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War in the Breadbasket of Europe: Sergij’s Story

Man in a field

Sergij Koziura in front of his fields in Ukraine where grows corn, barley, wheat, sunflower, and soybeans.

Sergij Koziura in front of his fields in Ukraine where grows corn, barley, wheat, sunflower, and soybeans.

Sergij Koziura is a farmer from Rezhenivka, a village in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine, part of what has long-been known has “the breadbasket of Europe.”

Last year, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association, the country exported six to seven million tons of grain per month. But since the war began in February, Ukrainian President Zelensky says nearly 22 million tons of grain have been trapped inside the country, unable to get to port because of fuel shortages, active fighting, and Black Sea blockades.

The UN estimates that these disruptions to the global flow of food and resources have already driven 70 million people around the world closer to starvation.

The war is just one part of a global hunger crisis that encompasses the full spectrum of food and nutrition insecurity — from immediate severe malnutrition to underfunded long-term resiliency programs.

Earlier this year, CARE launched a $250 million comprehensive response to this crisis, and with our global partners, we’re working to respond to immediate humanitarian needs and provide assistance for the long-term needs of the millions of families nearing the brink of famine.

In Ukraine itself, the war has put extreme pressure on farmers like Sergij’s already fragile systems — depriving them of fuel for their machinery as well as crucial access to ports and storage.

Sergij — along with his father, his wife Anastasia, and their 4-year-old daughter — has been working on the family farm since the war began.

This is his story.

A field of sunflowers on Sergij Koziura's farm in Cherkasy, Ukraine. Photo by Sergij Koziura.

My name is Sergij, and I’m a family farmer.

I’m 34, and my family started raising cows when I was about 6. At first, we didn’t have the farm. We just kept ten cows at home, and we grazed them with the other cows from the village.

Back then, twenty-five years ago, our village had about seven hundred households, and every household had, at a minimum, one cow.

Now, there are about thirty cows total in the village that I know of, not counting ours. Someone, probably, has a pig, and that’s it.

This is just our one village, but there are many friends nearby, and it’s the same in every village.

We raise cattle, but, because everything depends on price policy, we also grow corn, barley, wheat and, sometimes it depends on the year we grow sunflowers.

Also, we have two horses. They are very hard-working now that we’ve had so much trouble getting diesel fuel. They’ve helped, done all the jobs. But that’s all we have on the farm not counting ducks and chickens, which are more like a hobby. We just keep them for ourselves.

Everything depends on the harvest

The economics of farming are obviously hard, but I wonder what is going to happen in 15 years? Because I have a daughter, and I’m worried about what she will eat and drink in 25 years.

The big agri-firms, they have storage places, so they have large contracts with the ports and the mediators, and they’re all tied with each other. If the price is good, then everything transports abroad.

Some farmers have agreements with mediators and with the ports, so when they harvest they send the grain abroad, or, if they have storage, they can save it, waiting for a better price.

In general, though, we sell to the local market because we don’t have high volume.

Since we deal with pigs and cows, we’ve suffered losses, because the price of meat fell. The price we purchased grains at was higher last year than the cost of raising cattle.

Everything now depends on how the harvest will finish this year, and how our state will help the agricultural sector, because if we are left aside, there won’t be anything good. We’ll leave our farm and that’s all. We’ll have to let it go to weed.

Renewal and recovery

Man with horse
Sergij Koziura on his farm in Ukraine.

In Kherson, Melitopol, those regions, where the buildings are destroyed, it might take up to 10 years there to renew the agriculture industry. I don’t know the scale of destruction in those regions where it was the strongest shelling, but my guess is that we’ll need up to 10 years for the grain industry to recover, and for the farms producing milk, it might take 20 years there.

Luckily, I’m in the heart of Ukraine, and we don’t have any strategic targets here.

The planes patrol we used to count up to 15-18 a day, flying above the village. But we didn’t have any explosions or anything like that.

Once there was the missile attack on the Cherkasy dam about 12 miles from us, but here it’s mostly quiet, thank God.

We’re still farming in the old buildings left after collective farm. Even before the war, these buildings were on the verge of destruction, and to build new ones we would need big investments. But taking out loans is risky. Me and my father, we’re against it, because, in our country at the moment, it is like selling your life. It’s very dangerous, because big loans…if there isn’t a good harvest or there isn’t a good price — that’s the end, collapse.

The next year, they’ll come and take everything cows and buildings, and lands, everything.

Long hours in a hard year

Right now, my father works 20 hours a day at the farm.

Usually, I only help in the summer. In the spring, I would go to Finland, work there and then come back in the autumn for the harvest to gather the fodder the feed for the animals.

This year, though, I’ve been helping my father all year.

And now that the war has started, we have some fodder for the cattle, but still there’s no benefit from it, no money.

Right now, though, we don’t think of the prices. We don’t care about them.

We just have to keep working, even when we’re losing money, because many of my friends are at the front. We send them meat. We still do our best.

The world market

The conflict in Ukraine impacts humanitarian situations around the world, among these the already fragile context of Northwest Syria, pictured here. Photo by Tarek Satea.

Our agricultural industry affects the world market. It’s on TV now, a news feature. A few grain tankers start transporting, and it’s like “Hooray, Ukraine started transporting!”

If Ukraine delays delivering grain, it will be a great trouble for all the world, because the millions of tons of grain, Ukrainian grain, that feeds the world.

I mean, as hard it could be, we would keep going, trying, working. We are a nation that can keep working and fighting.

Ukrainians will work and fight until the last breath.


For more on the Ukraine crisis and CARE’s response, please visit our crisis response page here.

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