As war rages in Ukraine, farmers in the occupied Russian zone are being forced to house their enemies’ military vehicles in sheds and silage pits, according to the general manager of the Ukrainian Agrifood Club, Roman Slaston.
The agricultural leader reported that the Russians were killing Ukrainians in the occupied zone, stealing diesel and commandeering farms to hide war materials from aerial surveillance.
If there is to be a Ukrainian harvest this fall, spring work should begin at the end of March. Blocked ports and broken supply chains mean the future of Europe’s breadbasket now hangs in the balance.
Speak as sister The Scottish Farmer from Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, Roman revealed that determined farmers were diverting supply chains from Russia and the Black Sea to their European neighbours.
Agriculture faces unimaginable danger Ukrainians are fighting for a successful sowing campaign. “Farmers are tough guys,” Roman said. “We have already managed to do field work spreading fertilizers as bombs and missiles fell on our farms.”
What is your situation today? Are you, your family and your staff safe?
I’m fine and safe. My family and staff are also safe. We are lucky, we got out of kyiv on the first day of the war, we had some difficulties to get out but it’s fine now. I am in central Ukraine in Vinnytsia region.
What about Ukrainian farmers right now?
It’s very difficult. We have a full-scale war with Russia invading from three directions. Our army at the beginning did not admit that there was a risk of invading Belarus, we did not think that they would. We now know that Belarus supports, at least its leader Lukashenko supports Putin in his actions. We know that not all Belarusians support this action and we believe that their army will not come to Ukraine and join Russia in its war crimes.
How is life in the areas occupied by Russia?
Part of our country is occupied by Russia, which makes farming impossible. The Russian army is focused on military battles and will shoot anyone in their territory. Even inside people’s homes. They are angry. Angry at the decisions made by their top military leaders.
The Russians are also stealing diesel from the farms as they are not supplied in Russia. They also place their tanks in farmyards to hide them from aerial surveillance. They put them in silage pits to protect them. They arrive at the farm and demand to hide their vehicles in buildings.
In the occupied territory, there is a big problem of breeding, for dairy herds. There are no milk collectors or milk processors that can work in this area. Supply chains are broken, farmers have to donate their milk because they can’t get it delivered to the processing plant.
How are the plans for spring fieldwork developing?
Regarding the field work in the south and east of the country, the farmers managed to get nitrogen on the crops before the war, so at the moment the crops are doing well. In the rest of the country, farmers were able to finish nitrogen application during the war.
Today, these same farmers are involved in repairing Ukrainian military vehicles and building anti-tank barriers.
Field work begins at the end of March and beginning of April, it is at this time that the sowing campaign for spring crops and the application of herbicides begins. Having access to the fields will then be essential to decide whether we will have a crop to harvest this year.
The biggest shortage right now is diesel. We used to get most of our diesel from Belarus and Russia or through seaports. Now all these routes are restricted. Everything must come from the EU now. We are working hard to get enough diesel to be able to plant our crops. In general, we need at least 200,000 tons of diesel for spring sowing.
The situation for seeds, pesticides and fertilizers is not as critical, we have 50 to 60% of our needs for this year, with some farms having 80% of the stocks. We still have time to bring nitrogen to the farm for the growing season and we already have a good amount of pesticides.
We hope to end this war soon. We want it to stop by April 1 as well, as that is the deadline to start the seeding campaign. Not only in Ukraine but also in Russia. Russia also has challenges as many companies have stopped doing business there. Some grain traders won’t buy from Russia, Louis Dreyfus Commodities recently stopped. Other companies continue but they understand that there is a big risk.
These companies that continue to trade with Russia claim it is to help ensure global food security. But if we continue the war, it will have a greater impact on food security. We ask them to take sanctions against Russia to stop the war sooner and we can start feeding the world again.
How are food stocks doing in Ukraine?
In the early days, logistics in the country broke down and supplies could not flow, but we are now rebuilding and able to transport goods to unoccupied areas of the country. Each farm took a portion of its stock of wheat, sugar, and sunflower oil and gave it free to the military and cities for people who needed it most.
On February 24, we had stocks of 43 million tons of grain in the country. It is mainly maize but also wheat, rye, barley and buckwheat. These stocks are spread across the country in storage. To the west, further away from the fighting, we have the bulk of the maize stocks and to the east we have the main sunflower seed area.
Ukraine accounts for 50% of the world’s sunflower oil production. The sunflower processing facilities in the east are a big problem as the war has shut down the factories, but I recently heard that other factories elsewhere in Ukraine have taken over.
We are working to rebuild our logistics by exporting overland to Europe as our ports are blocked. We have a pretty good supply of wheat, we have enough animal quality wheat to last a year.
Will Ukraine be able to export grain this year?
We expect to export 15 million tons of maize before harvest this fall. In January and February we exported 4.5 million tons per month through our ports, but now we have to use the railways to the Baltic Sea through Poland or try to export through Romania. We hope to be able to export around 600,000 t per month. It’s relatively little compared to what went through seaports, but it’s still something.
Russia has already sunk three merchant ships in Ukraine in Odessa and Nikolaev – Bangladeshi and Estonian ships have been sunk. The Bangladeshi ship was shelled and one Bangladeshi lost his life. It’s tragic.
We will be able to export wheat for milling, but this must be done under license because the government wants to keep enough stocks to feed the country if the war continues. But it is possible that we could export a large quantity of soft wheat for animal feed. There is a ban on the export of other cereals such as buckwheat, rye and other niche cereals.
But it’s very difficult to plan at the moment. Right now we are taking it day by day, there are so many different scenarios that can play out.
Are you still able to source from Western agricultural companies?
When war broke out, Western companies were shocked and the supply chain broke. But that is now restored. We are in contact with large companies, with suppliers of seeds and pesticides and we have simplified the procedure for importing products.
What is the situation of farm staff?
Currently, there is a shortage of people to work on the farms. Many workers took up arms and joined the army. Many are part of local regional defense units. Some are involved in transporting crucial goods, ammunition and supplies.
We are in communication with the Ministry of Agriculture and Defense of Ukraine to explain that we need part of the staff on the farm to produce food. We find solutions to this by having a list of jobs crucial to the production of the upcoming planting season. But we will still have a lack of people, that’s for sure.
What is your message to readers of The Scottish Farmer?
I mean Ukraine is doing its best in defense, we will hold our positions and we hope for the support of our western partners around the world who share the same democratic values as us.
And we also ask farmers if they are able to support Ukraine in any way, please. Influencing diplomats or politicians or multinational input suppliers or grain traders to temporarily suspend work in Russia until Putin withdraws his troops from Ukraine.
We continue to fight for peace.