This year’s award goes not to just one farmer – but a whole nation’s farmers – the farmers of Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion in February, Ukraine’s “agrarians” have faced horrific conditions, battling to keep farms running while fearing for their lives and those of their families.
It has taken courage, resolve and ingenuity.
Many are in the front line of the war or occupied areas, and Russian troops have been destroying buildings and machinery, killing livestock, bombing arable fields to start fires, and stealing machinery and harvested crops.
Even as far back as June, the damage to the agricultural sector was put at well over £4bn, according to the Kyiv School of Economics’ Center for Food and Land Use Research, which predicted more than 2m hectares of winter crops could end up unharvested.
And then there is the huge human cost – members of rural communities killed and wounded, families left displaced and the trauma of seeing businesses built up over generations destroyed.
Facing torn-apart infrastructure, acute supply chain issues and rapidly rising fuel and fertiliser costs, arable and livestock producers have adapted heroically.
With communications disrupted, accurate statistics are hard to come by, but this year’s harvest will be dramatically down and analysts predict a far reduced area will be sown for the 2023 harvest.
Meanwhile, with shipping routes blocked, export opportunities have been hugely curtailed and prices hit, leaving many facing prices that are lower than the cost of production.
Russia “continues to blackmail the world with hunger”, says Volodymyr Zelensky, president of a country where agriculture accounted for 11% of GDP and, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture, nearly 40% of total exports before the invasion.
Prospect of global famine
“The inability to export from one of the world’s largest providers of wheat, barley and sunflower oil could result in a global food crisis – or, more simply, famine,” says Mariia Didukh of the Ukrainian National Agrarian Forum.
“Despite the invasion, our farmers went into the fields in extremely difficult conditions to feed not only Ukrainians, but also to ensure food security for the world,” she says.
Meanwhile, the dairy sector has “been left on the verge of a catastrophe”, with tens of thousands of cows lost and many producers trying to work without electricity, communication and the ability to transport and prepare fodder.
Andrii Dykun of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council has praised farmers’ “incredible courage”, but highlights the huge uncertainties over the market for next year’s crop.
He stresses how vital exports are to the financial functioning of the country. “Agrarians are the economy of Ukraine,” he says.
Illia Potapenko, who farms near Kyiv, found himself in the epicentre of fighting earlier this year, with “incessant fire” by the Russian military destroying buildings and leaving every field hit by rockets or downed missile fragments.
“At first you’re just scared,” Illia says. Then his thoughts turned back to the pressing land work. “Can you go now, or not yet? What kind of fragments are left in the field?”
But channelling the indomitable spirit of farmers across this proud nation – and vowing to keep going – he adds: “We live here, we come from here. This is our job. This is what we do – and what we shall do.”
Watch the video of Andrii Dykun talking about the situation in Ukraine and expressing his feelings on the award.
The Farmers Weekly 2022 Farming Champion of the Year Award is sponsored by the NFU
“We often describe farmers as a community. More often than not we mean a British community.
“But this has been a time where farmers have demonstrated we are a global community, as we all feel the desire to show support to our fellow farmers in Ukraine, who are going through an ordeal that we in Britain find impossible to imagine.
“It’s true that we are facing unprecedented inflationary challenges at home, but we are not seeing our livestock bombed and burned alive, our fields becoming landmine death traps – and we’re not facing the horror of whether our friends and family will make it through the day.
“The war in Ukraine has also exposed many countries, including ourselves, that have failed to take the role of food production and food security seriously.
“This award normally goes to a person who has gone above and beyond, but this year we wanted to show solidarity to all our farming friends in Ukraine.”
Minette Batters, NFU president