Famous for towing captured Russian tanks, Ukrainian farmers step up war effort

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Ukrainian farmers now have the fifth largest army in Europe – or at least that’s what a dark internet joke refers to all the captured Russian military equipment they towed off the battlefield.

In a country desperate to keep its spirits up in tough times, near-daily social media posts featuring Ukrainian farm tractors recovering Russian tanks, trucks and missile launchers stuck in their muddy fields have certainly helped.

But now the Ukrainian government is asking its farming community for more than just a moral boost.

April 1, the unofficial start of the spring planting season, is fast approaching, and the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky is urging farmers and food producers to redouble their efforts to ensure that all seeds are sown and that every available plot of land is used to its full potential. advantage.

Chickens are seen on a farm near Lviv, Ukraine. (Jean Francois Bisson/CBC)

This is because the Russian invasion has turned a huge part of Ukraine into a war zone and off limits to food production.

“If things stay as they are, it is very likely that we will only be able to safely use 30 to 50 percent of arable land,” said Nazar Bobitski, who works in Ukraine’s business and trade bureau.

The planting season is about to begin

A former Ukrainian diplomat, Bobitski is usually based in Brussels, where he works with European countries to help channel Ukrainian agricultural exports to foreign markets.

But since the Russian invasion on February 24, he has returned to Lviv to try to help the country’s farming community chart an extremely difficult course over the coming months.

Besides the actual fighting, Bobitski says Russian troops are trying to systematically destroy farms and agricultural equipment as they push deeper into the country.

Ukrainian farmers fear that much of their prime farmland, like this plot outside Lviv, will be unusable this year due to the Russian invasion. The planting season traditionally begins on April 1. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“One of the most horrific features of this Russian war is that Russian troops deliberately target and destroy agricultural machinery in Donetsk Oblast, as well as near Chernihiv and Sumy,” Bobitsky said. “They are really pursuing a scorched earth policy until [Ukraine’s] agricultural installations are concerned.

In addition to the dangers farmers face from shelling and missile attacks, the Ukrainian government says Russian forces have dropped landmines from the air over a large swath of agricultural area, making it unsafe.

Reduced exports

Ukraine is one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world. In 2021, 16% of its gross domestic product (GDP) came from agricultural production, amounting to almost 886 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (equivalent to 30 billion US dollars).

A worker packs eggs on a farm near Lviv. (Jean Francois Bisson/CBC)

Agriculture accounted for 45% of Ukraine’s total exports, with sunflower oil products, corn, wheat and poultry products leading the way, according to figures compiled by Ukraine’s Ministry of Economy.

Ukraine’s generosity “really affects the food security of less fortunate and less developed countries around the world,” Bobitski said, noting that Egypt and other countries in North Africa, as well as the Middle East , are among the largest importers of Ukrainian agricultural products.

But with Ukraine’s agricultural market expected to shrink, Bobitski says his exports will be significantly reduced, although the country will likely still be able to continue feeding its own people.

“Ukraine will not be able to deliver as we did before in the international market,” he said.

In addition to the complicated logistics of getting products to foreign markets, Russia is blockading the Black Sea port of Odessa, which is the main maritime outlet for the distribution of bulk agricultural products from Ukraine. in the world.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian government offered a loan program to farmers worth more than US$800 million. He also reduced taxes for small and medium-sized businesses to just 2%.

Supply issues

With much of eastern Ukraine now essentially off limits, farmers in the country’s western regions are urged to maximize their harvests and ensure they are working at peak efficiency.

CBC visited Yaroslav Protsaylo, 51, who mainly grows wheat, corn and eggs on his medium-sized farm not far from Lviv.

He says that even here, far from the front lines, the war is creating challenges as the planting season approaches.

Yaroslav Protsaylo raises chickens, wheat and other grains on a property outside Lviv. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“I have a problem with the supply of seeds. Some are blocked because they come from the area where there is shelling,” Protsaylo said. “Some of the seeds might come from the West, like Poland and Germany, but not all Western companies want to supply [during a war].

“So it’s a question mark [whether we will get the seeds].”

He also said it was difficult to get enough diesel fuel to power his equipment because the army has priority.

Like many other farmers, Protsaylo donated large quantities of the eggs and dairy products he produces to help feed soldiers and refugees arriving in Lviv.

Bobitski says these humanitarian efforts will inevitably have to slow down as farmers focus on planting crops for the coming season.

“It’s not a very sustainable situation because they quickly run out of cash and supplies,” Bobitski said.

Aspiring to ‘rework our fields’

A few kilometers from the Protsaylo farm, in the village of Vinyavy, hazelnut producer Andrii Zhydachek has organized dozens of local farmers into the agrotourism cluster of GorboGory.

Before the invasion, Zhydachek was trying to create what he calls an “agro-tourism” sector near Lviv, with farmers’ markets and other tourist businesses to lure visitors to the hills and farmlands in outside of town.

Andrii Zhydachek is a hazelnut farmer who runs an agricultural cooperative near Lviv. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

He was in the process of securing export permits for niche products like hazelnut milk, which is popular in Europe. Plans are now on hold because of the war, he says, and the focus has shifted to defeating the Russian army.

“We also support our army and our soldiers,” Zhydachek said.

It means providing them with food.

“If the Ukrainian army manages to defend us from Russia, then in the summer we will begin to clear the land [of mines and ammunition] and work our fields again.”

Perhaps Ukrainian farmers will even find some use for these captured Russian tanks in their fields, Zhydachek said.

“We understand that we have a new type of army – it’s an army of farmers.”

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