farm. Even if the fighting ends, the fields must first be cleared of unexploded ordnance and shrapnel.
And the fight is far from over. The roar of an incoming missile fills the air, the nearby detonation shakes the ground and sends plumes of black smoke into the sky. Lubinets barely flinches.
“I’m used to it. It was scary during the first few days, but now – one can get used to anything,” said the 55-year-old, the smoke clearing behind him. “And we have to work. If we succeed in abandoning this, we will abandon, other farmers will abandon, what will happen then?”
Agriculture is a vital part of Ukraine’s economy, accounting for about 20% of gross national product and 40% of export earnings before the war, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The country is often described as the breadbasket of Europe and millions rely on its affordable supplies of grain and sunflower oil in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where many people are already facing hunger own.
But the Russian invasion in late February dealt a heavy blow, damaging farmland, crops, livestock, machinery and storage facilities, as well as severely disrupting transport and exports.
The EBT estimated in July that the preliminary damage to the industry is between $4.3 billion and $6.4 billion — 15% to 22% of the total value of Ukraine’s agricultural sector before the war, estimated at $29 billion.
The Veres farm is a great example. His 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land usually grew wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers, and there were 1,500 cattle.
But because of its location it was very vulnerable in a mostly artillery war. It lies almost in a straight line between the strategic city of Izium, seized by Russian forces in early April and recaptured by Ukraine in September, and Kramatorsk, the largest city in the eastern Donetsk region which remains in the hands of Ukraine.
The farm complex has been hit 15 to 20 times, says Lubinets, and he has lost count of how many times the fields have been hit. The grain storage is chipped, the electricity generation facility destroyed, and the cattle barn – empty since the livestock was sold when the war started – was repeatedly rained upon. Of a pre-war workforce of 100 employees, most were evacuated and only around 20 remain.
The workers succeeded in planting wheat, but they did not have time to harvest it. The crops were burnt during bombing on 2 July.
Lubinets was destroyed. As an agronomist, he looked forward to examining the results of five new varieties of wheat they had planted, as part of the annual crop performance research.
“All this research work was destroyed,” he said. “You see, how can I feel? How does one feel if you wanted to do something, but someone came and destroyed it?”
Some farms in the area were lucky. Almost 10 kilometers (six miles) southwest of Novomykolaivka, a collective harvester moves methodically up and down a field, slicing dried sunflowers from their stalks and pouring their black seeds into waiting trucks.
The war creates a terrible background. The machine is scarred with shrapnel from an exploding rocket, and a nearby field is reached. Helicopters soar over the sunflowers and corn, and fighter jets fly low over the rolling plains.
Farm workers, breaking for lunch in the field, ignore the distant boom of shelling.
“It became very difficult and scary to work during the war, because you don’t know what to expect and where,” said 36-year-old worker Maksim Onyshko. “War never brought any good. But sorrow and harm.”
Sergiy Kurinnyi, director of the 3,640-hectare KramAgroSvit farm, said it was dangerous to plant sunflowers in May without knowing whether the front line would swallow the fields.
“We could see with our naked eyes the military action,” said Kurinnyi. “So the risk was whether we could remove these crops, but we decided to take this risk.”
It paid off, with the good weather helping to produce good yields 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 animal feed crops. They lost 27 hectares of wheat to a fire caused by the bombing 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 dairy production. The next day, a rocket hit the equipment storage area, destroying a grain harvester and damaging other equipment, Kurinnyi said.
It is not easy to calculate the total loss from the war, Kurinnyi said, but he estimated that about 10 million Hryvnias (about $270,000) were lost to crop production and about 1 million Hryvnias ($26,700) to the 38 cattle killed in the strike
As the Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed the front line further east, he said they were more confident of being able to plant the soil and were starting to prepare the soil for winter crops.
But for the heavily damaged farm where Lubinets works, a return to the fields is still a long way off.
“We were living peacefully before this war, we were working, we had … achieved something, we had tried to do something – and now what?” he said. “Everything is damaged, everything is destroyed, and we have to rebuild all of this, starting from scratch.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine and the food crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/food-crisis.