A “brigade” of farmers defends grain depots in Ukraine amid Russian bombing

Harvesters continue to make good progress in the wheat fields surrounding the town of Verbov, in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhia region. Heavy rain fell at night and they just have to wait for the midday sun to dry the grain so as not to pick it up wet. Activity continues in these colossal stretches of this country’s landscape, no matter what These days, Russia is trying to stop grain exports through the Black Sea with bombs That Ankara is seeking to vigorously salvage intensive contacts at the diplomatic level.

Kremlin forces attacked Odessa for four days this week. And they have been doing this for months in Verbov and many other Ukrainian cities far from the trenches. That is why, from time to time, a hole pierced by Russian missiles suddenly welcomes the passage of the harvest. “We are the farmer’s battalion,” says Oleksandr Sidelov, 33, a wealth of optimism and energy amid adversity.

Uncertainty hangs over its fields, which produce 10,000 tons of grain annually, 80% of which is for export. Now join Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with Moscow’s refusal to renew Cereal agreement sponsored by the United Nations and Turkey for a year to ensure safe passage of crops across the Black Sea. Kiev’s attempt to drive away the freighters at all costs was met with recent Russian attacks.

Trying to force the pulse on the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, he turned to the military for cooperation in search of solutions. His Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is trying to mediate so that the demands for a reactivation of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s charter, are heard. In essence, Russia is demanding the sanctions it was punished for the invasion. Erdogan and Zelensky spoke on Friday night to try to ensure that the thunderbolt from Moscow is not final.

Oleksandr Seydlov (left) shows the remnants of some Russian missiles that fell on his fields.Louis Vega

“The pills are another ammunition” and “we are not afraid of missiles or the Russians,” Sidelov asserts as he projects on the phone screen a photo of himself from last year, in camouflage uniform and ready to volunteer at the front. Finally, the authorities spared him from going to fight because his role, like that of thousands of farmers, is essential in the war being waged in Ukraine, one of the breadbaskets of the world. The need to maintain agricultural activity is essential in a A region like Zaporizhia, where the Russians control 66% of its 27,000 square kilometres..

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“there [en la zona ocupada] Some colleagues have died and machines and crops have been stolen,” the businessman laments. That circle, that of death, has been closing for months, and it is increasingly common for someone to be left without a family member, co-worker, or acquaintance. “We can’t forgive,” snaps Sydloff, in a serious, firm tone.

His commitment extends to the trenches themselves thanks to the direct collaboration he maintains with the military. On the one hand, it gives up part of its land as a training ground for the army. On the other hand, he delivered eight trucks, two trucks, grain and money for ammunition. Some thanks from the troops are displayed in the farm office. From a flag to a grenade or RPS shell and some drawing.

Sidelov does not want to let it pass because he also gives the soldiers some mushrooms, which they begin to grow to diversify production. It’s still a small project, but one to be proud of.

Machinery and wheat fields on a farm in Verbov, in the Zaporizhia region, Russian forces occupied 66%.
Machinery and wheat fields on a farm in Verbov, in the Zaporizhia region, Russian forces occupied 66%.Louis de Vega

Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Security Council meeting on Friday that Ukrainian farmers were living with “extreme anxiety as they harvest their crops grown in the shadow of war.” “The food they are harvesting now may no longer be able to reach the global markets that need it most,” he added.

Sidelov and his partners, including his father, have 6,000 hectares producing a total of 10,000 tons per year of all kinds of grain (wheat, corn, sunflower, barley, rapeseed…). 80% goes for export, so the non-renewal of the Black Sea Initiative affects them directly. Optimism became strong despite everything in between. The favorable weather and the ability to continue operating despite the bombing allows them to maintain production levels prior to the Russian invasion.

Sidelov does not underestimate the pressure of the attacks that hit his farms. In some cases, the missiles left craters several meters deep, as the photos I took show. In total, they counted eight large-caliber rockets and several smaller ones. They keep each other’s remains as evidence in the warehouse. “As a keepsake,” says the farmer.

Harvester in a wheat field in Verbov, Zaporizhia, on July 19.
Harvester in a wheat field in Verbov, Zaporizhia, on July 19.Louis Vega

On Monday, July 17, that’s when Russia announced it was suspending the agreementKeep it “quiet,” says the farmer. Russia wants to destroy our unity, but they will not be able to. Those missiles mean nothing to us. We will endure and continue doing our work,” he adds as two 25-ton trucks leave the scales. They are on their way to the nearby Ternivka (Zaporizhia) cargo terminal on the Dnieper. From there the grain will have to travel upriver to Kremenchug (Dnipro region) and then continue overland due to the impossibility of disembarking in the direction of The mouth, in Kherson, a combat zone where the delta divides the positions of the two armies at the gates to the Black Sea..

Ukraine produced a total of 86 million tons of grain in 2021, 25% of which was sufficient to satisfy the domestic market. With the amount of cultivated land reduced due to the war, only 52 million tons were reached last year and the proportion destined for domestic consumption rose to 40%. In the year the Black Sea Agreement entered into force, 32.8 million tons were exported to 45 countries. The flow has stopped for the time being.

What will they do with production if the blockade continues? We hope that Spain and other European Union countries will put pressure on the Russians and convince them that this agreement is necessary to deal with the food crisis in the world. I’m an optimist, I have no other choice,” says Sidelov. “If we don’t make the boats leave, we will have to give grain to the needy here in Ukraine,” he decides.

Seydlov recalls the beginning of the war. The most terrible thing was the first three days of the invasion. We didn’t know if the planes were going to bomb us or if they were going to occupy us, and where the Russian positions were… We didn’t know what to do with the machines,” he describes. Today, with the Russian army tens of kilometers away, they are taking the opportunity to keep the tractors and combine harvesters of their colleagues that they managed to seize from the neighboring Donetsk region safely in Verbov. They wait lined up and immobile, in the open, until the advance of the native forces succeeds in the present counterattack and allows them to return to their fields.

Viktor Chekhovich, a 64-year-old farmer filmed in Verbov (Zaporizhia), fled Donetsk in 2014, when the Russian-led war began in that region of eastern Ukraine.
Viktor Chekhovich, a 64-year-old farmer filmed in Verbov (Zaporizhia), fled Donetsk in 2014, when the Russian-led war began in that region of eastern Ukraine.Louis Vega

At an impromptu gathering of workers and chiefs, Sidelov makes a special mention of one of his employees. It’s Viktor Chejovich, 64, “the oldest combine.” He fled Donetsk in 2014 when clashes with Moscow-backed separatist groups began. “I never thought, well neither of us did, that we would have to work in the middle of a war,” says Czegović as he contemplates returning to Donetsk, where he says the ruined remnants of his home await him.

Back at the company’s facilities, the first thing that catches your eye are two Soviet-era hangars that Sidelov laughingly compares to “Communist museums”. But the truth is, they continue to do their job. In one, an antediluvian-looking machine cleans grain that will be used to sow the next crop. The businessman has no other plan than to continue integrating the Peasant Brigade while the conflict continues.

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