HORDYNIA, Ukraine — The planting season has arrived in Ukraine. The boot marks carved into the frozen earth have thawed. But the Pavlovych family fields remain untouched in a lonely landscape of checkpoints and churches.
More than a week ago, the family learned that their 25-year-old soldier son, Roman, had been killed near the besieged town of Mariupol. On Tuesday, the father, also named Roman, will go to war himself.
“The front line is full of our best people. And now they are dying,” said mother Maria. In tears, she sat in her son’s bedroom in their cozy brick home, his medals and photos spread out before her.
The Pavlovych family knows that a second front line in the Russian war runs through the farmlands here in western Ukraine, far from the daily resistance against invasion. It’s an uphill battle for farmers to feed not just their country, but the world.
Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, leaving millions of people in North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia facing potential loss of access to supplies affordable prices they need for bread and noodles. The war has raised the specter of food shortages and political instability in countries dependent on Ukrainian wheat, including Indonesia, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon.
It’s unclear how many farmers will be able to plant or tend to their crops with the war raging, forcing those like Pavlovych to the front lines. And the challenges keep growing.
Infrastructure – from ports and roads to agricultural equipment – is congested and damaged, meaning essential supplies like fuel are hard to come by and export routes nearly impossible to reach. Fertilizer growers are crippled by nearby fighting, and a prolonged winter can disrupt spring yields.
“How can one sow under the blows of Russian artillery? How can one sow when the enemy deliberately mines the fields, destroys the fuel bases?” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a recent speech. “We don’t know what harvest we will have and whether we will be able to export.”
An airport not far from Pavlovych’s home was bombed early in the war, sending unexploded ordnance into nearby fields now planted with warning signs instead of corn.
The thuds of efforts to safely dispose of munitions could be heard last week next to the flower-strewn grave of young Pavlovych.
There is no time to waste, even when families are grieving. The northwestern region of Lviv, near the border with Poland, far from the heart of Ukraine’s so-called breadbasket in the south, is urged to plant all available fields, said Ivan Kilgan, head of the regional agricultural association.
However, the region will not be able to regain its pre-war levels.
“We expect to produce over 50 million tonnes of grain. Previously, we produced over 80 million tonnes. It makes sense. Less land, less harvest,” Kilgan said.
Standing in a freezing barn containing over 1,000 tons of wheat and soybeans, Kilgan vowed to send tons of flour to feed the Ukrainian army. He is planting nearly 5,000 acres this year, down from about 3,000 acres.
And yet it lacks fertilizer. For the extra production he foresees, he needs more than double the 300 tons of fertilizer he has.
“If the world wants Ukrainian bread, it has to contribute,” Kilgan said. In his office, he showed plans for more grain elevators and put them aside in frustration: “Now it’s just paper.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the world to avoid “a hurricane of hunger” from the disruption of Ukrainian grain, on which the World Food Program depends for around half of its wheat supply.
Alternative wheat supplies will be more expensive and hurt poor households elsewhere in the world, said Megan Konar, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose research focuses on the intersection of food, water and trade.
“Winter wheat is the largest wheat crop in Ukraine and Russia, which was sown last fall and is expected to be harvested in early summer,” she said. “This crop would be affected if people are not available to work in the fields to harvest.”
Maize, which is planted in the spring, will also be affected if fighting hampers farmers, she added.
This is true for those whose fields have been mined or bombed in parts of the heavily affected southern and central key cultivation areas, said Tetyana Hetman, head of the Lviv region’s agriculture department.
“We have already been approached by farmers from other regions to find plots of land that they can cultivate” in the Lviv region to try to ensure the country’s food security, she said.
Anxious to feed its own population, the Ukrainian government has restricted exports of oats, millet, buckwheat, sugar, salt, rye, cattle and meat. Under specific license wheat, maize, chicken meat and eggs and sunflower oil can be shipped.
Ukraine has sufficient food reserves, Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Taras Vysotsky told local media.
He said that Ukraine consumes 8 million tons of wheat per year and has about 6 million tons on hand. He also has a two-year supply of corn, a five-year supply of sunflower oil, and enough sugar for 1.5 years.
Many Ukrainians have more immediate concerns than crops, with their country at stake.
About 500 residents have gone to war out of 14,500 in the mostly agricultural villages in this part of the Lviv region, said Bogdan Yusviak, who heads the local territorial council.
In his village, Pavlovich was the first to die.
His parents don’t know how it happened. The first clue that something had gone terribly wrong was when their son’s belongings arrived in the mail. Thirty minutes later someone called for her death, her mother said.
Roman enjoyed farming, his parents said, as he enjoyed taking in stray animals. Even at the front, he advised his parents on such matters as whether to plant potatoes this year. He told his father, while training for combat, that he would be more useful at home and in the fields.
Now these fields were empty. “We don’t have time,” his father said, his hands clasped in front of him.
Standing outside near the door to their home, her mother looked up at the evergreen trees nearby.
“These trees grew with him,” Maria Pavlovych said of her son. Now, she says, she and her girlfriend take turns going to the cemetery and crying.