Across Ukraine, in the shimmering heat, one sight is becoming familiar this summer: Combine harvesters sweeping across fields of grain in a race against fast-spreading fires.
The conflict’s front lines straddle some of Ukraine’s richest farmland. Whether caused by accident or intention, the fires darkening the summer sky are eating into a harvest that was always going to be tough to collect and even tougher to export.
Pavlo Serhienko is in the crosshairs of this battle. The 24-year-old is the third generation of his family to run a farm in the Vasylivka district of Zaporizhzhia. Since his father died from coronavirus, Serhienko is managing the 3,000-hectare farm on his own.
But nearly half the land is now too dangerous to cultivate, he told CNN on Saturday.
“We can’t even get there. It is either mined or near the occupied territories, literally the front line. We had occupiers on part of the fields.”
Serhienko has literally seen his family’s business go up in smoke.
“For the last four days, all our knees are covered in blood, we are extinguishing [fires in] the fields. They [the Russians] especially hit the fields – fields with wheat and barley – every day.”
He said in the past few days he had lost 30 hectares of wheat, and 55 hectares of barley. And “those 1,200 hectares I can’t reach are also burning. But what can I do? I won’t even go there.”
The sowing season was just as dangerous. “We sowed a field of 40 hectares. We had to leave the field four times to finish it. Every time we left, they shelled the place instantly. Once there were 23 mortar hits.”
His buildings and equipment have also been hit – the animal farm and all the warehouses built over the past 20 years were destroyed.
“The planter was crushed, the winter workshop, where we repair tractors and combines, was also smashed.”
There are hundreds of farmers in a similar plight. Many likely face bankruptcy.
Ukrainian officials are in no doubt that part of Russia’s strategy is to destroy Ukraine’s agricultural wealth.
Last week, police in the southern Kherson region, one of Ukraine’s most productive arable areas, opened criminal proceedings over “the purposeful destruction” of crops by the Russian military.
The police accused Russian forces of “shelling agricultural land with incendiary shells. Large-scale fires occur every day, hundreds of hectares of wheat, barley and other grain crops have already burned.”
“In order to save at least part of the harvest, the villagers work on machinery next to a wall of fire,” the police said.
Once the fires start, there is little chance of extinguishing them. Many contested areas are without piped water, and it’s often too dangerous to try to tackle the blazes.
Kherson police allege that “the Russians deliberately do not allow anyone to extinguish the fires,” citing a fire that burned 12 hectares and adjacent pine forests in the occupied area around the village of Rozlyv.
The active front lines in the conflict stretch for more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) – mostly through farmland. In the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the regional military administration, said that “the enemy began to use the tactic of destroying fields where the harvesting is ongoing.”
Ukrainian emergency services posted images of fires that had swept through Donetsk farmland last week.
Ihor Lutsenko, a former member of Parliament now in the military, posted an image showing a substantial fire south of Bakhmut, an area of Donetsk that’s under almost constant attack. “The fields are on fire here,” Lutsenko told CNN last week. “We witnessed the Russians launch incendiary munitions. This is to burn out our positions.”
The image was reposted by the Defense Ministry, which added: “It is not Ukrainian wheat that is on fire, it is the food security of the world that is on fire.”
A little further west, the city council in Kramatorsk – an area that is coming under increasing Russian fire – also posted images of scorched fields, some with the remnants of Russian rockets still present. It said 35 hectares of crops had been destroyed in the latest fires.
Battle on multiple fronts
The summer harvest is just getting underway, so it’s not yet possible to assess the overall damage caused by fires. On Friday, the Agriculture Ministry said farmers had gathered in the first million tons of grain of the 2022 season from just over 400,000 hectares – but that represents just 3% of the sowing area.
Besides the fires, Ukrainian farmers face multiple challenges. Those close to the front lines must contend with the risk of harvesting and a lack of adequate storage. Dozens of silos and some of the biggest export terminals have been destroyed by Russian bombardment. One of the largest – in the southern city of Mykolaiv – contained some 250,000 tons of grain before being burned in June.
Additionally, some analysts say there are challenges in obtaining diesel fuel because of the destruction of refineries, meaning that some crops won’t be harvested.
Wherever they are, farmers face a logistical nightmare in exporting their grain and oilseed because Black Sea ports are essentially sealed off. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has launched an emergency $17 million program to help overcome storage problems. The US has also pledged to assist with the erection of temporary silos in Poland, which borders Ukraine to the west.
Even before the fires, Ukraine had forecast a sharp drop in the harvest of grain and oilseed this year, compared to the record output of last year.
Last week, Ukraine’s grain traders’ union said it expected a grain and oilseed harvest of 69.4 million tons, marginally higher than previous forecasts but far below the 106 million tons harvested last year.
Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotskiy said the grain harvest could be at least 50 million tons, compared to 86 million tons in 2021. At least half that output is earmarked for export, according to the traders’ union.
The production and export of wheat in an already tight global market may be most at risk. French consultancy Agritel said last week it expects Ukraine to harvest 21.8 million tons of wheat this summer compared to 32.2 million last year.
Consultant Dan Basse of the Chicago-based AgResource consultancy told the podcast AgriTalk late in June that because of logistical challenges he doubts Russian exports can make up for the shortfall of Ukrainian wheat, and the world market may be short of about 10 million tons of wheat this year.
After a recent dip, wheat prices are close to their highest levels for the year.
Some of what would have been Ukrainian produce is now in territory held by the Russians and their allies in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). The leader of the DPR, Denis Pushilin, said last week that the wheat harvest there would be much higher than in 2021.
Pushilin posted photographs of meetings with farmers and said they had discussed “the sale of products.” He has also said that the DPR plans to use the port of Mariupol to export the harvest.
Agritel estimates that up to 3.7 million tons of wheat could be harvested from some southern and eastern regions under Russian control. Russian operators are going to great lengths to disguise the origins of the wheat in an effort to sell it abroad. They are transferring grain at sea in an apparent effort to disguise its origin, according to satellite imagery reviewed by CNN, and merchant ships are turning off their transponders.
What’s unclear is whether Russian-backed authorities in occupied areas are paying market prices for the produce. Ukrainian officials have said that, in some areas, the Russians are insisting on steep discounts. There’s anecdotal evidence that some Ukrainian farmers have preferred not to harvest at all.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last week that Russia had a “well-thought and cynical strategy” to destroy Ukraine’s agriculture.
“The Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian ports has already shredded global chains of food supply,” Kuleba said. “Adding insult to injury, Russia steals Ukrainian grain and bombs Ukrainian granaries.”
“Russia is essentially playing hunger games with the world by keeping the naval blockade of Ukrainian ports with one hand and shifting the blame for it on Ukraine with the other hand,” Kuleba added.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has accused Ukraine of causing the paralysis of merchant shipping by mining coastal waters. Negotiations on safe passage for merchant ships, brokered by Turkey, have yet to yield any progress.
It’s not just this year’s harvest that’s in jeopardy. Independent farmers comprise much of the agriculture sector in Ukraine, and they don’t have deep pockets.
Basse, of AgResource, told AgriTalk: “Financing is running out. I will tell you that as I talk to my friends and clients, we will have farmers that go bankrupt. And then of course, as that happens, we will really have issues with the next wheat crop and the next corn crop. So I’m actually more concerned about 2023 production than I am about 2022.”
So is Serhienko, who says a combination of the ports closing, higher transport costs and lower prices mean “there is no question” his profit will vanish this year. He estimates his losses so far at some $10 million, in terms of lost output and destroyed infrastructure, and doesn’t know whether the family farm will survive into 2023.