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Struggling to survive

DMYTRIVKA, UKRAINE (AP) – One of the last working dairy farms on Ukrainian-controlled territory in the eastern Donbas region is doing everything it can to stay afloat in a place where neither workers nor animals are safe from Russia’s devastating war.

Only around 200 head of cattle remain of the nearly 1,300 kept at the farm before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. The 3,200-hectare farm, set amid rolling hills in embattled Donetsk province, is producing two tonnes of milk a day compared to 11 tonnes daily before the war, its managers said.

While a significant proportion of the KramAgroSvit farm’s revenues also once came from cultivating wheat, continuing that work comes with risks. As a farm employee harvested wheat with a grain combine on Sunday, the machine hit two landmines, resulting in a fire that burned over 60 per cent of the worker’s body.

The worker survived, but is in critical condition as doctors tend to an infection.

An inspection by an emergency services team found 19 additional mines in the field, said farm’s senior livestock technician Ihor Kriuchenko, adding that going out to harvest now is “very dangerous due to the shelling and mines”. Farmhands drive combines around visible artillery fragments to avoid them.

Such realities of war have created a cascading series of complications that coalesced to drive the farm’s business down dramatically. In the nearby city of Kramatorsk, the provisional capital of Donetsk province, Russia’s attacks and a lack of gas for heating and cooking have caused most residents to evacuate, creating less demand for dairy products and, consequently, falling profits.

ABOVE & BELOW: Halyna Borysenko and Oleksandr Piatachenko push cows into their stalls to be milked; and Borysenko secures cows in their stalls for milking at the KramAgroSvit dairy farm in Dmytrivka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. PHOTOS: AP

ABOVE AND BELOW: Nataliia Onatska preparing cows for milking; and draining leftover milk from the udder of a cow

Business also took a hit as Russian forces captured several other cities where the farm had distributed its milk and those markets disappeared behind the front line.

Such conditions – disrupted demand and supply chains along with danger from shelling and mines – have made the prospect of farming in eastern Ukraine fraught with risks that threaten the future of the KramAgroSvit farm, which has been in business since 2003.

“This farm was hit by a rocket, and 38 cows were killed, plus some of our farming equipment and vehicles were destroyed. Investors decided it was too risky to keep so many cows here, so they were sold abroad,” Kriuchenko said.

The farm’s owner had all rabbits once raised there slaughtered and sold amid the uncertainty, he said.

Ukraine’s Association of Milk Producers General Director Anna Lavrenyuk said at the end of June that Ukrainian dairy farms lost at least 50,000 head of cattle worth an estimated USD136 million during the first three months of the war.

Approximately 800 industrial dairy farms lost assets that included animals, barns, farming equipment and animal feed, Lavrenyuk said, while milk yields in front-line and Russian-occupied territories dropped by more than half since the war began.

Ukrainian milk production was likely to fall to two million tonnes for the year, down by 750,000 tonnes since 2021, she said.

Only around a third of the KramAgroSvit farm’s previous staff of 63 employees remains, Kriuchenko said, and revenues have dropped six-fold since Russian forces launched their offensive to seize the Donbas, an industrial region made up of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk province.

One such worker, Nataliia Onatska, lined up around 50 cows side by side last Wednesday and attached vacuum pumps to their udders in one of the farm’s long, musty milking hangars.

She’s spent her entire life on a farm and calls her job “the point of my life”.

“I wish everything was like it was before and everyone had kept their jobs,” Onatska said.

“It’s scary to live now. I’m just living from day to day.”

The farm now feeds its wheat to the cows as grain prices have fallen and logistics costs have spiked, Kriuchenko said. The crop wasn’t profitable on the market because of a Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that a United Nations (UN)-brokered agreement is only now slowly remedying.

But of all the myriad challenges facing the farm, he said, the most difficult part has been saying goodbye to colleagues who had invested so much in its success. Amid the cutbacks, he said, he had to fire his wife.

“It was very hard and sad to let all our staff go. Our team was brought together from nothing, and there was great teamwork, everything was good,” he said. “It was a shock for me to say goodbye to them.”

As Halyna Borysenko, another worker in the dairy, finished milking the cows for the day, she said she pitied them for also having to live through the war.

“The animals are acting differently. They’re scared just like we are,” she said. “They just can’t say it out loud.”

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