This is the farm shop machinist. Here is is working on rebuilding a 60 year old bull dozer, almost from scratch. This farm is west of Kiev, near Vinnitsia. Photo provided by Harold Watters.

A spring of war

By Matt Reese

Retired Ohio State University Extension agronomist Harold Watters has been working with Ukrainian farmers and agronomists for over a decade. He has traveled to Ukraine many times to teach agronomics in person, but had switched to virtual teaching since 2020. Watters was finally set to return in person late last year.

“I was supposed to go in December and it got canceled because of impending disaster. Then I was supposed to go Feb. 18 but that got canceled too,” Watters said. “We were basically in the middle of a virtual class when it got canceled. They were saying, ‘We’re under attack and we’re shutting down.’ I am so worried about my friends there. I have met so many farmers across that country and they are very resilient. They are survivors. This country has been beat up on before. I am not surprised they are fighting back.

“They are wondering what they should do. Should they plant a crop? They can plant both winter and spring wheat. There are tanks rumbling through headed to the cities. For the most part everyone is hunkered down. They have had concerns before about attacks so everyone has a cellar and everybody has it full of food like potatoes, cabbage, rice, beans, vegetable oil. My friends there are hiding in basements, basically. My one friend, Nicolai, has 19 people in his house that he is taking care of. They are escapees from Kharkiv and Sumy. Nicolai has a basement full of  food and he is sharing it with people there. He has been my translator for many years. He has been through a lot. He served in the Soviet military at one time. He knows that this will pass.”

Instead of farm equipment, machines of war dominate the landscape this spring in Ukraine. 

“They dry out in the spring sooner than we do here. They will get in and plant spring barley, spring wheat, and rapeseed in March. By late March and early April they start incorporating fertilizer. Urea is a lot of their nitrogen source they use for corn and wheat. They plant corn by mid-April and by mid-May they are pretty much done with planting corn and soybeans,” Watters said. “It is a big country with lots of beautiful soil. It is very deep and dark. It is not necessarily a high organic matter, but it is dark, burnt soil, so it has a fair amount of carbon in it. Water is a little shy for corn and soybeans, perhaps. It is great for wheat and barley. They are about two-thirds of our corn and soybean yields. Some of that is due to practices and some of that is equipment. I have been on farms of over 400,000 acres over there with modern equipment. There are also farms of 20 acres they are working with horses.” 

As it stands, Ukraine leads the world in sunflower production and ranks 6 in corn, 6 in barley, 7 in rapeseed, and 9 in wheat and soybeans. The country is among the world leaders in corn exports behind the United States and there is significant potential for yield improvements in the region. Watters said most of their crop is hauled to the Black Sea via trucks averaging 40 miles per hour.

Reviewing soybean pest control near Alexandria, just off the Dnieper River. They were proud of their crop but there were many pods fed on by late season caterpillars. Photo provided by Harold Watters.

“I had a farmer there asking about soybeans and wanted to increase his population and couldn’t figure out how to do it. We went to the barnyard to look at his corn planter and I said, ‘Where are your soybean cups?’ He said, ‘What’s a soybean cup?’ I said, ‘This is a John Deere planter with finger pickup meters in it. There are soybean cups used to plant soybeans with this.’ He goes, ‘Well I don’t have such a thing.’ I said, ‘Well you’re never going to get a high enough population for soybeans,’” Watters said. “It is just little things that they don’t realize. When you’re talking to them you find these little nuances they have missed.” 

The rich soil allows for diverse agricultural production.

Workers in a milking parlor near Brovary. Michael the manager at this farm was who first invited Watters to Ukraine in 2011. Photo provided by Harold Watters.

“Agriculture is huge in Ukraine. As you come west across the country, rainfall amounts increase and agriculture increases. Everywhere you look is agriculture. They have diary, swine, chickens are big there, a lot of meat chickens. Right now, I am more worried about the people over there than them planting corn, but this will be disruptive. This will affect market prices,” Watters said. “Agriculture over there looks a lot like here, just a little short on water, technology and management practices. They have the ability to feed themselves and many others. That is part of the reason I work with them. People in Ohio asked me when I first started this, ‘Why do you go to Ukraine and help?’ Because we’re all in this together. We’re all in this together and we all need to get better.”

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