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Fortifications put strain on already struggling farmers in Sumy Oblast

by Alexander Khrebet June 4, 2024 9:03 PM 6 min read
Worker who works for a farmer Oleksandr Moroz, in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine, in May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)
by Alexander Khrebet June 4, 2024 9:03 PM 6 min read
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Viacheslav Dydarenko, a farmer in the Myropillia community in Sumy Oblast that borders Russia typifies the hardship faced by the agricultural sector in the area.

Shrapnel scars and gaping holes mark his farm buildings, and he cannot work some of his rented 4,450 acres — 70% of which is located on the Russian-Ukrainian border.

He estimates he has lost “millions of hryvnias,” but says his accountants are still trying to estimate the losses from three less-than-desirable seasons.

But following a closed-door meeting of officials and farmers to discuss a ban on farming near the border in Myropillia attended by the Kyiv Independent, he says he has no plans to abandon his fields.

“If I'm lucky, I’m lucky. Heading to the field every day, I don’t know if I'll return,” Dydarenko said.

Dydarenko is not alone. Choosing between their livelihoods and their lives, some farmers in the area are willing to risk it all to continue working land that’s littered with landmines and subject to Russian attacks.

Oleksandr Moroz, farm owner in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine on May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)

Local authorities in the area have implemented a ban on farming in areas close to the border, but have had a hard time keeping farmers away from their land and source of income.

The area is suffering heavy losses. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the Myropillia community has lost over a third of its agriculture-driven budget.

“The community lives at the expense of farmers. From our $550,000 budget, we didn’t get $213,000 because farmers could work the land near the border,” acting community charwoman Olena Sharkova told the closed-door meeting.

Meanwhile, officials in the area continue to build fortifications, cutting into farmers’ land and any potential profits. Russia's renewed incursion into Kharkiv Oblast has given impetus to the need to fortify.

But despite tax relief efforts, compensation from the state has been slow to take.

Mykola Kalinichenko, the community's largest farmer, owns sprawling farmlands within the border area. The fortifications cut up part of his tillage, which he partially sowed while not cultivating the rest because it was unsafe.

“Why can't we work the fields where wheat, rye, and soy have already been planted?” Kalinichenko said at the meeting.

Fortifications versus farmers

While local officials have banned farmers from working their land over safety concerns, another big reason is the need to build fortifications to protect against Russia.

Farmers like Oleksandr Moroz face significant challenges due to fortifications. Some of his 2,470 acres located within the 20-kilometer zone from the border in the Velykа Pysarivka and others communities are being used for building defenses.

After demining part of his land himself — an incredibly dangerous undertaking — he has been able to continue to grow some corn, soybeans, wheat, and rapeseed.

Corn scattered on the field in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine on May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)
Workers build fortifications in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine on May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)

Moroz says that while he has faced losses of nearly $25,000 so far this year, he understands the necessity of building fortifications to stop the Russian troops intent on attacking the region.

“I’m not against fortifications (on my land). If it isn’t here, there will be a Bucha all over the country,” Moroz told the Kyiv Independent, referring to the Kyiv suburb where Russian forces massacred dozens of civilians while occupying the leafy town just outside Ukraine’s capital.

Serhii Starovoit, a private contractor building some of the fortifications in the Sumy Oblast, praised Moroz for understanding the necessity of defensive structures despite losses.

Serhii Starovoit, a private contractor building some of the fortifications in the Sumy Oblast, Ukraine, in May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)

“If only all farmers were like Oleksandr Moroz,” Starovoit, a chief engineer, told the Kyiv Independent, adding that nonetheless, the state needs to help farmers who are losing income due to the war.

Compensation

Farming has been a linchpin for the Sumy Oblast and a major employer in many local communities, like Myropillia, that lies inside the 3-mile strip from the border where farmlands are being fortified.

To support farmers, the Ukrainian government waives taxes for them in areas affected by ongoing hostilities or landmines. But it is unclear how much agricultural land has been repurposed for security as data on the fortified areas is classified.

“The (land) owners cannot receive rent in advance, and the (land) tenants, in turn, cannot cultivate the land,” Ihor Lisetskyi, an expert with the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club Association, a Kyiv-based business association, told the Kyiv Independent.

“All farmers in Sumy Oblast suffer. And they also depend on the sale of crops,” he said, adding that the government needs to address both border and logistics issues to alleviate farmers’ plight.

Although the government has enacted tax benefits for affected farmers, Lisetskyi believes it might also compensate the losses of unharvested corps on the fields within the 3-mile border strip.

“Compensation within a 3-mile strip can be addressed once all fortification and defense activities are done. A thorough evaluation will assess the affected land and resulting damages,” he said, adding that compensation could be based on these findings.

Lisetskyi acknowledges farmers' hardship with unusable land, but it’s too early for the compensation talks. The ongoing war makes it impossible to determine the full scale of the affected area.

Worker building a fortification on a farm field in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine on May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)

Ukrainian farmers grapple with mounting financial losses as Russia's war disrupts planting for a third consecutive season.

Russia’s war rages on, and thousands of acres of fertile Ukrainian soil hang in the balance. The full extent of the breadbasket farmlands affected is yet to be determined.

Many farmers in front-line regions are refraining from planting yet another season either due to the inherent danger posed by their mined lands or contaminated soils. But there are some, who are determined to keep working their land despite the huge risks.

A local cattle breeder, Vasyl Vlasenko, sees no reason to depart from his usual practice. This ranch is among the few to have bucked the trend of declining farming in the area.

His ranch, the closest to the Russian border in the region, bears the scars of repeated attacks. Shorthanded and stoic, he toils farmlands alone, tending to his 120 head of cattle near a deserted border village.

“Let (the Russians) kill me, because I have nothing to feed my cattle,” he told the Kyiv Independent.

Olena Huseinova and the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers contributed reporting.

Wheat field belonging to Oleksandr Moroz in Sumy Oblast, Ukraine on May 2024. (George Ivanchenko / The Kyiv Independent)
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