After Russian retreat, Ukrainian farmers discover fields full of mines

Russian forces have riddled Ukrainian fields with mines and destroyed equipment in areas they once occupied, in what returning farmers and the Kyiv government see as a campaign by Moscow to hamper the country’s agricultural industry .

The Russian invasion has already decimated shipments of corn, wheat and sunflower oil from what was until recently one of the world’s biggest food exporters. Prices soared, adding to global food price inflation and deepening the misery of developing countries that depended on imports from the region.

The extent of damage to some farms, along with port disruptions and fertilizer shortages, show how the war’s impact on Ukraine’s agricultural industry could linger well into next year.

When Russian troops withdrew from areas around kyiv, they left behind destroyed buildings and were accused of war crimes against the local population. Farmers in northern Ukraine say they have returned to fields littered with mines, unexploded ordnance and large craters. Several workers were killed and work was suspended in some areas, the farmers added.

Alex Lissitsa, managing director of IMC, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural companies, said its workers are now expected to plant sunflowers and corn on 30,000 hectares of land (one hectare equals 2.42 acres) north of Chernihiv, but cannot because of unexploded shells and mines. .

“It looks like this year or even the year after that we won’t be able to do anything here,” Mr Lissitsa said of parts of the pitch. The company also lost a grain storage facility, a chemical laboratory, and other buildings and equipment to Russian bombing.

Mr Lissitsa said he frequently hears of mine-related deaths, adding that a worker on a nearby farm was recently killed when his tractor ran over one.

Unexploded ordnance on an agricultural field in the Chernihiv region.


Agricom Group

The Ukrainian government estimates that mines are present in around 30% of agricultural fields in areas around Kyiv previously occupied by the Russians.

Taras Vysotskyi, Ukraine’s deputy minister for agrarian policy and food, said it was clear the targeting of agriculture was deliberate because Russian forces placed mines in fields of no military value and continued to do so even when they retired. “It was about blocking the possibility of making agriculture productive again in Ukraine,” he said.

The two regions where the retreating Russians laid mines and destroyed agricultural equipment and buildings are among the most agriculturally productive in Ukraine, Vysotskyi added.

Russian officials did not respond to a request for comment regarding the targeting of Ukraine’s agricultural industry. Moscow has previously denied targeting civilians.

Despite receiving pictures of damage to his farm near the northern town of Chernihiv, Petro Melnyk said he was unprepared for the extent of the damage when he returned more than two weeks ago.

“The Russians specifically want to stop the farms,” ​​said Mr. Melnyk, CEO and co-owner of Agricom Group, which has farms across Ukraine. Mr Melnyk said his properties had been heavily shelled, destroying buildings, tractors and other machinery, although no known Ukrainian military positions were nearby.

After Russian retreat, Ukrainian farmers discover fields full of mines

A destroyed agricultural vehicle near Chernihiv.


Agricom Group

Certainly, not all farmers believe they have been deliberately targeted. Dmitry Skorniakov discovered Russian mines on part of his 8,000 hectares in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions, but he believes they were intended for the Ukrainian army rather than to harm agriculture, partly because that the mines were on the edge of the fields.

Either way, the damage to agricultural capacity and the continued occupation of agricultural land in eastern and southern Ukraine is dealing a blow to an industry that supplies 10% of global wheat exports, 14 % of corn exports and about half of the world’s sunflower oil, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The World Bank recently warned of a global food catastrophe resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Farmers are waiting for the Ukrainian army to clear mines and munitions, which could take some time. Evgeniy Kharlan, who grows asparagus and blueberries, asked the army to clean up unexploded ordnance on his land near the front line in eastern Ukraine and was told that cleaning up towns and villages was a higher priority. Mr Kharlan also said the army told him to avoid his other farm near Chernobyl because of the risk posed by mines.

The delay in resuming work will likely reduce the harvest this year and potentially next, Mr Kharlan said, adding that only 30-40% of his fields were now under cultivation.

Russia is persevering in its war in Ukraine despite setbacks, sanctions and condemnation from many countries. The WSJ’s Ann Simmons explains why deep cultural and political ties, its strategic location and potential resources made the former Soviet republic a target for Moscow. Photo composition: Eve Hartley

The Ukrainian government predicts that 25% less land will be planted this spring than usual, although several agricultural companies operating in the country say the projection is too optimistic.

Mr. Melnyk said he was confident he could borrow or rent enough equipment to cultivate about 80% of his 9,000 hectares in the Chernihiv region, and was already cultivating another 9,000 hectares elsewhere. However, he also owns 6,000 hectares in Luganz province in eastern Ukraine, which Russian forces still control and which he delisted from farming this year.

Even where farmers are working, the lack of fertilizers and chemicals used for crop protection means yields are likely to be lower.

Mr. Lissitsa’s maize fields would typically yield about 10 metric tons per hectare (one metric ton equals 1.1 tons). “Now I would be happy with 8 tonnes per hectare, but it will definitely be less,” he said.

After Russian retreat, Ukrainian farmers discover fields full of mines

In March, a soldier stood near the entrance to a farm damaged after a Russian attack near Brovary, Ukraine, on the outskirts of kyiv.


Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Some Western companies, including the German Bayer AG

, donated seeds to Ukraine. Others, including Exxon Mobil Corp., helped with fuel supplies, a government official said. Farmers say they have been able to buy more fuel in recent weeks after an acute shortage hampered their ability to plant and apply fertilizer last month.

But Ukraine remains particularly poor in fertilizer, which it bought before the war from Russia and Belarus. Ukraine is also struggling to export its products because Russia has blocked or taken control of its Black Sea ports. And farmers in some parts of the country have had to deal with heavy rains in recent weeks.

Faced with challenges, farmers are racing against time. “We should be done [spring] planting no later than May 20,” Lissitsa said last week. “We only have 25 days to plant.”

Write to Alistair MacDonald at [email protected]

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