Imagine going to bed thinking about what needs to be done on the farm the next day; and waking up to find that your homeland has been invaded.
This is exactly what happened to Ukrainian farmer, Serhii Holodny, in the early hours of 24 February 2022.
“At five in the morning, I gathered my employees and told them about what was happening. I suggested that everyone who can, go defend Ukraine with weapons in their hands,” he recalls.
“We gathered 18 men and went to the military commissariat. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough weapons for everyone and we were given only five assault rifles with a small amount of ammunition. I took a gun and went to Chernihiv.”
Serhii’s farm is located in the north of Ukraine, in the Chernihiv region. This region is adjacent to Russia and Belarus, where the Russians attacked in the early hours of the war.
Like many Ukrainian farmers, Serhii had put his whole soul into his work, which is why he was able to create a fairly large farm with an area of 1,500 hectares of land. His family helped him in this: his wife, two daughters and sons-in-law.
A wide range of agricultural crops are grown on the farm. There is spring and winter wheat, corn, sunflower, oats, rye, buckwheat and potatoes. For Ukraine, such diversity is a relatively rare phenomenon. Before the war, Serhii also had his own pig farm.
In the area where Serhii’s farm is located, there are infertile sandy soils. As a result, he was constantly forced to improve the technology of growing agricultural crops. He was good at this; but the war disrupted all plans.
“Russia attacked Ukraine back in 2014, when it seized Crimea and territories in the east of our country. Therefore, even from those times I tried to help our army and was psychologically ready for a full-scale war. However, of course we were all shocked on the morning of 24 February 2022, when the invasion began. It was necessary to make important life decisions in a matter of hours,” recalls Serhii.
Farming on the frontline
Having taken up arms himself, Serhii found himself in a relatively calm area of defense and within a few days realised that he would be of more benefit if he temporarily returned to his farm.
“I came home and organised accommodation and food for our soldiers there. We cut down almost the entire pig farm to feed our defenders, leaving only the sows. We repaired military equipment - both in our own garages and in the forest, found spare parts, did everything to help the army,” says Serhii.
Along with this, Serhii quickly carried out all the necessary agrotechnical operations in his fields: he cultivated the soil, sowed and spread mineral fertilisers.
“We had 200T of ammonium nitrate in our warehouse. Our territory was constantly shelled, and it was scary to imagine if a rocket or a projectile had hit this saltpetre. That’s why we hurried to spread fertilisers. It was something incredible: a machine gun in the cab of the tractor, projectiles from jet mortars fly overhead, and we scatter fertilisers!” Serhii recalls.
At the end of March - a month after the beginning of the Russian invasion - the enemy began to flee from the north of Ukraine. Gradually, part of the Ukrainian military units that fought in the Chernihiv region began to be transferred to the eastern and southern directions, where fierce battles were fought. Serhii, together with both of his sons-in-law, volunteered for the war. At first, the farmer served in the rocket artillery brigade, then in another unit.
I deliberately did not ask Serhii about the war, because I felt that it was not easy for him to talk about it. A person who has looked death in the face many times will not brag about it.
“Two months ago, I decided to return home,” Serhii explains. “I do not yet know how long I will stay on the farm.
“Last December, when we were at war, my wife and daughters harvested corn themselves with harvesters. It is very difficult for them to do all this, because there is no shortage of other things to do. In addition, we took several loans, and we need to pay them back somehow.”
Indeed, today the financial situation of most Ukrainian farmers is very difficult. As a result of Russian warships blocking seaports, prices for grown grain have halved. It has to be sold below cost. At the same time, prices for fuel, pesticides and mineral fertilisers have increased significantly.
Therefore, many farmers have no other options for survival than to ask banks and production companies for credit.
“I always tried to work so as not to borrow money, especially from banks. But, unfortunately, today it is the only way out. We took out a couple of loans, one of them at more than 20% per annum. We were also greatly helped by a pesticide manufacturing company that provided us with pesticides and fertilisers on credit in exchange for grain. I will try my best to pay back the borrowed money. But to do it, it will be very difficult,” says Serhii.
Serhii remembers how he specially sowed as much wheat and other grain crops as possible in the last spring of the war, to try to protect Ukraine from famine.
“But we were wrong. Tens of millions of tons of grain have accumulated in Ukraine due to limited logistics, and it has become much cheaper. I still regret that last year I had to sell 2,000T of wheat for 3,000 hryvnias [€75] per ton. This is a huge loss for us, as we did not even cover the costs of cultivation,” he recalls.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Serhiy’s farm is located in the north of Ukraine, close to the border with Russia and 1,000km from the sea and the western borders of Ukraine. The proximity to Russia discourages banks from lending. In order to transport grain for sale, it is necessary to spend more than this product is worth.
In addition, there is no lack of problems on the farm itself, because many men went to serve in the armed forces of Ukraine.
“To be honest, it often happens that there is no one to put in the cab of a tractor or truck. You have to do a lot of things yourself. But we do not despair and we are gradually reviving our business,” says Serhii.
In particular, Serhii is rebuilding his pig complex in order to process part of the grain into fodder. He has also installed equipment for the production of wood pellets for heating on the farm. Chernihiv is a forest region, so there is a lot of raw material for this. Like other Ukrainian farmers, Serhii thinks about how to reduce the costs of growing agricultural crops without reducing the yield.
“I never despair,” he stresses. “I will say the main thing: we will win and everything will be fine with us! Our people are steadfastly holding the defense and are not giving in.” CL