Famous for towing captured Russian tanks, Ukrainian farmers step up for war effort
Images of Ukraine tractors have gone viral during war
Ukraine's farmers now have the fifth-largest army in Europe — or so goes a dark joke on the internet, a reference to all the captured Russian military equipment they've towed off the battlefield.
In a country desperate to keep its spirits up in dire times, the near-daily social media posts featuring Ukrainian farm tractors recovering Russian tanks, trucks and missile launchers that got stuck in their muddy fields have certainly helped.
But now, Ukraine's government is asking its agricultural community for more than just morale boosts.
April 1, the unofficial start of the spring planting season, is looming, and the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky is urging farmers and food producers to redouble their efforts to ensure every last seed is sown and every available piece of land is used to its full advantage.
That's because the Russian invasion has made an enormous part of Ukraine a war zone and off-limits to food production.
"If things stand as they are, it's very likely that we will be able to safely use only 30 to 50 per cent of arable land," said Nazar Bobitski, who works at the Ukrainian Business and Trade office.
Planting season set to begin
A former Ukrainian diplomat, Bobitski is typically based in Brussels, where he works with European countries to help get Ukrainian farm exports to foreign markets.
But since Russia's invasion on Feb. 24, he has returned to Lviv to try to help the country's farming community chart an extremely difficult course over the months ahead.
Aside from the actual fighting, Bobitski says Russian troops are trying to systematically destroy farms and farm equipment as they push deeper into the country.
"One of the very horrific features of this Russian war is that the Russian troops are deliberately targeting and destroying agricultural machinery in Donetsk Oblast, and also near Chernihiv and Sumy," Bobitski said. "They really pursue the scorched earth policy as far as [Ukraine's] agricultural facilities are concerned."
Aside from the dangers farmers face because of bombings and missile attacks, Ukraine's government claims Russian forces have dropped landmines from the air over a huge swath of agricultural area, rendering it unsafe.
Ukraine is one of the world's most important agricultural exporters. In 2021, 16 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) came from agricultural production — almost 886 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (or $30 billion US).
Agriculture accounted for 45 per cent 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 the Economy.
Ukraine's bounty "really affects the food security of less fortunate, less developed countries around the world," said Bobitski, noting that Egypt and other North African countries, as well as the Middle East, are among the largest importers of Ukrainian farm products.
But with the expected contraction of Ukraine's agricultural market, Bobitski says its exports will be drastically curtailed, although the country will likely still be able to keep feeding its own people.
"Ukraine will not be able to deliver as we did before to the international market," he said.
Adding to the complicated logistics of getting products to foreign markets, Russia is enforcing a blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa, which is the primary shipping outlet for distributing Ukraine's bulk agricultural products to the world.
Earlier this week, Ukraine's government offered a loan program for farmers worth over $800 million US. It also slashed taxes for small- and medium-sized businesses to just two per cent.
With much of Eastern Ukraine now essentially off-limits, farmers in western regions of the country are being asked to maximize their crops and ensure they are working at full efficiency.
CBC visited Yaroslav Protsaylo, 51, who has been growing mostly wheat, corn and eggs on his mid-sized farm not far from Lviv.
He says even here, far from the front lines, the war is creating challenges as the planting season approaches.
"I have a problem with the supply of seeds. Some are stuck because they come from the area where there's shelling," Protsaylo said. "Some of the seeds could come from the West, such as 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's hard to get enough diesel fuel to power his equipment, as the military gets priority.
Like many other farmers, Protsaylo has been donating vast quantities of the eggs and dairy products he produces to help feed soldiers and refugees arriving in Lviv.
Bobitski says such humanitarian efforts will inevitably have to slow down as farmers switch their focus to getting the upcoming season's crops in the ground.
"This is not a very sustainable situation, because they are quickly running out of liquidity and supplies," Bobitski said.
Yearning to 'work our fields again'
A few kilometres away from Protsaylo's farm, in Vinyavy village, hazelnut farmer Andrii Zhydachek has organized dozens of local farmers into the GorboGory Agro-tourism Cluster.
Prior to the invasion, Zhydachek was attempting to create what he calls an "agro-tourism" sector near Lviv, featuring farmers markets and other tourism ventures to attract visitors to the rolling hills and farmland outside the city.
He was in the midst of getting export permits for niche products such as 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 Russia's army.
"We also support our army and our soldiers," said Zhydachek.
That means providing them with food.
"If the Ukrainian army manages to defend us from Russia, from summer we'll begin to clean the land [of mines and ammunition] and work our fields again."
Perhaps Ukrainian farmers will even find some use for those captured Russian tanks in their fields, said Zhydachek.
"We understand that we have a new type of army — it's a farmers' army."
- A previous version of this story said that in 2021, 16 per cent of Ukraine's gross domestic product (GDP) came from agricultural production — almost 900 million euros (or $1.2 billion Cdn). In fact, it's almost 886 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (or $30 billion US).Mar 18, 2022 3:12 PM ET