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Ukrainian Farmers Persevere Through War, Bullets


by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, November 18, 2022

"That was the first time I've ever met a farmer with three bodyguards in his pickup truck with him," Kip Tom of Leesburg said, describing the sights of his recent travel in Ukraine.

While farmers aren't on the literal frontlines in Ukraine, with the targeted attacks on their operations, they are fighting their own battles just to keep their products growing and moving. Tom describes the challenges they face as they harvest their fields and attempt to export the grains.

A former U.S. ambassador, Tom began working with a foundation made up of philanthropists, a West Point Analyst and some logistics specialists from West Point. in March to move grain out of Ukraine to maintain food security around the world.

Recently, he visited Ukraine as a special advisor to assess agricultural and humanitarian issues, and identify alternative trade routes in preparation for the termination date of the Black Sea Trade Initiative, which was set to expire today.

"The Ukrainian grain supply played a major role in feeding a lot of those in the 54 countries in Africa and many countries throughout the Middle East," Tom said.

If grain is not moved out of Ukraine, then those countries dependent on it will suffer from food insecurity and the Ukrainian farmers are unable to produce enough capital to plant their crops in the spring.

"Our fear is that Putin will flex his muscle and potentially stop the trade. We know that the Russians have put high volumes of ships with cruise missiles on them into the Black Sea and we're very fearful that he could amplify his battle against the Ukrainians," Tom added.

Many farms are already being targeted by Russian soldiers. Barns are littered with holes, large and small, from munitions raining down on them for the past 11 months in Kherson, which was occupied by Russia until last Wednesday, where Tom met with several farmers.

About a half-mile from the various farms Tom visited, he says tanks were firing rounds, and mortar shells were being shot into the area.

While on one of the farms, Tom was led to the office of one of the farmers and saw bullet holes sprayed across the stucco of the building, evidencing by an attack from Russians.

"It's a very desperate situation for the farmer," he said.

But this didn't seem to stop him or the others.

"Clearly the Ukrainian farmers are very spirited individuals. They were determined they were going to try to plant a crop in 2023," he said. "Some of them, actually, have made plans to buy the inputs, but again, they struggle with finding the ability to find sources of capital or loans to plant."

Other issues include lack of electricity, tractor parts, limited fuel supply and mines planted in the fields.

From Kherson, Tom and his group traveled to Odessa to talk to more farmers. The big three needs of farmers throughout Ukraine are access to capital, markets and fertilizer. Many are unsuccessfully appealing for credit to support their operation and find an alternative fertilizer source.

In Kyiv, there were nightly bomb raids causing casualties and destroying power plants. A missile hit a cut-flower market three blocks from Tom's hotel. While there, he spoke with the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, about the war efforts and how the U.S. can better assist.

He learned that multiple soldiers, many being men who previously worked on farms, are losing limbs on the frontlines due to injury. Zimmer-Biomet, a local company out of Warsaw, is working with hospitals to provide prosthetics and with the medics to provide technology that can assist them in assessing the damage of various injuries.

Tom then traveled to Lviv, where he met a large-operation farmer.

This farmer manages half a million acres of crops. As of Tom's visit, he still had about 200,000 acres of corn to harvest but had no storage available for the grain because he was unable to ship his sunflowers, soybeans or wheat. So, the large-operation farmer has not started his corn harvest, nor can he until shipments get moved.

"If they can't get their crops to the ports, they can't collect any money and then they don't have any money to operate the farm for another year," Tom said.

However, the trucks with grain shipments line the roads for miles waiting to get into the Black Sea ports, Tom observed. He said some take as long as five days to reach the loading dock. Currently, shipments cost $75 per metric ton for rail shipments and $100 per metric ton for trucks.

Large farms like the one in Lviv account for approximately 60% of the total production of Ukraine. The Ukrainians, according to the Ukrainian farming associations, typically plant 7.5 million hectares of winter wheat per year. The farm associations Tom met with reported a mere 2.5 million hectares of wheat being seeded.

Challenges in planting, harvesting and maintaining the fields also include adequate labor, the large-operation farmer told Tom.

"Nearly 40% of his workforce was up on the front lines battling against the Russians," Tom said.

He paused, drew in a breath and continued, "He hasn't seen a lot of his people since March. He doesn't know if they're alive or if they're dead."

In the meantime, the large-operation farmer is facing large expenses for generators to keep his grain bins operational due to a lack of electricity, and to keep his fields clean of explosives. He is currently struggling to find a source of fertilizer for the upcoming season.

"Wheat, corn, barley and sunflowers require nitrogen, and it's going to be pretty hard to recognize any form of a normal yield if they don't have access to nitrogen fertilizer," Tom said. "Nitrogen is a key element in supporting the world populations."

According to ourworldindata.org, nitrogen and global population are directly related. Between 1960 and 2015, the world population rose from 3.03 billion to 7.38 billion. In 1960, 392.32 million people were fed with products enhanced by synthetic fertilizer, but by 2015 3.45 billion people were supported by nitrogen-enhanced products.

Before the war, the two largest sources of fertilizer for Ukraine were Russia and Belarus. Tom says he saw large fields, good, rich, dark soils, highly productive soils and some modern grain plants and equipment in Ukraine, but, without nitrogen, crops may not be planted and yields will certainly suffer in 2023.

The large-operation farmer is also busy making appeals for credit to allow him to remain operational next year.

"He told me this," Tom said. "'If we don't farm, we're going to lose about $250 per hectare. If we do farm, we know we're only going to lose about $100 per hectare. Even though we're going to lose money, we need to plant a crop somehow.'"

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