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Revisiting Pumpkins in Ukraine Amidst a Gruesome War

One year ago, I wrote an article about the history, culture, and economic potential of pumpkin cultivation in Ukraine. At the time, my intentions were lighthearted—I discussed the Ukrainian marriage tradition in which women reject proposals by handing men a pumpkin and traditional foods like pumpkin porridge or baked pumpkin. Even still, I uncovered some significant economic potential for Ukrainian pumpkin growers. In 2019, Ukraine was the third-largest pumpkin grower in the world after a twelve-fold surge in production over the previous five years. Pumpkins require no special skills, staff, or equipment to maintain, and are quite easy to grow, making them choice plants for small family gardens or recently acquired farmland. And in addition to their low overhead costs, pumpkins are less costly to transform into oils than olives or sunflowers, even as demand for goods like pumpkin-based cosmetic products continues to rise. At the core of the pumpkin’s economic promise for Ukraine was Law 552-IX, enabling the sale of millions of acres of previously state-owned farmland to Ukrainian farmers. 

Sadly, Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine during 2022 has put a pin in any pumpkin plans for now. Nearly 30 percent of Ukrainian farmland is currently occupied or unsafe. An estimate from June indicates that Ukrainian agriculture had lost $4.3 billion due to the war, a staggering financial challenge in a country where agriculture comprised 40 percent of pre-war export markets. This slowdown in food exports has likely impacted the already-troublesome global hunger crisis; the UN estimated that the war in Ukraine had plunged 71 million additional people into poverty, especially in nations like Ethiopia and Somalia, which rely predominantly on Ukrainian wheat. Given the importance of agriculture to Ukraine’s domestic economy and the global market, we must assume that farming will be at the core of revitalizing Ukraine. 

Curiously—and bear with me here—pumpkins might once again have a part to play. While the need for wheat may be more pressing, global financial turbulence hasn’t yet made rosy predictions for pumpkin demand obsolete, especially in the United States. Grain and greens require substantially more labor and cleaner soil than pumpkins do, a difficult task when farmers are serving as soldiers and fields are covered in shrapnel. And given rising inflation, processing corn or sunflowers into oil requires increasingly expensive natural gas whereas sunflower oil remains less costly to produce. So, even in a far more dismal time, my thesis remains the same—as Ukraine rebuilds during and after the conflict, farmers must reconsider the promise of the pumpkin now more than ever. 

Before returning to pumpkins, it’s worth walking through the importance of farming generally to the Ukrainian war effort. On March 11, just two weeks after Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with farmers not to flee the country and to continue tending their land in a national address. Locals wouldn’t be remiss for considering fleeing—farms across Ukraine have constantly experienced missile strikes, fires, and even ground battles. Beyond the terror that many farmers have already experienced, many more work in fear of missiles hitting while they sow seeds or finding cluster bombs while weeding their crops. Thirty-six-year-old farmer Maksim Onyshko told a reporter this September that “it became very hard and scary to work during the war, because you don’t know what to expect and where.” Even still, many farmers have found the courage to plant on. Though some cite the need to support their families and make a living, others have found motivation in Ukraine’s role as the world’s breadbasket. Nadezhda Petrovskaya, a farmer in Odessa, recently told Time Magazine: “Thanks to Russia, now more mothers are having to wonder, ‘will the kids eat tonight?’” “This is our battlefield,” another farmer told USA Today. “We have to make sure our country and other countries have something to eat.” From their battle-cries to fight global hunger to the literal bombs falling from the sky, sustaining Ukrainian agricultural production is a war in and of itself for farmers across the nation. 

With the war’s end out of sight, Ukrainian farmers are grappling with the obstacles to profitable agriculture amidst violence. Aside from the physical damage and emotional trauma inflicted on farmers, two other significant barriers stand out: inadequate storage and transportation access. Over the course of the war, Russia has destroyed 344 Ukrainian grain storage facilities, or roughly 14 percent of the country’s total storage capacity. A recent report explains that without confidence in secure storage facilities, many farmers may forgo planting grain and other crops this winter. While the lack of storage likely impacts agriculture nationwide, it is especially problematic for dried goods often stashed away for long periods of time, like corn, wheat, and soybeans. Additionally, Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea and constant military offensives have severely disrupted Ukraine’s ability to ship harvests abroad. The UN temporarily solved this issue by arranging an agreement between Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey, enabling Ukrainian exports to pass through a humanitarian maritime passage. The grain deal has led to some concrete success over the past three months, most significantly a 30,000-tonne shipment of grain to Ethiopia. Nevertheless, much shipping still remains expensive: transportation costs for one ton of grain to Western Europe shot from $25 pre-war to more than $200 now. Paired with the destruction of land and high costs of agricultural processing, transportation and storage issues mark some of the most significant obstacles to rebuilding Ukraine’s agriculture after the war. 

Pumpkin cultivation meets, to varying degrees, all four of these major challenges. Farmer Viktor Lubinetz remarked that rebuilding agriculture after the war “will be difficult, very difficult,” in large part due to the “crater-dotted” land. Uneven land may be a problem for crops like wheat and corn, which require machinery to harvest and maintain, but not for pumpkins, which are highly resilient and can grow on slopes and in trenches. That asset could make pumpkins a prime crop choice right now even for farms that hope to pursue other plants down the road. Second, as previously mentioned, the production of pumpkin oil requires less energy than the production of similarly expensive vegetable oils. With high natural gas prices turning more and more Ukrainians away from corn and sunflower oil production, pumpkin processing reduces the biggest input costs while retaining equivalent profits. Third, once pumpkins are harvested and turned to byproducts like oil and seeds, they require substantially less space to transport the same value of wheat or corn. So while transportation fees lower earnings across the agricultural industry, the smaller mass of many pumpkin products can earn farmers relatively more profit for the same shipping costs. Finally, although impacts on Ukraine’s agricultural storage facilities might make farmers worried about planting excess corn, these fears shouldn’t extend to pumpkins. Pumpkins, whether in seed, oil, or fruit form, can’t be stored in massive grain silos, and so farmers can plant them without concern of their investments going to waste. 

I ended my first pumpkin article arguing that the promise of pumpkin cultivation in Ukraine might mean that orange is the new gold. Given the monumental barriers that all crops—even pumpkins—must overcome to be profitable, pumpkins may no longer be “gold,” but they still represent one of the least-bad options for Ukraine’s floundering agricultural industry. As such, Ukraine’s allies around the world must work to incentivize and reward Ukraine’s hard-working farmers. Some templates for this sort of cooperation might look like Ukraine’s old pumpkin trade deal with the United Kingdom, which accounted for nearly half of Ukraine’s pumpkin export market. Americans might be eager to buy Ukrainian pumpkins if they are available, or even pay a higher price in solidarity. One local farm in Kansas is already donating 100 percent of their profits from their annual pumpkin patch harvest to Ukrainian refugees. Until then, though, Ukrainian farmers will continue to work tirelessly to support their families, their country, and the planet that relies on them. Cultivating pumpkins can help fill the gap in Ukraine’s all-important agricultural industry and help get burdened farmers back on their feet—at least until such time as Ukraine is able to hand Russia the pumpkin.