Winter wheat should be sprouting up across southern Ukraine, but instead, fields are teeming with weeds, and worse — farmers are challenged with the risk of explosives sown by Russian forces.
Known as the world’s great breadbasket, Ukraine was the number one exporter of sunflower oil and meal and one of the top corn and wheat exporters prior to the Russian invasion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now estimates that 2022-2023 wheat production will be down 40 percent from last year largely due to the conflict.
Myloka Solskyi, Ukraine’s minister of agrarian policy and food discussed the issue during the USDA 99th Annual Ag Outlook Forum. “We face serious energy supply problems. Russia is shelling critical supply infrastructure (including crop storage and loading facilities),” Solskyi said. “Some farmers have become unprofitable. Our ag sector is losing its potential.”
The Ukrainian military currently estimates that about one-third of the country is contaminated by landmines and unexploded munitions including vast areas of farmland.
Farmers are increasingly susceptible to injury as they’re faced with the challenge of deciding now between working the land and risking death or dismemberment by explosives, or risking economic crisis.
Increasing reports of injuries to farmers have been popping up as fieldwork begins — at the end of February, 90 mile and explosive accidents were recorded and verified in Ukraine according to the Norwegian People’s Aid. More are likely to have occurred, and will continue to occur.
Andrii, an agronomist from Ukraine, told the HALO Trust, “Before the conflict, our organization owned 600 hectares of land. But now we can only use 200 hectares because the rest is mined or we don’t have access because of the fighting.”
The removal efforts will likely take years. HALO Trust has been in the country clearing landmines, tripwires, and unexploded debris for over six years since the 2014 conflict. Now, the organization has over 700 staff members on hand in Ukraine with plans to double that number by the end of the year.
And, although the trust says that they are discouraging citizens from removing explosives by hand, CNN shares reports of one farmer, Oleksandr Havriluk, who has already cleared 20 mines from his fields near Izium using a metal detector. Havriluk told CNN he doesn’t have any other choice, “You go, you find it, take a stick, tap it to determine the size, and then you dig it up,” he said. “And then you pick it up gently and take it out.”
Another farmer outside of Beryslav, Oleksandr Hordienko, has cleared 1,500 miles out of his fields so far according to The New York Times.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has donated nearly $150 million to Ukraine since the war began including $25 million worth of demining equipment, explosive-detecting K-9s, and other equipment. The foundation also has sent 50 combines to the Ukraine — machines, that reports indicate were originally meant to be sent to Russia.