When it’s summertime in Ukraine’s fertile south, the country’s flag comes alive before your eyes. Golden, shimmering wheat fields envelop the earth, a blanket of yellow under an enormous blue sky. Ukraine is famous for being the breadbasket of Europe, indeed the world, but less is known about the women who till its land and run its farms.
This is why photographer Natalie Keyssar and I traveled to Ukraine, in July, to report on these women’s lives at this critical point in Ukraine’s history, five months into Russia’s invasion. Reaching a country that is under attack is not easy; all the airports are closed to civilian traffic. We flew to Chisinau in Moldova before taking a bus to Odesa on the Black Sea. The opulent city was emptied of its usual summer tourists, its port was blocked and the waters mined to prevent Russian attacks. But as soon as we started driving east, the countryside erupted with life. Small markets, cornucopias of fruit and vegetables, dotted the roadsides besides military checkpoints. Agricultural workers hauled crates of honey, jams and homemade wine. Tractors that had just harvested wheat fields buzzed about.
“Women need to be given more credit,” farm boss Nadezhda Petrovskaya told me as we meandered through her sunflower fields one sun-drenched morning. She is one of the 10,000 or so women in Ukraine who run a farming enterprise – about 20% of agricultural managers.
These women are incredible – they are grappling with missile attacks on their farms, some even working within eyesight of Russian-occupied territory, all the while managing to feed their communities and hungry soldiers while trying to get their crops out. The war has halted almost all of Ukraine’s exports, exacerbating an already crippling global food crisis.
Throughout my reporting trip, there were daily air raid sirens and constant interruptions to normal life. For many people, much of the day was spent in the dank and dark of a basement. Russian forces attacked the Mykolaiv region with missiles almost every single morning.
But the farmers were unbowed. “We can’t exactly stop, can we?” farm manager Nadiia Ivanova told me. As I write in my story, published with TIME last week, these women feel like they are racing against time to feed the world.
I hope you enjoy reading the story and seeing Natalie’s stunning photos.