Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

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A Minnesota ag firm is helping Ukrainian farmers plant in war-scarred fields

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Dave Gebhardt says the flat fields of Ukraine — Europe’s breadbasket — look like those rolling, green corn and soybean acreages surrounding the farm he grew up on near Rochester, Minnesota.

“They produce wonderful crops,” said Gebhardt, general manager of EarthDaily Agro, a Minnesota-based precision agriculture company. “It’s like driving down to southern Minnesota.”

But a steppe-to-prairie similarity is hardly the reason Gebhardt said his company’s leadership felt a tug on their hearts when Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine two months ago, blocking vital Black Sea ports with their ships and littering wheat fields with landmines and tanks.

As the kid of a farmer, it spoke to something deep in him.

“Y’all have heard the story that when a farmer passes away and 50 farmers show up to harvest his crops?” Gebhardt asked. “Well that’s this, just on an international scale.”

The “this” he’s talking about is his company’s gift of detailed, satellite-fed maps to Ukrainian farmers now in the midst of planting season.

To an outsider, the donation earlier this month may seem small, even mostly symbolic. Like clicking the “donate” button on a website, or a bartender pouring Russian vodka down the drain.

But EarthDaily’s act is a farmer-to-farmer helping hand from half-a-world away.

The company’s cutting-edge technology helps farmers make planting decisions, but the war adds an additional layer. With EarthDaily’s analysis-rich, historical snapshots of their prized soil, producers can select the right seed and fertilizer from the safety of a laptop — without walking onto fields and risking exposure to Russian missiles or snipers from the sky.

“At least if we’re planting,” Inessa Vourey, a native Ukrainian and the company’s eastern European business development lead, said over a video call on Tuesday, “we can make it.”

Gebhardt’s assessment was more stark.

“Farmers are still trying to dodge landmines to plant their crop,” he said. “It’s a whole different kind of risk-taking.”

Vourey, an alum of an international farming program at the University of Minnesota, said her sister’s family witnessed aid workers killed distributing bread in a northern Ukrainian city. Moreover, a farmer she knows made the agonizing decision to call in an air raid strike on his land, targeting Russian armored vehicles parked in his field.

“They squeeze the land so much,” said Vourey, noting the convoys of Russian tanks trampling over fields on the way to battle theaters in the country that is 70% agrarian land. “We cannot operate in those fields.”

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has brought military horrors to Ukrainians from cities to villages and caused economic reverberations around the world, from a spike in gasoline prices to a shortage of wheat.

But the attacks have also withered Ukrainian fields, prompting a looming, in-country food shortage the likes of which Europe hasn’t seen since World War II.

A week ago, the director of the World Food Program at the United Nations said residents of the Black Sea port city of Mariupol are being “starved to death” by the Russia military’s siege.

Some international watchdogs argue Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army has deliberately targeted food and agriculture sites.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported the shelling of at least six grain silos in Ukraine. In late February, an empty ship chartered by Cargill was caught in an attack on the Black Sea, rattling shippers.

Gebhardt and others with EarthDaily — which has run precision ag services around the globe since the late 1980s and changed its name from Geosys earlier this year — said Americans should wipe from their minds images of Soviet-era collectivist farms. Ukraine, they point out, is an agricultural juggernaut.

Along with Russia, the eastern European nation accounts for approximately one-quarter of the world’s grains trade. The country also ranks in the world’s top 10 on staples such as corn, soybeans and barley, and is the leading producer of sunflower oils.

“Ukraine feeds about 400 million people every year,” wrote Yaroslav Boiko, the founder of AgriLab, a Ukrainian agribusiness that has partnered with EarthDaily to connect farmers with this technology via a secure chat last weekend. “In the current conditions, Ukrainian farmers will be able to sow about 70 percent of their fields.”

It’s an improvement from late March, when the Ukrainian agriculture minister estimated his nation’s farmers would sow less than half — 7 million compared to 15 million hectares — of what they had expected prior to the invasion.

Still, the ripple effects will be felt. On Tuesday, the Washington D.C.-based International Monetary Fund said Russia’s war in Ukraine would “severely set back” the global economy.

Each pain-point, however, will sting a bit less the more Ukrainian farmers are able to get on their land to plant crops.

Broadly, the conflict has illuminated the complex diplomacy of global food systems. Western agribusiness giants, for example, have not fully divested from Russia. In March, Cargill said it was “scaling back” but keeping open “essential food and feed facilities” in Russia.

But leaders at EarthDaily Agro — a self-described “small company from Minnesota” that has worked with Land O’ Lakes and keeps offices in Brazil and France — said it can be more nimble.

With its own in-kind donation, the company says it’s in talks with another Minnesota company as well as a Swiss agribusiness to provide feed and fertilizer to Ukrainian farmers. They’ve also gained help in a growing coalition from a South African GPS firm and an Israeli company to provide Ukrainians with advanced weather data.

The generosity has also made the world feel smaller, said Vourey said, who recalled fond memories of working at an apple orchard near La Crescent, Minn., saying she’d go “down to the river” on her days off.

Now, she sits in a home in Francewith her family and two Ukrainian refugees waiting for a day when life will return to normal.

“The big question will be whether we are able to plant or not,” she said, twisting the cables of her headphones while her young son greeted her.

She recounted in the war’s early days a harrowing call she made to her mother and family after being woken in the night by a colleague calling her as bombs rained down on Kyiv. Her mom, she said, wouldn’t leave.

“I was mad [yelling] ‘How come? You just have to leave!’ And she said, ‘No. We were born in this land. And we will stand for this land, for our town, for our farm, for our country. We won’t go anywhere.’”

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