Sunday, September 25, 2022

Ukraine’s other struggle: Growing food for itself and the world

HORDYNIA, Ukraine ( Associated Press) – Planting season has arrived in Ukraine. Boat marks stamped in the frozen earth thawed. But the Pavlovych family’s fields remain untouched in a lonely landscape of checkpoints and churches.

More than a week ago, the family learned that their 25-year-old soldier son, Roman, had been killed near the besieged city of Mariupol. On Tuesday, the father, also named Roman, leaves for the war himself.

“The front line is full of our best people. And now they are going to die, “said the mother, Maria. In tears, she sat in her son’s bedroom in their warm brick house, spreading his medals and photos in front of her.

The Pavlovych family knows a second front line in Russia’s war runs through the farmland here in western Ukraine, far from the daily resistance to the invasion. It is an uphill battle for farmers to feed not only their country but the world.

Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, with millions across North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia facing the potential loss of access to the affordable supplies they need for bread and noodles. The war sparked food shortages and political instability in Ukrainian-dependent countries, including Indonesia, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon.

It is unclear how many farmers will be able to plant or care for their crops with the war raging, forcing those like Pavlovych to the front lines. And the challenges continue to grow.

Infrastructure – from ports and roads to farm equipment – has been trapped and damaged, meaning critical supplies such as fuel are difficult to obtain and routes for export almost impossible to reach. Fertilizer growers are paralyzed by nearby fighting, and a long winter can disrupt spring yields.

“How can we sow under the blows of Russian artillery? How can we sow when the enemy deliberately mines the fields, destroys fuel bases? ” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a recent speech. “We do not know what harvest we will have and whether we will be able to export.”

An airport not far from the Pavlovych house was bombed in the early days of the war, sending unexploded ordnance to nearby lands now planted with warning signs instead of maize.

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The rumbling sounds of attempts to safely dispose of the ammunition could be heard last week next to the younger Pavlovych’s flower-strewn grave.

There is no time to lose, even if families are grieving. The northwestern Lviv region near the border with Poland, far from the heart of what is known as Ukraine’s breadbasket in the south, is being asked to plant all the available land it can, said Ivan Kilgan, head of the regional agricultural association, said.

Yet the region will not be able to reach its pre-war levels.

“We expect to produce more than 50 million tons of grain. Previously, we produced more than 80 million tons. That’s logical. Less soil, less harvest, ”Kilgan said.

Kilgan stands in an icy barn with more than 1,000 tons of wheat and soy and has promised to send tons of flour to feed the Ukrainian army. He is planting 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 hectares) this year compared to 1,200 hectares (about 3,000 hectares).

And yet he lacks fertilizer. For the extra production he plans, he needs more than double the 300 tons of fertilizer he has.

“If the world wants Ukrainian bread, it has to help with this,” Kilgan said. In his office, he showed blueprints for more grain elevators and set them aside with frustration: “Well, this is just paper.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the world to prevent “a hurricane of hunger” from the disruption of Ukrainian grains, on which the World Food Program relies for about half of its wheat supplies.

Alternative wheat supplies will be more expensive and hit poor households elsewhere in the world, says Megan Konar, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose research focuses on the intersection of food, water and trade.

“Winter wheat is the largest wheat crop in Ukraine and Russia, planted last fall and will be harvested early this summer,” she said. “This harvest will be affected if people are not available to work in the fields to harvest.”

Maize, which is planted in the spring, will also be affected if fighting hinders farmers, she added.

This is true of those whose lands have been mined or bombed in parts of the hard-hit southern and central key growth areas, said Tetyana Hetman, head of the agriculture department in the Lviv region.

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“We have already been approached by farmers from other regions to find plots that they can cultivate” in the Lviv region to try to ensure the country’s food security, she said.

Concerned about the nutrition of its own people, the Ukrainian government restricted the export of oats, millet, buckwheat, sugar, salt, rye, cattle and meat. Under specific licensing, wheat, corn, chicken and eggs, and sunflower oil can be shipped.

Ukraine does have sufficient food reserves, Deputy Minister of Agricultural Policy and Food Taras Vysotsky told local media.

He said Ukraine consumes 8 million tons of wheat a year and has about 6 million tons on hand. It also has a two-year supply of maize, a five-year supply of sunflower oil and enough sugar for 1½ years.

Many Ukrainians have more immediate concerns than crops, with their land at stake.

It is estimated that 500 residents out of 14,500 in the largely agricultural villages in this part of the Lviv region went to war, said Bogdan Yusviak, who heads the local territorial council.

In his village, Pavlovych was the first to die.

His parents do not know how it happened. The first hint that something had gone terribly wrong was the arrival of their son’s belongings by mail. Thirty minutes later, someone called about his death, his mother said.

Roman loved farming, his parents said, as he liked to take in stray animals. Even up front, he would advise his parents on questions like whether to plant potatoes this year. He told his father, in training for the battle, that he would be more useful at home and in the fields.

Now, those fields lie empty. “We do not have time,” his father said, clasping his hands in front of him.

His mother stood outside near the gate of their house, looking up at the evergreen trees nearby.

“Those trees grew up with him,” Maria Pavlovych said of her son. Now, she said, she and his girlfriend go to the cemetery and cry in turn.


Aya Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


Follow the Associated Press’s coverage of the war at

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