In Fields Sown With Bombs, Ukraine’s Farmers Risk Deadly Harvest

BERYSLAV, Ukraine — Oleksandr Hordienko stepped gingerly into a wheat field that had recently served as a Russian tank position, following closely behind an assistant with a metal detector. He stopped when he came to a row of metal disks glinting in the late-winter sun.

They were tank mines, hundreds of them, laid out in a checkerboard pattern across his field and presenting a deadly conundrum before the spring planting season.

Farmers who choose to climb into their tractors and work their land risk death or dismemberment by the mines, shells and other ordnance that litter the fields. Those who do not risk an economic crisis: The fighting has already cost the southern Kherson region three harvests, and there is no sign that farming will resume its role as an engine of Ukraine’s economy anytime soon.

Producing watermelons, barley, sunflower oil and corn, Ukraine’s fertile lands have sustained generations, delivered huge amounts of food to the world and could now provide a desperately needed lifeline to the country. But although the Russian troops who once occupied many of the fields of southern Ukraine are long gone, they left a colossal array of explosives behind, some abandoned and others rigged as traps.

“They fully mined I don’t know how many dozens of kilometers,” said Mr. Hordienko, who farms wheat and rapeseed on 600 hectares in Kherson. “How we’re going to remove them all, no one yet knows.”

Ukraine’s military pushed Russian forces from a large section of the Kherson region last fall, but recovery after eight months of occupation has been slow.

Russian troops still control territory in the region east of the Dnipro River, meaning that a large chunk of newly liberated lands remains in range of Russian artillery. In areas at a safer distance, like Mr. Hordienko’s farmland, Ukrainian mine clearers known as sappers must still survey and remove thousands of land mines and unexploded ordnance before anyone can resume a normal life.

Oleksandr Hordienko, right, and Serhii Mikhailechko checked for mines last month near where a family was killed by a Russian anti-tank mine in Ukraine’s Beryslav region.Unexploded shells littered a farmyard that had been used as a base by Russian forces.

The HALO Trust, a global mine-clearing organization, estimates that mines and explosives may have contaminated a territory the size of Britain.

In no region is the problem more acute than the Kherson region, where Russian forces left explosives almost everywhere after Ukrainian troops drove them back in places over the fall.

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“The Russians mined everything, from towns and electrical lines to children’s toys, doghouses and beehives,” said Oleksandr Dvoretskyi, the head of demining in the region for Ukraine’s state emergency service. “The goal was to prevent us from bringing back a stable life for people.”

Since October, Mr. Dvoretskyi said, his sappers have destroyed more than 16,000 mines and ordnance, including cluster munitions. This is only a tiny fraction of the total, he said.

Clearing the immense, rolling farm fields of the region poses a particular challenge. Mr. Dvoretskyi estimates that some 300,000 hectares will have to be demined before they will again be suitable for agriculture. (A hectare is 10,000 square meters, or about two and a half acres.)

For Ukraine’s farmers, this is devastating, and the crisis is reverberating globally.

Employees of Nibulon, an agricultural exporter, inspected a heavily damaged grain-storage facility in the village of Shyroke.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York TimesWheat grain at a damaged grain-storage facility at Nibulon’s farm complex.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

The region is one of Ukraine’s agricultural breadbaskets, famous before the war for its watermelons and tomatoes and as a major producer of grains and sunflower oil. Before Russia invaded, Kherson produced more vegetables by volume than any other Ukrainian region, according to government statistics.

A sea corridor, negotiated by the United Nations last year to allow already harvested Ukrainian grain to bypass a Russian blockade and for shipment abroad, has partly alleviated the global food crisis set off by the war. The deal is due to expire on March 18, but even if it is extended, Ukrainian farmers have to be able to plant and harvest grain again for the shipments to continue.

Experts say it is too early to make estimates about the amount of time it might take to clear all of the mines from the Kherson region. Large portions of liberated territory remain in range of Russian guns and are shelled daily, including with cluster munitions, which can spread unexploded bomblets over a large area. A cluster munition attack can affect an area of 20 hectares, Mr. Dvoretskyi said.

“I can’t guarantee that if today I demine one field, that tomorrow the orcs won’t cover it in cluster bombs,” he said, using an insult for Russian troops.

In the meantime, farmers like Mr. Hordienko have, very carefully, begun to survey their own lands. Using a hand-held metal detector as well as a larger apparatus attached to a tractor, he has so far found 1,500 mines, though he thinks there could be hundreds more.

The war did not seem very far away during a recent tour of his fields, outside Beryslav, about 40 miles upriver from the city of Kherson along the Dnipro. Though faint, the boom of artillery was audible in the distance, and the tail sections of rockets stuck out here and there in the fields. A Russian tank, burned to a rusty orange, sat in a thicket of short trees, a small hole in its hull where an armor-piercing round had struck it.

Nibulon port workers at the port in Mykolaiv, where the company has struggled to maintain operations since Russia invaded Ukraine.Grain silos at the port in Mykolaiv.

Mr. Hordienko, who is a member of the regional council and the chairman of the Farmer’s Association of Kherson Region, said he burned about 200 hectares of his own crops when the Russians arrived to keep it from falling into their hands. He said he did not expect to be able to begin planting until the fall, and even then, it will be on only the portion of his land that he has determined remains free of explosives.

He has become something of an expert in different kinds of mines. The large metal tank mines, the size of a personal pan pizza, are easily detected. There are others, he said, made of plastic that his metal detector barely registers. Then there are the tiny, toylike anti-infantry mines that are almost impossible to see before it is too late.

The mines have already taken a toll. Since the start of the war, nearly 200 civilians have been killed in accidents involving mines, according to open-source data collected by HALO, though this is likely to be a significant undercount. Hundreds have been wounded.

On the side of the road, Mr. Hordienko pointed to pieces of twisted metal that were once a car. Around the New Year, a husband and wife and their two children were killed when they swerved off the road and hit a tank mine.

A car driving through the heavily damaged village of Shyroke, near the Nibulon farming area.A man salvaged what he could from the remnants of destroyed Russian military vehicles in a field littered with Russian antitank mines in the Kherson region.

“There was nothing left,” he said. “Arms and legs.”

Many Ukrainian farmers believe that Russian forces targeted their fields and equipment to starve Ukrainians and ruin one their country’s most important economic drivers.

At a grain-storage facility in the Kherson region owned by Nibulon, one of the country’s largest agricultural exporters, not a building was left undamaged after Russian troops moved through the area. On a recent day, piles of putrid-smelling wheat were rotting in half-destroyed warehouses and unexploded mortal shells were buried deep in the asphalt. Even the metal water tower had been blown up.

“Wherever they saw a warehouse, they fired, and it did not matter whether there were civilians there or military,” said Bohdan Muzyka, a Nibulon deputy director. “There’s a sense that the Russians simply wanted to destroy everything.”

In the year since Russia invaded, Nibulon has lost nearly a half-billion dollars’ worth of equipment and crops, a company spokeswoman said.

Like Mr. Hordienko, Nibulon has grown impatient with the pace of the demining efforts. The company has begun to conduct its own survey of mines and unexploded ordnance littering its fields and is considering training its own workers to carry out demining operations, said Andryi Volik, a deputy director who oversees security for the company.

Mr. Volik pointed out a farmer in a blue tractor that was slowly tilling the black soil of his plot near Nibulon’s vast fields.

“Small farmers are taking a gamble: They’ll blow up or not,” Mr. Volik said. “We’ve forbidden our people from working. When the fields are checked, then we’ll begin.”

He expects that could take years.

Smoke rising from a wheat field on the horizon after a blast believed to be the controlled detention of unexploded ordnance in the Kherson region.