The Challenging Experiment of Planting Season 2022 in Ukraine

brown chess piece on white surface

On my farm in Ukraine, we are embarking on a challenging experiment: We’re going to see how much food we can grow in the most overwhelming conditions imaginable.

We’re living and farming in a war zone. Since the Russian invasion began in February, we’ve heard jets flying overhead. Last week, a fighter launched a missile that destroyed a garden in our village and the explosion rattled the windows of my house.

Luckily, no one was hurt in that attack, but everyone is nervous about what the future holds.

That includes me. Planting season is now underway. Despite the huge risks, we’ve decided to go into the fields, put seeds in the ground, and try to get to harvest.

We’re farmers, after all, and this is what we do. If we don’t plant now, we can’t harvest later.

Yet this will be a year like no other. Just to survive, we’ll have to show more resilience than ever before.

We know that we’ll suffer from limited access to the basics of modern agriculture. We’ll have to save on fuel, fertilizer, and crop protection. I could complain about all this—and in truth, I’m upset that an unjust war is forcing us to make these compromises.

But I’m also choosing to view it as test. We’re going to see how low we can go: How much can we reduce our traditional inputs and still produce crops?

It starts with smart decisions now. The first involves what to plant. Although I won’t make my final choices until the very last moment, at this point, we have decided to grow half of the normal acreage of sugar beet in order to spread the risk.

In normal conditions, sugar beets are a good crop for us. We can also sell them locally, which is mostly not true of the grains that make up our biggest crops.

The problem is that sugar beets are expensive to support, especially harvesting and transporting to the processing factory. They need a lot of inputs: the fuel, fertilizer, and crop protection whose supplies will be unreliable for as long as this war lasts. What’s more, processing them takes a factory—and a single bomb could ruin everything.

If that happens, we can’t just stick our sugar beets in storage and wait for better days, the way we can with grains. Sugar beets don’t really keep for a month or so in the winter, and warm weather can reduce this time drastically and unexpectedly.

Corn also requires inputs like nitrogen fertilizer, but it isn’t as complicated to produce as sugar beets.  Drying the corn after harvest takes a lot of gas and we are not sure if that will be available when it is needed.  Another downside is that our corn needs an export market, and right now we can’t reach our customers. Transportation is a big problem. The ports on the Black Sea are closed. Some of the railways to the west are open, but they can deliver only a fraction of what we can sell as a country. At least we can store corn in bins. If we can control for moisture and temperature, we can keep it safe for a long time.

So we’re going to plant less corn and sugar beet this spring, and replace it with spring wheat, spring barley, along with soybeans, navy beans, and sunflowers.

We have enough supplies to get started. We’ll need more later, and I’m hoping that we can get them.

I have no idea what will happen next. Farming always involves risks. Will we have favorable weather? Will a new disease strike? Will our crop-protection products defeat the weeds and pests and help us manage the climate and weather events?

Those are the usual questions. Now we’re living through a war—a risk that we can do only so much to control.

I’ve tried to do what I can. I’ve traveled to the EU to make the case for assistance. I’ve met with members of the German, Dutch and European parliaments. I’ve talked to Ministers and the Vice President of the European Union.  I’ve explained how my farm connects to the global economy—and how Russia’s attack on Ukraine affects everybody, no matter where you live.

I’ve also moved my family out of the country. My kids are going to school in the Netherlands. They feel guilty that their friends here in our village can’t do the same.

I’m back on our farm, directing our operations alongside our workers, some of whom have been with us for 20 years.

We’re going to try to grow the food that we all need.

This is where I belong.

Kornelis Kees Huizinga

Kornelis Kees Huizinga

Kornelis 'Kees' Huizinga has farmed in central Ukraine for 20 years, growing onions, carrots, wheat, barley, canola, sugar beet, corn, sunflowers and navy beans. They also have a modern dairy farm. Kees is a member of the Global Farmer Network.  In 2022, Kees received the GFN Kleckner Global Farm Leader Award.

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