In Ukraine’s wheat fields, farmers formed a silent resistance against Vladimir Putin’s occupation
The gruesome images of the war in Ukraine leave little room for amusement.
However, when farmer Oleksander Sherbina talks about the theft of Russian tanks, his face lights up.
“It’s typical of a Ukrainian farmer,” he says.
During the invasion of Vladimir Putin’s army, photos and videos of broken down Russian tanks being stolen by farmers on tractors delighted many Ukrainians.
Mr. Sherbina, a grain and livestock farmer from central Ukraine, said he would like the opportunity to do the same.
“We didn’t come to them, they came to us,” he said.
It is not surprising that Ukrainian farmers want to contribute to the war effort. The country’s agricultural sector is directly targeted by the Russian army.
Farmlands are mined, grain silos are destroyed and ports are blockaded by Russian forces in an attempt to crush the country’s huge grain export industry.
“They want to tear down our nation,” Mr. Sherbina says.
“They are doing everything they can to destroy our cities and our infrastructure, destroy our bridges and take away our grain.”
The war risks not only depriving Ukraine of much-needed funds, but also depriving the world of food when it is already in short supply.
Farmers on the front line
Agriculture in Ukraine is now a dangerous business.
Last week, a missile hit a grain storage facility not far from Mr. Sherbina’s farm in the Dnipro region.
Producers also reported finding landmines in the ground near kyiv after Russia withdrew.
The UN predicts that up to 30% of Ukraine’s winter crops will go unharvested due to the conflict.
Another farmer from Dnipro, Vitaliy Kistrycya, says his life has changed since the start of the war.
“Everything we do now is war-related,” he told the ABC.
“We’re going to bed and we don’t know if we’ll wake up tomorrow.”
Mr Kistrycya, who grows a number of crops including wheat, barley and maize, says Ukrainian and Russian farmers once shared a certain bond.
“We thought of them as friends, as close neighbours,” he says.
“But now when women and children and young soldiers are dying, none of them speak.
“We did not expect such hatred.”
While getting enough fuel, fertilizer and seeds has been a challenge for many farmers, the most devastating impact of the war has been on exports.
The Russian Navy is blocking the Black Sea, preventing grain from leaving Ukrainian ports like Odessa and Mykolaiv.
While Ukraine is still able to export grain through Romanian and Bulgarian ports, Russia is also trying to close those routes, launching strikes on a crucial rail bridge near Odessa.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that his country risks losing “millions of tonnes” of grain if the blockade is not lifted.
However, it is not only Ukraine that will be absent.
Ukraine is the breadbasket of the world
Ukraine is the world’s fifth largest exporter of wheat and is among the top three for sunflower seeds, corn and barley.
The World Food Program (WFP) typically buys around half of its wheat from Ukraine.
Even before the war, WFP had to cut rations for 8 million people by 50% due to the effects of rising fuel prices and COVID-19.
Now it faces an even bigger budget deficit due to the blockade, which is driving up prices.
WFP Executive Director David Beasley has pleaded for Russia to allow grain to be transported from Ukrainian ports.
“The lives of millions, if not billions, are at stake,” he wrote on Twitter last week.
Anatoliy Hasenko, an agronomist on a grain farm outside Dnipro, said it was a shame Ukrainian farmland was not being used to its full potential due to the war.
“This part of Ukraine has rich black soil, it is very fertile,” he says.
When the ABC asked about the global food shortages the war could create, he breaks down to tears.
“Now they understand how important Ukraine is for food,” he says.
Oleksander Sherbina said Russia’s blockades and attacks on infrastructure were an attempt to put pressure on the international community.
“It’s planned hunger,” he says.
Farmers strike back
Vitaliy Kistrycya may not have stolen a tank with his tractor, but he helped dig trenches for the troops.
And if he can’t export his wheat, he doesn’t let it go to waste.
Mr. Kistrycya is one of many farmers donating their wheat to make flour to feed frontline troops, as well as Ukrainians who have been forced to flee places like Kharkiv and Donetsk.
The flour is ground locally and then handed over to a team of bakers who work all morning in a tiny old bakery in the Dnipro region.
Before the war, the bakery had not been used for 35 years, but now its wood-fired oven produces more than 250 loaves a day, as well as pirozhki, a pastry filled with cabbage.
Anton, who leads the bakery team, said reviving the disused bakery was a major challenge.
“When we first had the idea, nobody thought we could do it,” he says.
“But if people like us don’t help, who will? We all want to help the armed forces liberate our land.”
Other farmers, like Oleksander Sherbina, donate cattle.
While the ABC was visiting his farm, a truckload of hogs arrived.
They would soon become food for those on the front lines in the form of a stew, packed in jars with a generous layer of fat on top.
“It’s a struggle for all the Ukrainian people against the invasion,” he said.
“And farmers can play a special role.”