In Ukraine, the sowing season in the north is immediately followed by the harvesting season in the south. This year, however, the country’s harvesters are facing a bitter new reality. The spring sowing campaign was usurped by a military one. Worse, more than 2,000 agricultural machines were either destroyed by shells and landmines, or stolen.

Farmers must now demine and rehabilitate about three million hectares of land before work can even begin on the harvest.

Compared with last year’s numbers, the sown area has shrunk by almost 3 million hectares. Farmers have therefore been working miracles of ingenuity to acquire the much-needed fuel, fertilizers and sowing seeds to keep the machinery and people at work.

No waiting for pennies from heaven

The Dutch Agrarian Company in the Sumy region operates some 20 kilometers from the Russian border. Its workers witnessed the invasion from the very first hours on Feb. 24.

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“We were preparing for spring, not a war, so there were challenges we couldn’t foresee,” says Oleksandr Kyryndas, head of the company. “We had to do many things in a new way, and the extreme conditions dictated their own rules,” he adds.

The first rule for Kyryndas was preventing the company’s machines and equipment from being damaged or stolen. To do that, they barricaded them behind concrete slabs and removed the batteries. The second rule was not going into the fields before they had been checked for explosives. The third rule was not waiting for pesticides, sowing seeds and diesel fuel to fall from heaven, but to find them by all available means.

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Kyryndas is clear: “When it comes to repairing and setting up your machinery, you can only depend on yourself. And you have to reduce all operations to a minimum to save fuel for both sowing and harvesting.”

University of hard knocks

Last September, Vladislav Tiutiunnyk, chief agronomist of Inter LLC, talked to the Kyiv Post about the technology of site-specific crop management, approaches to saving resources, and the possibilities of modern technology.

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In May this year, he shared his experience of wartime sowing. As you can imagine, there is no university in the world where one can learn to work under such conditions. But war is a fast teacher when one day counts for a year.

The first 35 days of occupation were equivalent to a full course at military school or a university degree. The interactive teaching aids were explosions, machine gun bursts and the attacks on innocent people.

The villages of Bilmachivka, Martynivka and Pryputni, where Russian invaders stayed the longest, suffered the gravest damage. The unwelcome guests ravaged many houses and even destroyed a monument to Nazi liberation, proving again that the Nazis were back.

Luckily, Inter’s central base with its granary, machinery stock and warehousing was not damaged. And as soon as the farmers heard that the Ukrainian army had ousted the Russian orcs, they came back to their fields.

We Ukrainians say that crops are in the hands of God Almighty and the farmers. This spring, we added the Ukrainian Armed Forces to the top of that list.

The Inter team had very little time to catch up with the sowing schedule, but the military warned them: “Beware of landmines and stray Russian soldiers roaming the woods and forest belts.” The farmers therefore had to wait until the fields were cleared of all the “gifts” the orcs had left behind, but even then, tractor drivers were afraid to go out.

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Tiutiunnyk and two other agronomists drove a tractor along the ruts to reassure and encourage their fellow workers. But they encountered yet another obstacle: bodies and fragments of Russian soldiers.

So, another rule for Ukrainian farmers: Before working in the field, remove everything that doesn’t belong there!

Ability to improvise

In its spring summary, the IMK agricultural holding reported tremendous losses: more than 30,000 hectares of farmland in the Chernihiv region alone could not be used for sowing. The occupation lasted more than a month and left behind too many landmines. When the fields were finally cleared, all the sowing deadlines had passed.

Even now, the people are unsure if the land is safe. A week ago, an agricultural machine hit a landmine. Fortunately, its personnel were not injured.

“Nobody wants to go out to the fields unless you drive or walk there yourself first. But the question arises: how do we harvest the winter wheat? Who can guarantee that there won’t be any more ‘surprises’ from the enemies in the fields?” explains Bohdan Kryvitsky, technical director of IMC.

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He agrees with all the rules mentioned by his colleagues, but he is also sure that the key rule is the ability to improvise.

“When everything is going well, there is no need to put in extra effort. Everything revolves around a well-established mechanism: sowing, growing, selling and sowing again. But when there is a force majeure, you have to adapt, improvise, and find solutions. But there are no ‘good solutions’ during wartime,” Kryvitsky emphasizes.

Everyone had to save fuel, fertilizers, and sowing seeds, although IMC was ready for this challenge. This is partly down to ingenuity in the years preceding the war, with impressive results strengthened by precision and differentiated farming methods.

“We have always aimed not for a bigger harvest but at maximizing resource saving. During this sowing season, we employed precision farming methods on most of our area, and it worked,” says Kryvitsky.

At present, the company’s granaries are still holding approximately 240,000 tons of grain from last year’s harvest. But that means less storage capacity for the new crop.

The problem could potentially be solved by exporting the grain by rail, storing it in special “grain sleeves, or leaving some of it uncropped in the field for a while. However, Ukrainian farmers are concerned not only about the lack of storage capacity, but the lack of basic resources they need for the autumn sowing season: fuel, fertilizers, seeds and pesticides.

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“I am convinced that the harvesting season, as well as the autumn sowing campaign, will need some out-of-the-box decision making. We plan to double the winter-wheat area. And by spring we are determined to solve the issue of the sown area” Kryvitsky sums up.

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