After Russian Retreat, Ukraine’s Farmers Discover Fields Full of Mines

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Damage to farmland threatens long-lasting disruption to food supplies from the region

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The extent of damage to some farms, together with port disruption and a shortage of fertilizer, demonstrates how the war’s impact on Ukraine’s agriculture industry could extend well into next year.

When Russian troops pulled out of areas around Kyiv, they left shattered 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.
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Several workers have been killed, and the work has been placed on hold in some areas, the farmers add.

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Alex Lissitsa, chief executive of IMC, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural companies, said his workers should now be planting sunflowers and corn on 30,000 hectares of land (a hectare is 2.42 acres) north of Chernihiv but can’t because of unexploded shells and mines .

“It looks like this year or even the year after we will not be able to do anything here,” Mr. Lissitsa said of parts of the land. The company also lost a grain storage facility, a chemicals laboratory and other buildings and equipment to Russian shelling.

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

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

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

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

Russian officials didn’t respond to a request for comment about targeting Ukraine’s agriculture industry. Moscow has previously denied targeting civilians.

Despite having been sent photos of damage to his farm near the northern city of Chernihiv, Petro Melnyk said he was not prepared for the extent of the destruction when he returned over two weeks ago.

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

To be sure, not all farmers think they were deliberately targeted. Dmitry Skorniakov has found Russian mines on parts of his 8,000 hectares in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions but he believes that they were intended for the Ukrainian military rather than to hurt agriculture, partly because the mines were at the edges of fields.

Either way, the damage to farming capacity and the continued occupation of farmland in Ukraine’s east and south is a blow to an industry that provides 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 stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Farmers are waiting for the Ukrainian military to clear the mines and munitions, which could take a while. Evgeniy Kharlan, who farms asparagus and blueberries, asked the military to clear unexploded munitions on his land close to the front line in eastern Ukraine and was told that clearing cities and towns was a higher priority. Mr. Kharlan also said the military told him to avoid his other farm near Chernobyl because of the risk posed by mines.

The delay in getting back to work likely will reduce the harvest this year and potentially next, Mr. Kharlan said, adding that only around 30% to 40% of his fields were now being farmed.

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

Mr. Melnyk said he was confident that he can borrow or rent enough equipment to farm around 80% of his 9,000 hectares in the Chernihiv region, and that he was already farming a further 9,000 hectares elsewhere. However, he also has 6,000 hectares in the Luganz province in eastern Ukraine that Russian forces still control that he has written off farming this year.

Even where farmers are working, a lack of fertilizer and chemicals used for crop protection mean that yields will likely be lower.

Mr. Lissitsa’s corn fields would typically yield around 10 metric tons per hectare (a metric ton is 1.1 tons). “Now, I would be happy with 8 tons a hectare, but it will definitely be less,” he said.

Some Western companies, including Germany’s Bayer AG

, have donated seeds to Ukraine. Others, including Exxon Mobil Corp., have 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 to spread fertilizer last month.

But Ukraine remains particularly low on fertilizers, which before the war it had bought from Russia and Belarus. Ukraine is also struggling to export its produce because Russia has blockaded its Black Sea ports or taken control of them. And farmers in some parts of the country have had to contend with heavy rain in recent weeks.

In the face of the challenges, farmers are racing against the clock. “We should be finished [spring] planting by the latest 20th May,” Mr. Lissitsa said last week. “We have only 25 days to plant.”

Write to Alistair MacDonald at [email protected]


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