“I collected 4,000 mines from a thousand hectares”. How farmers sow winter crops in the Kherson region
A year ago, Ukrainian forces liberated the right bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region from Russian occupation. However, life in these areas did not turn calmer – the Russian army has been shelling the region with all possible types of weapons, from mortars to guided aerial bombs. The enemy attacks reach the territories deep in the rear. For example, on October 10, 2023, the town of Novodmytrivka, the Kherson region, located 50 km from the frontline, was hit by cluster shelling. The Russians killed a dozen cows there.
Despite the constant risk, some farmers in the Kherson region have started a new sowing campaign, in the Beryslav territorial community in particular. Ukrainian journalist visited the area to talk to the local farmers about changes that took place over the year and future harvests.
Reporting by Stas Kozliuk for “Novynarnia” media.
The car makes waves of dirty splashes from the potholes in the dirt road. It can be loosely called a road: the fact that cars occasionally use it can only be guessed by the tire tracks. In spring, we managed to get to Beryslav relatively quickly through Kherson by a good asphalt road, but now this route is closed for civilians. It’s too dangerous, as the road runs parallel to the Dnipro River bank, which is shelled regularly from the other side. Now we must make a big detour through small de-occupied villages, spending half a day on the road.
“Drive for about ten kilometers, then there will be a left turn onto a normal road. It will be easier from there,” explains Oleksandr Hordiienko, a local farmer, who has taken on the role of navigator over the phone.
Alongside the road, wherever you look, there are still sticks with white and red tape – marks of mined fields that farmers have not yet returned to. In the surrounding villages, there are almost no people, and most of the houses look abandoned.
After a while, gravel appears under the wheels. This is the road to Davydiv Brid, the village in the Beryslav district. Last year, the frontline with the heavy fighting was not far from here. Since then, the road has been somewhat repaired. But there is still no traffic here – in both directions, to the horizon, no cars except ours.
At the bus stop, a pickup truck is waiting for us. A tall man in a fleece jacket stands next to it. This is Oleksandr. We shake hands. The farmer’s palm is tough and rough.
“Follow me. You don’t need to wear bulletproof vests. It’s relatively far from the frontline here. And I doubt the Russians will shoot at a lone tractor in the field,” says the man, smiling.
We bounce a little more over the potholes on the road. The landscape is somewhat different here: the weeds have been replaced by black ashes, soaked into the ground. In some places, there are green shoots in the field: that’s the winter crops.
The scorched earth
Amongst the low burnt trees, we see a large green John Deere tractor. Several people are bustling around it. Hordiienko’s car stops, and he confidently walks towards the burnt ground, heading to the machinery. We hurry to follow him.
“The fields in our area are still not cleared from mines. People are still getting blown up. In February, when you came here the first time, the fields were bare, the grass was short, and everything was visible. But now the grass is as tall as a person. What can you see in there? That’s why we need to burn the grass first, and only after that the sappers can come in and start looking for mines. Besides, they (sappers) are still working on critical infrastructure, on demining the villages,” Hordiienko explains.
“We have various groups of sappers working here. Humanitarian demining is ongoing. And we’ve learned to walk and search for mines a bit ourselves,” the farmer proudly adds.
A large seeder is attached to the tractor. Workers who are helping Oleksandr are using hammers to knock off the wet, sticky soil so that the seeds could reach the ground. The dull thud rolls across the field.
“Is it safe to work here? We finished demining somewhere in May. From my fields, which are about 1,000 hectares, I collected about 4,000 mines. Thanks a lot to the military for taking and neutralizing these mines. Some were detonated on the spot, some were taken away. From May to September, we were preparing to sow winter crops. So I’m calm: every centimeter of the field here has been plowed. There are no mines.It’s dangerous where there are weeds. Those fields are not ours. There could be anything there, even bouncing mines. We have found those several times. So I instructed everyone working with me: don’t walk in tall grass, don’t enter others’ fields, don’t pick up anything,” the farmer says seriously.
Sowing under enemy drones
Occasionally, the sun breaks through the gray autumn clouds. Farmers gaze at the brightened sky not just for the view. They wait. They say heavy rain fell over the weekend. On the one hand, it’s a significant gift: after the Russians blew up the dam of the Kakhovka HPP, the region faced severe irrigation problems. According to Hordiienko, about 2/3 of the land here relied on the Kakhovka reservoir, and without it, the summer harvest would wither.
On the other hand, the soil is now damp and sticky, making it almost impossible to sow. The tractor has to stop repeatedly to clean the seeder. It would be better if the fields dried up.
Despite this, Oleksandr remains optimistic. For the winter, he plans to sow 700 hectares of winter crops. And if it all goes well, then all 900.
The average speed at which the farmer’s team works is 20 hectares per day. Sometimes, they work overtime, starting at dawn and finishing at night, covering 30-35 hectares daily.
“In seven months, two guided aerial bombs hit our enterprise. Luckily, some of our equipment was in the fields at that moment. We gifted the GAZelle vehicle to the military; otherwise, it would have just burned down. So now we hide all our machines in villages around the area. We don’t want everything in one place. Keeping machinery in Beryslav is dangerous: [Russian troops – ed.] can drop something from the drones or shell us with artillery,” the farmer complains.
It’s not too safe even in villages in the rear: locals regularly spot Russian drones conducting reconnaissance. Usually, shelling begins after that. But the villagers say: the hell with it, it’s better this way than under Russian occupation.
Charity tractor from the Rivne region and the saved grain
Hordiienko’s workers finish cleaning the seeder and take a break. Meanwhile, the tractor driver inspects his John Deere. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds again.
“After the attack by guided aerial bombs, we worked with what was left. When it was time for sowing, we realized there was nothing to sow with. The charitable foundation called ‘Harvest of Victory’ from the Rivne region helped. They provided us with a tractor for free. We only had to pay for the platform on which this tractor was transported. The idea is that we will use it and then pass it on to other farmers, and it will work in our area. This foundation helps our farmers a lot. They donate a lot of equipment,” explains Oleksandr.“Believe it or not, we found grain on our farm,” Oleksandr laughs. “It was in bags, treated [protected from pests, fungal infections – ed.] Russians didn’t need the treated grain. Even when the guided aerial bombs attacked us, this grain survived”.
80% of the fields are abandoned
That’s where the good news about Hordiienko’s farm ends.
“We don’t have money right now; all the accounts are empty because we haven’t worked for two seasons. I would go to the bank for a loan, but there’s nothing to offer as collateral: no proper equipment, no real estate. At the same time, I don’t even know if we can make a profit from winter crops”.
“For example, we have guys who had clean fields and sowed sunflowers this year. A hectare costs them about $500. A ton of sunflower costs $200. Those who harvest less than 2 tons per hectare will be at a loss. Some, of course, had leftover seeds, some used less fertilizer, and some did without it altogether. They have a lower cost per hectare. But it is still difficult to break even,” explains Oleksandr.
The tractor stops in the middle of the field. It stands there for several minutes. The workers sigh sadly: “That’s it, no work for today”.
Oleksandr continues his tour of the farming economy: “Before, in the territorial community, we had up to a thousand farmers. No one can say how many are left now. I feel like 80% of the fields are abandoned. People don’t come back here because that is no life. Every day, something drops down on us. And who knows where the next shell will land”.
“The biggest problem for us, aside from mines, is money. I still manage to pay the five people who work with me. I sold the car recently, so I can pay. They have to live on something. But mostly, everything is on loan. All the money, both for me and my colleagues, will only come next year after the harvest. Right now, our main task is to sow. Somehow, we manage. The whole world is helping – our friends from the Kyiv, Odesa, and Poltava regions. Everyone helps in the way they can: some with fuel, some with money, some with equipment,” Oleksandr explains.
The workers gather around the tractor again, tapping the seeder with hammers and cleaning it with rags. The damp earth holds well.
The clattering of hammers subsides. Hordiienko’s workers disperse. The seeder couldn’t be completely cleaned; here and there, it still carries traces of black, moist soil.
“The main problem for us here, in the de-occupied territory, is where to store the harvest. Because from Kherson to Nikopol, there is no intact grain storage. I even thought about keeping it in special sleeves in the fields. I even ordered a few. But we’ll deal with this problem later. Now we need to sow,” the farmer sighs, scrutinizing the seeder.
“It can’t be cleaned properly,” explains one of the drivers, lighting a cigarette. “Let’s go to the base, and when the soil dries, it will be easier to clean it off”.
Oleksandr Hordiienko reflects for a few seconds, then agrees. The drivers hop into the tractors and trucks. John Deere is the first to leave the field. T-150 loads bags of seeds into the KAMAZ and also drives away. The sun hides behind the clouds again.