In the heart of rural Ukraine, each village carefully cultivates its checkpoint, defended by sandbags, a shelter draped in camouflage canvas and more or less zealous volunteers in fatigues. In Zalyvantchina, it is the turn of Ivan, a stocky and serious peasant, to check the passports of the rare strangers who venture into this stretch of countryside located more than 300 km from the first front line. After a brief interrogation, he indicates the direction of Vladimir Ilyich Kulikov’s farm. ” This is my father “he blurted out as a goodbye.
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The family farm is planted in the middle of the famous Ukrainian black soils (chernozium in Russian), fat and rich, whose fertility feeds tens of millions of people around the world. A John Deere tractor waits against the pink house. Plump pigs poke around among the hens in the barnyard. In front of the rusty gate, the owner of the premises holds back with a powerful arm an Anatolian shepherd ready to bite the stranger. “My farm is small for Ukraine, barely 50 hectares”said a little embarrassed Vladimir Kulikov after a brief tour of the premises.
“I was tired of their lies”
Here, everyone knows this 54-year-old Russian, built like a pillar of rugby. The man left Chukotka at the end of Siberia at the end of the Soviet Union “out of love for his Ukrainian wife, Galina”. The spouses left their suitcases near Vinnytsia, a stronghold of Ukrainian agriculture and a martyr city of the Stalinist purges. Taking advantage of a law on the distribution of plots to the villagers in 1997, Vladimir and Galina acquired about fifty hectares on which they grow corn, wheat, barley and soybeans. Enough to live without madness, in a house with cheap furniture.
Vladimir Kulikov cut ties with Russia during the Maidan revolution (2013-2014). Between him and his childhood friends, dialogue had become impossible. Diving into his memories, he says: “I was tired of their lies about the so-called Ukrainian fascists in power in Kyiv. Ukraine is now my homeland. The day my son and my daughter opted for this nationality at the age of 18, I ceased to be Russian. » A distant explosion interrupts the conversation. “Missile”, he believes. According to him, the conflict will last a long time: “Don’t be afraid for us. Just give us weapons. »
In the village, the war has hardly changed the plowing schedule. Vladmir Kulikov and his neighbors sowed as usual at the end of winter, even if it meant halving the use of fertilizers, the prices of which rose at the rate of the rise in gas prices. “A person who does not take risks does not drink champagne”, explains the farmer. He doesn’t want to think about the dark signs piling up above his farm. The 22 tonnes of soy sold and not paid for at the start of the conflict. Rare and expensive diesel. The rest of the harvest that does not find a buyer. “I’m used to living on a tightrope. And sowing is my fight”he answers quickly.
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In the Ukrainian countryside, optimistic patriotism is cultivated by launching the sowing of spring. “It’s crucial for our future, for our life”, hammered President Volodymyr Zelensky. Legions of tractors, piloted by farmers spared by mobilization, have been put into working order. Formerly, their ancestors maintained the use of the Ukrainian language against the policy of Russification of the tsars, then of the Soviets.
The army of sowers
Today, they collect the armored vehicles abandoned by the invaders, before handing them over to the soldiers of kyiv. “Even in the occupied zone, our customers are asking for seeds, while the Russians have sometimes requisitioned their diesel reserve”, says Marina Ochalska, sales director at VNIS, a company that does not hesitate to deliver its precious seeds in bags hidden under humanitarian packages. Nationwide, the government estimates that 80% of the area of land will eventually be cultivated this season.
Armed with his 1,200 hectares, his twelve employees and an assault rifle that never leaves the trunk of his white Toyota 4×4, Andreï Kaprisa joined the army of sowers without hesitation. “It may sound pathetic to say that in wartime, but we create value for our economy and therefore for our defence,” recalls this young entrepreneur dressed all in black. The man is known in the middle of the cereal thanks to his videos on YouTube around the“precision farming”. On its panoramic screen scroll the images of its state-of-the-art combine harvester and its giant drones.
Put pressure on the Kremlin
Its fields stretch as far as the eye can see over the surrounding hills. In the black earth will germinate this summer corn, sugar beet and wheat destined for foreign countries. How will he export his production? Neither he nor anyone has the solution, because the war has broken the timing chain. Ukraine, the world’s fourth largest exporting power, had got into the habit of selling its millions of tons of cereals through the Black Sea ports: Odessa, Mykolaiv, Mariupol and Berdiansk. However, all the port cities are occupied or subjected to the blockade of the Russian navy. “A third of my 2021 harvest clutters my storage tanks”says Andrei Kaprisa who is trying to get rid of it.
Calculator in hand, he thinks aloud: the road to the European Union does not seem to him an option. Just to evacuate its 6,000 tons of corn collected on average each year, it would need 272 trucks. “If all the farmers in the country do the same, a giant traffic jam will form at the borders which are already very congested at the moment due to the stoppage of maritime traffic, he warns. Our hope is that the countries that depend on our food, in the Middle East, in China, put pressure on the Kremlin. »
“My problem is the war, period! »
The blocking of distribution spares neither small and medium-sized farms nor the giants of the sector. At the head of 88,000 hectares, Youri Skitchko, one of the founders of Agrovista, says he is actively considering a solution with Poland and Romania, whose ports on the Black Sea and the Baltic could allow millions of tonnes to be evacuated via the railroad. It would still be necessary to find special wagons adapted to European rails. A costly and complex solution. “Our mission is to produce food and export it, evacuate businessman. We still have time to think about it. We will find solutions. »
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The situation is tense among farmers whose fields are in occupied territory. “My problem is the war, period! », gets angry on the phone Alex Lissits, managing director of IMC, one of the ten largest agricultural companies in the country. Half of its 120,000 hectares are stuck in the middle of the fighting. Soldiers sow mines and unexploded devices there instead of spring grain. Every day, his worried customers call him from France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh. So and so asks him for impossible forecasts, so and so offers him his services for the delivery of equipment or gasoline. “If you want to help me, push your governments to send arms to Ukraine”he replies.
Europe’s largest agricultural country
41.5 million. This is the number of hectares of useful agricultural land in Ukraine according to a note from the General Directorate of the Treasury. This makes it the largest agricultural country in Europe by size. Most of it is “black earth”, some of the most fertile soil in the world.
15% of GDP is generated by agriculture and agri-food, which employ 20% of the working population.
23.5 billion euros. This is the value in 2021 of Ukrainian agricultural and agri-food exports, including 10 billion euros for cereals according to France Agrimer.
In 15 years, the country has tripled its production of field crops. Ukraine exports nearly three-quarters of its wheat. For the 2021-2022 campaign, experts were counting on 23 million tonnes of wheat exported out of 32 million produced.
Half of the world’s sunflower oil exports from Ukraine. The country is also the 4and world corn exporter, the 5and of wheat, the 3and of barley.