The Ukrainian Women Farmers Fighting to Keep the World Fed

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Published in partnership with The Fuller Project, a world nonprofit newsroom devoted to groundbreaking reporting on ladies

It’s a late July morning, excessive summer time in southern Ukraine, and Nadiia Ivanova’s farm blooms with waist-high sunflowers, golden stalks of flax and bushes of cilantro. The earthy scent of freshly harvested wheat lingers in the air.

Ivanova is doing her rounds of the sprawling farm, inspecting luggage of mustard seeds, making certain her dried peas are getting sufficient air and checking on the barley. The 42-year-old has recognized this land since she was a toddler, when her father was the supervisor, and she or he has a commanding presence when talking together with her employees.

Usually right now of yr, Ivanova is busy organizing transport of wheat—the farm’s principal export— to close by ports on the Black Sea, the place it’ll make its method to outlets and bakeries round the world. But months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the battle has introduced Ukraine’s ports to a close to standstill, exacerbating an already rising world meals disaster.

Read More: Ukrainian Wheat Is Once Again Changing the Course of History

This yr, Ivanova is shocked to have even made it this far in any respect. The regional capital of Mykolaiv, simply 8 miles southwest, is shelled by Russians on a near-daily foundation, turning resorts, faculties and universities into mud and rubble. To her east is the Russian-occupied Kherson area, solely 10 miles away.

“My nervous system is shot,” Ivanova says, standing on the fringe of her sun-kissed land. At virtually 10,000 acres, the multi-generational “Golden Spike” farm is massive—comparable in measurement to the “massive agriculture” areas of the American Midwest. For two months over spring, her apricot orchards and rose gardens, a half hour drive from the farm, had been underneath Russian occupation. Several instances a day, air raid sirens disrupt the every day rhythms of life on the farm. In the path of Kherson, two plumes of grey smoke are seen in the distance. “Every day they do one thing new to us,” she says.

Ukraine’s farmers should not the solely ones to undergo. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the results have been felt far and huge. Even earlier than the battle, the value of fundamental meals for hundreds of thousands of individuals was rising due to the local weather disaster and COVID 19-related provide chain points. The pandemic brought about the variety of food-insecure folks round the world to double, to 276 million, in accordance to the World Food Programme. In June, the U.N. said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had plunged some 71 million extra folks into poverty, most of them in nations in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, sparking fears of social unrest and outbreaks of recent famines. Between the begin of the battle and May, the value of wheat throughout Africa went up by practically half, in accordance to the African Development Bank.

One of Nadia’s employees works at a machine which cleans and separates grain in Mykolaiv on July 19. (Natalie Keyssar)

One of Nadia’s workers works at a machine which cleans and separates grain in Mykolaiv on July 19.

Natalie Keyssar

Read More: Ukraine and Africa Must Stand Together—Even as Russia Blocks Food Exports

Women and women are disproportionately affected, accounting for 70% of the world’s hungry, in accordance to Plan International. Especially amongst the world poor, this has compounding ramifications, from women’ entry to schooling to the elevated danger of early and compelled marriage, gender-based violence and undesirable pregnancies. Girls in African countries like Ethiopia and Somalia that rely closely on Ukrainian wheat have been significantly onerous hit.

Some of Ukraine’s farmers are distinctly conscious of the accountability they’ve in feeding mouths 1000’s of miles away. “As a mom, I understand how it feels to fear in your youngsters, to fear they’re not consuming sufficient,” says Nadezhda Petrovskaya, who has labored on the farm she manages in the Odesa area for many of her 63 years. “Thanks to Russia, now extra moms are having to marvel, ‘will the youngsters eat tonight?’”


Ukrainian ladies have lengthy performed a serious function in agriculture. In the nation’s fertile south, which is commonly hailed as the breadbasket of Europe, they’ve been essential in taking care of livestock and dealing the land. But it is just in the three a long time following the collapse of the Soviet Union that ladies have emerged as farm bosses. Ivanova and Petrovskaya each took over their fathers’ farms, placing them amongst the 10,000 or so ladies in Ukraine who run a farming enterprise—about 20% of agricultural managers. “As ladies we’ve much more to supply than milking cows,” Ivanova says.

These farmers are actually combating to guarantee their communities are fed and get their crops out to the world. Together, Russia and Ukraine usually export virtually a 3rd of the world’s cereal grain, and Ukraine gives half of the world’s sunflower oil provide. Russia has shelled grain depositories and sunflower oil storage tanks in the Mykolaiv port, overlaying close by houses and rose bushes in flaming swimming pools of oil and leaving a permanent scent of fried meals, even weeks later. The oil’s absence on the world market is already being sorely felt, from the European supermarkets rationing sales to the Indian laborers paying further for his or her lunches.

For Ivanova and her 24-year-old daughter, Anastasiia, who additionally skilled as an agronomist and works for the household enterprise, farming lately appears like a race towards time. The battle is continually shifting form, as the Russian invaders attempt to seize extra land and Ukraine receives growing numbers of highly effective weapons from Europe and the United States. In mid-September, a large counteroffensive in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv area liberated 3,000 sq. miles of land, in a fast territorial advance that shocked the world. Russia responded by calling up tons of of 1000’s of military reservists for the military.

Read More: Inside the Ukrainian Counterstrike That Turned the Tide of the War

The mom and daughter make a formidable pair. During the chaotic early weeks of the battle, when the combating was nearer, droves of Ukrainian troopers would present up on the farm, needing a spot to recharge. Some arrived injured. The duo did what they knew finest: they fed them. “We developed a kind of manufacturing line,” says Anastasiia, describing how, over weeks, tons of of troopers slept of their barns, dwelling off pickled tomatoes, boiled buckwheat and rooster soup. She and her mom made positive the troopers’ uniforms had been washed. When combating shuts down native outlets and banks in the close by villages, Ivanova units up the lengthy tables of meals, and does it yet again.

Sometimes it could actually really feel like Ivanova’s world is collapsing round her, however she doesn’t present it. With shoulder-length black hair and a radiant smile, she exudes a assured heat and is fast to snigger. In May, she was due to defend her PhD in economics, a milestone that made her mother and father particularly proud, however the college paused all exercise due to the battle. In July, her household was shaken when Ukrainian grain tycoon Oleksiy Vadaturksy and his spouse had been killed by a Russian missile whereas sleeping of their residence in Mykolaiv.

When Ivanova feels low, she remembers the dictum stenciled on her pink acrylic nails: “Don’t look forward to a miracle, be the miracle.”

In early March, her farm got here underneath assault. Ivanova and her employees had been asleep, exhausted from getting ready the fields for the summer time harvest. They had been woken a number of hours later by the whistling of missiles and the explosions of cluster bombs.

An elementary school in ruins after it was shelled by Russians, in Mykolaiv, July 18. Mykolaiv is a key strategic city to reach Odesa from occupied Kherson and the seat of a sprawling agricultural Oblast by the same name, which is largely composed of wheat and sunflower farms. It has come under attack almost every day since the start of the war, but has held strong deflecting Russian advances. (Natalie Keyssar)

An elementary college in ruins after it was shelled by Russians, in Mykolaiv, July 18. Mykolaiv is a key strategic metropolis to attain Odesa from occupied Kherson and the seat of a sprawling agricultural Oblast by the similar title, which is basically composed of wheat and sunflower farms. It has come underneath assault virtually on daily basis since the begin of the battle, however has held robust deflecting Russian advances.

Natalie Keyssar

“I’ve 45 fields, massive and small, and I discovered a Russian missile in every considered one of them,” Ivanova recollects. She throws a finger in direction of considered one of the missile casings, a few yard lengthy and now gathering mud in the shade. Luckily, nobody was damage in the assault, however tools value tens of 1000’s of {dollars} was destroyed. The prime of a deep blue grain sorter the top of a three-story constructing was blown aside.

We enter the hangar the place her tractors are saved; a few of their engines and windshields had been ripped to items. Ivanova stands earlier than an incredible hulking machine known as a row crop tractor, and sucks her tooth. “I had simply taken out a mortgage to get this,” she says.

The assault left the corrugated iron roof of the constructing so destroyed that shards of sunshine pierce by. “Welcome to my starry evening sky,” she says.


Facing violence on their doorsteps, in addition to destroyed tools, it’s no shock that many Ukrainian farmers haven’t even been in a position to absolutely harvest their crops this yr. Even in the event that they handle to, they can not get their items out. Russia has occupied the ports belonging to the Mariupol and Kherson areas, and either side have planted floating sea mines in the Black Sea waters. Instead of crowded seashores with holiday-makers, Ukraine’s southern coast is eerily empty save for skull-and-crossbones warning indicators. In mid-June, a Ukrainian man defied the ban and dipped into the sea, solely to be decapitated by a mine.

All this implies a large chunk of grain from final yr’s harvest has nonetheless not shifted: an estimated 22 million tons—round half of annual exports of wheat, corn and barley—are caught in Ukrainian silos and warehouses at its ports. It wants to be offered and shipped to make house for this yr’s crop.

In late July, the United Nations brokered a take care of Turkey for grain shipments to depart Ukraine, however progress has been very sluggish. By late August, solely 33 boats had departed from Ukraine’s waters underneath the new settlement (by comparability, Ukraine’s Odesa port, the nation’s largest, handles 3 vessels a day on common throughout peacetime, in accordance to business transport statistics). There are additionally questions about whether or not the saved wheat has spoiled with out correct air flow.

Read More: The Ukraine Food Price Crisis is Just a Preview of What Could Happen as Climate Change Worsens

Before the battle, Ivanova’s farm used six ports in the Mykolaiv area. Now they’re all closed. “I’m a realist. There is not any method we’re going to promote our grain on the worldwide market this yr,” she says. It can be a squeeze for everybody: she is as an alternative promoting a tiny quantity on the less expensive, native market to preserve her employees employed and preserve the farm operating. Other farms have exported small orders by highway earlier than piling them onto boats on the Danube River, and into Romania. But these are a drop in the bucket.

“It’s a disaster,” says Andriy Chicheta, the proprietor of VVI-Agro, a big farming enterprise in the Mykolaiv area. Sitting in his wood-paneled workplace, he demonstrates the issue by pointing to the slender neck of a bulbous glass bottle. “How are we going to transfer every little thing by that?” Chicheta has developed a system to preserve his harvested grain and peas protected “till peaceable instances return,” and so they now sit underneath hermetically sealed wraps that stretch throughout his plowed fields like gigantic white slugs.

Impromptu, swiftly constructed storage models are popping up throughout villages and farms in southern Ukraine, turning into a part of the panorama together with the fluttering blue-and-yellow flags, navy checkpoints, and anti-tank barricades edging the fields of sunflowers.

Odesa farm proprietor Petrovskaya is in the means of constructing one for the large mounds of sunflower and grain now gathering mud in her barn. The seeds had been harvested final yr, the pearled wheat a few weeks in the past. It is comfortable to the contact and golden in shade. “I may bathe on this,” she says, gently operating her arms by a shimmering heap.

Ana, a schoolteacher and farmer, picks vegetables in her family’s fields in Odesa Oblast on July 24. They usually plant wheat and sunflowers but this year were lucky to plant more vegetables which can still be sold locally, unlike the wheat and sunflower oil. Her mother Valentina says she worries her school will be bombed when they go back to class. (Natalie Keyssar)

Ana, a schoolteacher and farmer, picks greens in her household’s fields in Odesa Oblast on July 24. They often plant wheat and sunflowers however this yr had been fortunate to plant extra greens which may nonetheless be offered domestically, not like the wheat and sunflower oil. Her mom Valentina says she worries her college can be bombed once they return to class.

Natalie Keyssar

Earlier that morning, she meandered by her sunflowers underneath the blazing sunshine of a cloudless sky, pausing once in a while to examine on the bees scraping out the pollen. “Get to work,” she tells them playfully. Soon, she plans to transfer her pile of 200 tons of wheat—“a few hundred elephants’ value!” she jokes—into storage, the place it’ll wait out the battle.


Food is power, and meaning having energy. These are the phrases that farm employee Valentyna Fedorenko lives by. Each morning, simply after dawn, she makes the brief stroll to the 4 greenhouses owned by her husband, Volodymyr. In the sweltering warmth are shiny eggplants, radishes, garlic, spring onion, tomatoes. Her pal Natalia joins her to choose, kind and clear the greens, earlier than bringing them to a neighborhood market. Their pet kittens lounge in the shade.

By mid-day, the ladies are exhausted. “These are our weapons,” Fedorenko says, holding up a bucket of contemporary inexperienced cucumbers. “By feeding the folks, we’re equipping them to combat.” The greens are additionally delivered to native kindergartens and shelters for folks fleeing close by areas underneath Russian management. “There is a continuing wave of them,” says Natalia, who solely gave her first title, fearing for the security of her husband who’s combating. “We make sure that they gained’t go hungry.”

Read More: 5 Ways to Avert the Global Food Security Crisis

Volodymyr, a veteran of the battle with Russia that first flared in jap Ukraine in 2014, ought to often be choosing alongside the ladies. But when the greenhouse cooperative was arrange two years in the past by the Canadian government to assist troopers settle into life again residence, nobody may think about that the similar veterans can be known as again to combat the similar enemy in an all-out battle. The couple’s teenage son is learning filmmaking in Kyiv. “But it’s alright,” says Valentyna, wiping sweat from her forehead. “I’m holding the fort.”

She doesn’t know when her husband and the different males from the village will return. An extended-awaited counteroffensive is predicted quickly in Kherson which specialists say may finally decide the final result of the battle.

For Ivanova, it might additionally supply an opportunity to raise up her farm’s spirits and preserve them going, regardless of the fixed worry of shedding their livelihoods, or being attacked from the sky. “This land has fed folks for tons of of years,” she says. “We don’t have any plans to change that.”

Antitank “hedgehog” devices line a sunflower field outside of Odesa on July 14. The entire region is dotted with defensive positions, check points, and pre-dug trenches, in case of a Russian advance. (Natalie Keyssar)

Antitank “hedgehog” gadgets line a sunflower area exterior of Odesa on July 14. The whole area is dotted with defensive positions, examine factors, and pre-dug trenches, in case of a Russian advance.

Natalie Keyssar

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