Ukrainian farmers risk their lives as war continues amid sowing season

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By Anca Ulea  & AP
Smoke from shelling raises on the horizon while farmers seed sunflowers in a field in Cherkaska Lozova, outskirts of Kharkiv
Smoke from shelling raises on the horizon while farmers seed sunflowers in a field in Cherkaska Lozova, outskirts of Kharkiv   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Bernat Armangue   -   A¨¨PTV

A growing food crisis has been worsened by Ukraine's inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products as the country remains under attack.

The country is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war and a Russian blockade of its ports have halted much of that flow, endangering world food supplies. Many of those ports are now also heavily mined.

So are many of the fields recaptured around Ukraine's second-biggest city Kharkiv, in the northeastern part of the country.

Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting in the countryside north of the city, and work in much of the farmland has not yet resumed in time for seeding.

Fields littered by unexploded artillery shells or too close to the frontline are too dangerous to venture in, and farming equipment and warehouses are largely destroyed.

But as shelling continues a few kilometres north, tractors seed as much land as possible, as fast as possible, wherever possible. Working in tandem, the drivers coordinate with each other by sight to avoid the craters left by the strikes.

"We don't have strikes right now, but in other fields, there is shelling and there are rockets (left on the ground), we drive past them and still seed. What can we do?" said one tractor driver seeding sunflowers in the village of Cherkaska Lozova.

Where to store it once harvested, farmers ask

After recapturing many of their fields from the Russians, they must now contend with a lack of working equipment.

"The situation now is that we don't have machines,” said farmworker Mikhaylo Petrushenko. “We recovered the land that is not mined where we can work, but not the machines because they were mostly destroyed."

But even if farmers do manage to secure their next harvest, there may not be space to store it. Ukraine has been unable to export millions of tonnes of grain and other agricultural products due to the war and a Russian naval blockade of its Black Sea ports. Many of those ports are now also heavily mined.

The southern port in Mariupol reportedly resumed operations after Russian forces finished clearing mines in the Azov Sea off the once-vibrant city. 

Russian state news agency Tass reported that a vessel bound for the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don entered Mariupol’s seaport early Saturday.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine accounted for 12% of global wheat exports, 15% of corn exports and about half of sunflower oil exports. 

As the global food crisis worsens, Western leaders have accused the Kremlin of using hunger as a bargaining chip by blocking Ukrainian exports from leaving the country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected the accusations, telling Italy’s prime minister in a call on Thursday that Moscow “is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizer [if] politically motivated restrictions imposed by the West are lifted.”