'A bit like poker': Ukraine wheat harvest hangs in the balance

AFP , Saturday 2 Jul 2022

Standing in one of his huge wheat fields in war-wracked southeastern Ukraine, farmer Sergiy Lyubarsky wonders how on earth he'll manage to harvest his crops.

The Ukrainian flag flys on a pole in the middle of a land of wheat, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 29, 2022. AP


Between the lack of fuel to run his combine harvester and the risk of being bombed, the chances seem remote.

"The harvest is due normally to begin around July 15 but diesel is expensive and anyway there isn't any," he says.

His old combine harvester sits idle in his farmyard in the village of Rai Oleksandrivka, not far from positions held by Russian forces on the other side of the hill, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) west of the city of Lugansk.

Lyubarsky farms 170 hectares (420 acres) of land, producing mostly wheat but also barley and sunflowers -- grains whose prices have shot up on international markets especially since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a key global producer of wheat.

But he has been forced to leave 40 hectares fallow.

"We couldn't buy maize seed because the war started," he says, with the imported seeds taking up to two months to arrive.

Now the land that is not under cultivation is "used in part by the army to store military equipment", he adds.

Pointing to the nearby hill, he says grimly: "Look, Russian soldiers are already over there, eight kilometres" as the crow flies.

For his wheat, time is pressing.

"We can wait until August 10 at the latest, but after that, the grains are going to dry out and fall to the ground," he says.

He presses an ear of wheat in his hand so that the grains drop, by way of demonstrating what happens if it is not harvested in time.

'A match will do'

For fellow farmer Anatoliy Moiseyenko from the same village, things are equally uncertain.

Although he has enough diesel to harvest his wheat, he's worried about the encroaching combat.

"The problem is the war. Is it going to be possible or are rockets again going to fall?" he asks, watching as Ukrainian soldiers pick up a rocket warhead that recently fell in his field.

Harvesting "is a bit like playing poker", he says, smiling.

In the neighbouring village of Riznikivka, Yaroslav Kokhan knows that his 40 hectares of wheat are already lost.

Normally, he says, his son does the harvest because the retired 61-year-old doesn't use the tractor or combine harvester anymore.

His son went to live in Krasnodar in southern Russia in 2014, the year Moscow annexed Crimean peninsula from Ukraine following a popular uprising in Kyiv.

He used to come back by car several times a year, to sow the wheat, weed it and then harvest it, Kokhan says.

This year though, "he was due to come back to Ukraine on February 25, his birthday, but the war broke out the day before", he adds.

Now he won't come -- if he did, he'd face not being able to return home to his family in Russia again since Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are unable to leave the country due to military conscription.

So what will become of his wheat?

"I think a match will do," Kokhan says sadly, looking at the field behind his home.

A little more optimistic, Lyubarsky still hopes he'll be able to harvest his wheat and is already thinking about his sunflowers due for harvest in September.

"By then, I hope, we'll be living in peace!".

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