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Zelenodirsk, Ukraine — Their uniforms are dusty jeans and vests, and they drive tractors, not tanks, on the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

But Ukrainian farmers face many of the same serious dangers as soldiers as they harvest this year’s harvest. Across Ukraine, Russian artillery and mines have killed tractor drivers. Thousands of acres of ripe wheat were burned by the strike. The place where the incoming shell left the crater is full of potholes.

Serhiy Sokol, a wheat, barley and sunflower grower in southern Ukraine, said he and his farmworkers removed dozens of aluminum tubes from Russian rockets on black soil while working in his fields. Last month, a neighbor’s combine ran over a mine shaft and blew a fat tire, but survived the driver, he said.

“There’s a lot of cluster munitions in the fields,” Mr Sokol said with a shrug. “We just took a risk and thank God no one was hurt.”

After all of Mr Sokol’s troubles, a Russian shell hit his silo as his barley crop dried in the warehouse. About a dozen tons of grain were burned.

This week’s groundbreaking deal to allow ships carrying grain to leave Ukraine’s southern ports may have resolved a diplomatic problem, but it left Ukraine’s farming community with a more pragmatic one: growing and harvesting crops in war zones, where powerful weapons are springing up Like destruction across some of the richest farmland in the world.

Farmers say they have no choice. The bulk of Ukraine’s grain crops are winter wheat and barley, sown in early autumn and harvested the following summer. After pre-war seeding, farmers near the front lines must now take risks so as not to lose an entire year’s investment.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest food exporters, and its lucrative agricultural industry is the cornerstone of the country’s economy, accounting for about 11 percent of GDP and creating about 1 million jobs. Agriculture is more important to export earnings, accounting for 41 percent of all Ukraine’s exports last year. But the Russians hampered Ukraine’s export capacity, blocked shipping routes in the Black Sea, and Ukraine said they stole food in the occupied territories.

Hopes for Ukrainian agriculture rose this week as the first grain ship carrying 26,000 tonnes of corn left the port of Odessa under a Turkish-brokered and UN-sanctioned deal aimed at easing the developing national hunger.

Escorted by mines protecting the port and Russian warships on Monday, the ship arrived in Turkish waters on Wednesday, where it was inspected and cleared to sail to Lebanon. More ships will follow. The agreement is expected to allow about 5 million tonnes of grain to be exported each month, reducing last year’s backlog of about 20 million tonnes of grain in silos and freeing up storage space for this year’s harvest.

But planting and harvesting has become such a daunting task that Ukraine’s exports will inevitably decrease this year and in the future, given the hurdles in agriculture.For example, the USDA has forecast Ukraine’s wheat exports, worth $5.1 billion last year, will be cut in half after this year’s harvest.

Sunflower, wheat and barley crops stretched to the horizon in fields on the front line of Ukrainian forces’ counteroffensive against Russian forces.

This is the Ukrainian country of the sky: large flat fields, spread out in huge checkerboard-like fields.

Closer to the front lines, chunky Ukrainian military trucks fell on the road behind, and tractors and combines brought the harvest.

Every few minutes, a roar of artillery fire could be heard in the distance. On the horizon, burning fields fluttered in the wind.

Farmers and Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian military deliberately opened fires on ripe wheat and barley in a form of economic damage. There is also random sabotage, as Russian firepower targeting military targets also risks igniting the field.

“They saw the combine harvesters and opened fire on them,” Yevhen Sitnichenko, head of the Kryvyi Rih district military administration, said in an interview next to a burning field during a recent visit to a frontline farm. “They do it so we don’t have food, so we can’t eat it and we can’t export it.”

Soldiers of Sergeant Serhiy Tarasenko, who had been fighting with the 98th Infantry Brigade on farmland south of the city of Kriverich, said Russian artillery aimed at tractors and combine harvesters spotted by drones.

“They fired at local grain harvesters,” he said. “These people invested their money and now they need to reap. But they are doing it now under fire, under attack.”

For Ukrainians, Burning Fields was an emotional and outrageous development, even in a war with no shortage of other atrocities. Mr Sytnychenko said it recalled that the Soviet Union’s expropriation of grain in the 1930s led to a famine that historians say killed at least 3 million Ukrainians in a tragedy known as the Great Famine. “Before, they confiscated grain, today they burn it,” he said.

Ukraine also faces immediate economic consequences. The Department of Agriculture cites studies that show the war will cost farmers and agribusiness $23 billion this year, including lost profits, damaged equipment and higher transportation costs.

Ukrainian farmers and the government have been adapting, finding solutions to blocked transport routes, setting up temporary storage sites for grain and trying to clear fields from mines to bring in harvests. According to the Agriculture Department, the worst-hit crops were wheat, barley and sunflower because they were grown near war zones.

“While Russia is blackmailing the world with starvation, we are trying to prevent a global food crisis,” President Voladimir Zelensky said of efforts to keep Ukrainian farms productive.

Crop fires sparked by shelling are affecting harvests. There have been more than 3,000 wildfires, according to MP Olena Kryvoruchkina.

Tractors and combine harvesters have hit landmines in northern Ukraine even months after Russia retreated. For example, late last month, a tractor struck a landmine on the outskirts of Kharkiv, killing the driver. The tractor burned in the field.

In the last two weeks of July, outside Mr Sokol’s hometown in south-central Ukraine, two combine harvesters, including John Deere, which is run by his neighbor, struck a mine.

Rocket debris from Mr Sokol’s fields is now in the yard along with tractor tyres and sacks of grain. A stack of about a dozen slate-grey, sunken tubes and fins leaned against the wall.

“I’m angry,” he said. “How angry are you? I want them to die. That’s how I feel right now.”

On a sultry afternoon during the recent harvest, flames crackled among the stubble of the recently harvested Vasyliy Tabachnyuk wheat crop, accompanied by gusts of wind.

Mr. Tabachnyuk, whose fields are just a few miles from the front, said he was lucky to have an early harvest. After previous strikes, he has sent tractor drivers to burning fields to cut firebreaks in an attempt to save as much food as he can. One strike burned about 200 acres of ripe wheat.

He said he won’t plant next year if the Ukrainian counteroffensive doesn’t push the Russians down before the winter wheat planting season in September.

“All agriculture will fail,” he said, standing in a charred field where the soil was covered in scorched wheat grains.

“The wheat is ripe,” he said. “Should have been harvested.”



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