For U.S. farmers, personal protective equipment may include gloves, steel-toed boots, ear plugs and dust masks. For Ukrainians farming on the frontlines, critical gear includes bullet-proof vests and helmets.
I can’t even imagine.
We’re just past the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and farmers in the war-torn country are once again planting and harvesting crops as battles rage around them. While many producers around the world struggle with weather, increasing input costs and supply shortages, most cannot fathom the challenges facing Ukrainian farmers.
Their fields are littered with explosives and shrapnel. Barns and grain bins have been bombed and burned. Equipment has been destroyed or stolen. There’s an ever-present threat from occupying Russian forces. Farmers have even been removing land mines by hand just so they can get into their fields—an often deadly task.
Agricultural journalist and Ukrainian refugee Svitlana Synkovska tried to put the situation in perspective by sharing her firsthand experiences during two recent University of Missouri presentations. She spoke on the Columbia campus in February as “Professor for a Day” and then again last month at the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute’s annual outlook conference.
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, Synkovska attempted to convince her 76-year-old mother to leave the country to no avail. Once the Russian army seized a power plant 40 miles away from her home, Synkovska, who is married to an American citizen, said she had to decide to leave or stay.
Ten days after the invasion, her family of four packed their bags and left Ukraine on an evacuation train, eventually escaping through Poland and ending up in the United States four months later. Now living in Utah, Synkovska works as an agribusiness consultant and uses her skills and voice to support her homeland.
To say agriculture is extremely important to Ukraine’s economy is an understatement—precisely why the industry was targeted by Russia, Synkovska said. Food security makes a formidable weapon. As she described it, “Grain became a tool of war.”
In 2021, more than 55% of Ukraine’s land was used for farming, agricultural products accounted for 41% of its exports and more than 14% of the population was employed in the industry. Before the war, Ukraine was the largest global exporter of sunflower oil, sunflower meal and millet and ranked fourth in the world for barley production, sixth for corn production and seventh in wheat.
Sharp reductions in those exports and restricted trade from the Black Sea ports due to the war have played a key role in pushing commodity prices higher over the past year. While rising markets have been good news for American farmers, it’s just the opposite for Ukrainian farmers, who have seen their production and income plummet. And 2023 shows little sign of improvement. Shortages of fuel, fertilizer and seed are expected to shift Ukraine’s production dramatically this year, with less corn and wheat across the country.
Like most farmers, Ukrainians are resilient, Synkovska said, speaking with pride about the way her nation’s agriculture has persevered despite the hardships and dangers brought by war. But she also admitted the long-term impact will be extremely hard to overcome. So far, there have been nearly $7 billion in damages to agriculture and land resources alone, and it will take years to rebuild critical infrastructure and clear all of Ukraine’s farm fields from explosives and debris.
It’s hard not to feel empathy for these farmers who are risking their lives to protect their livelihood. The image strikes home as planting season continues here in MFA territory. We should be grateful that body armor isn’t needed to get our crops in the ground. Grateful that we only have to look to the skies for rainclouds, not rockets. Grateful that insects and weeds are what we need to remove from our fields, not land mines.
A Ukrainian who now calls America home, Synkovska shared this earnest reminder to be grateful for what we have here:
“Always appreciate the peace you have in this blessed land.”
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