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Mines, Fires, Rockets: The Ravages of War Bedevil Ukraine’s Farmers

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ZELENODILSK, Ukraine — Their uniforms are dusty jeans and tank-tops, and they drive tractors, not tanks, along the frontline in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

But Ukrainian farmers face many of the same grave dangers as soldiers as they reap this year’s harvest. Across Ukraine, Russian artillery and mines have killed tractor drivers. Thousands of acres of ripe wheat have burned from strikes. Fields are pockmarked where incoming shells have left craters.

Serhiy Sokol, a wheat, barley and sunflower farmer in southern Ukraine, said he and his farmhands plucked dozens of aluminum tubes from Russian rockets from the black earth as they worked his fields. Last month, he said, a neighbor’s combine harvester ran over a mine, blowing off one of its fat tires but sparing the driver.

“There were a lot of cluster munitions in the fields,” Mr. Sokol said with a shrug. “We just risked it, and thank God nobody was hurt.”

And after all Mr. Sokol’s troubles, with his barley crop drying in storage, a Russian artillery shell hit his silo. A dozen or so tons of grain burned.

The breakthrough deal that allowed ships carrying grain to depart from Ukraine’s southern ports this week may have solved a diplomatic problem, but it left a more pragmatic one hanging over Ukraine’s farming community: growing and reaping crops in a war zone, as powerful weapons rain destruction across some of the richest agricultural land in the world.

The farmers say they have little choice. Much of Ukraine’s grain crop is winter wheat and barley, sown in early fall and harvested the following summer. After planting before the war began, farmers near the front must take risks now, lest they lose the entire year’s investment.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporting-nations, and its profitable agricultural industry is a cornerstone of the country’s economy, accounting for about 11 percent of gross domestic product and creating about 1 million jobs. Agriculture is even more important for export earnings, accounting for 41 percent of all Ukrainian exports last year. But the Russians had stymied Ukraine’s ability to export, blocking shipping routes in the Black Sea and, Ukraine says, stealing grain in occupied territory.

Hopes for Ukrainian farming rose this week as the first grain ship, carrying 26,000 tons of corn, left the port of Odesa under an agreement brokered by Turkey and endorsed by the United Nations and intended to ease hunger in the developing world.

Escorted through sea mines safeguarding the port and Russian warships farther at sea on Monday, the ship reached Turkish waters on Wednesday, where it was inspected and cleared to sail on to Lebanon. More ships will follow. The deal is expected to allow the export of about five million tons of grain per month, whittling away at a backlog of about 20 million tons of grain in silos from last year, freeing storage space for this year’s harvest.

But planting and harvesting have become such harrowing undertakings that Ukraine will inevitably have less to export this year and into the future, given the obstacles to farming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, has forecast that Ukraine’s wheat exports, worth $5.1 billion last year, will fall by half after this year’s harvest.

Out in the fields along a section of the frontline where the Ukrainian Army is pressing a counteroffensive against Russian forces, sunflowers, wheat and barley crops stretch to the horizons.

This is Ukraine’s big sky country: huge expanses of table-flat land, laid out in a checkerboard of gigantic fields.

Closer to the front, chunky Ukrainian military trucks lumber along the back roads, along with tractors and combines bringing in the harvest.

Every few minutes, there is a distant thud from artillery. On the horizon, swirls of smoke blow in the wind from burning fields.

Farmers and Ukrainian soldiers say the Russian military intentionally fires at ripe wheat and barley to start fires, as a form of economic sabotage. There is random destruction as well, as Russian fire aimed at military targets also risks setting fields alight.

“They see the combines and fire at them,” said Yevhen Sytnychenko, head of the military administration in the Kryvyi Rih district, interviewed beside a burning field on a recent tour of frontline farms. “They do it so we won’t have grain, so we cannot eat and cannot export.”

Sgt. Serhiy Tarasenko, whose soldiers with the 98th infantry brigade have been fighting in farmland south of the city of Kryvyi Rih, said Russian artillery has targeted tractors and combines, which are spotted by drones.

“They are shooting at local people collecting the grain,” he said. “These are people who invested their money and now they need to harvest. But they are now doing it under fire, under attack.”

For Ukrainians, the burning fields are an emotionally laden and infuriating development even in a war with no shortage of other outrages. It recalls, said Mr. Sytnychenko, the Soviet Union’s requisitions of grain in the 1930s that caused a famine that historians say killed at least three million Ukrainians, a tragedy known as the Holodomor. “Before, they confiscated the grain, and today they burn it,” he said.

Ukraine is also facing immediate economic consequences. The Ministry of Agriculture has cited studies showing the war will cost farmers and agribusiness companies $23 billion this year in lost profits, destroyed equipment and higher transportation costs.

Ukrainian farmers and the government have been adapting, finding workarounds to blocked transport routes, setting up temporary sites for storing grain and trying to clear mines from fields to bring in the harvest. The hardest hit crops are wheat, barley and sunflowers, as they are grown in areas near the fighting, according to the agriculture ministry.

“While Russia is blackmailing the world with hunger, we are trying to prevent a global food crisis,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said of efforts to keep Ukraine’s farms producing.

Crop fires sparked by artillery strikes are cutting into the harvest. More than 3,000 field fires have broken out, according to Olena Kryvoruchkina, a member of Parliament.

Tractors and combines have hit land mines in northern Ukraine even months after Russia retreated. Late last month, for example, a tractor struck a mine outside of Kharkiv, killing the driver. The tractor burned in the field.

Outside Mr. Sokol’s hometown in south-central Ukraine, two combines, including the John Deere operated by his neighbor, hit land mines over the last two weeks of July.

Rocket debris from Mr. Sokol’s fields now sits in a yard along with tractor tires and sacks of grain. A heap of a dozen or so slate gray, dented tubes and fins lean against a wall.

“I’m angry,” he said. “How angry? I want them to die. That’s how I feel now.”

In the fields on a recent, sweltering afternoon during the harvest, flames crackled through the stubble of the recently harvested wheat crop of Vasyliy Tabachnyuk, picking up with gusts of wind.

Mr. Tabachnyuk, whose fields are just a few miles from the front, said he was fortunate to have harvested early. After previous strikes, he has sent tractor drivers into the burning fields to cut firebreaks, trying to save what grain he could. One strike burned about 200 acres of ripe wheat.

If the Ukrainian counteroffensive does not push the Russians back before sowing season for winter wheat in September, he said, he wouldn’t plant for next year.

“All agriculture will be out of business,” he said, standing in the scorched field, where the soil was blanketed in charred kernels of wheat.

“The wheat was ripe,” he said. “It should have been harvested.”

Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting from Zelenodilsk.

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Five State Parks to Visit This Winter

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California is home to 279 state parks, which cover more than a million acres combined and stretch from 230 feet below sea level at the Salton Sea to more than 10,000 feet above at the snowy San Jacinto Peak. The state park system, the biggest in the nation, preserves impressive waterfalls and wildlife reserves, some of the world’s largest trees and the state’s most stunning flowers.

Today I have some recommendations for state parks to visit in the winter, no matter what sort of vacation you’re craving. And you can now check out free vehicle day-use passes for most of California’s state parks from your local library.

Happy traveling.

Roughly 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo State Park is one of the few places in North America where you can see elephant seals up close. The massive animals, each about the size of an S.U.V., can be viewed at the park year-round, but winter tends to be the busiest and most exciting season, as it’s when the pups are born.

From December through March, the seals come ashore to mate, give birth and nurse their young. Park docents offer guided walks starting on Dec. 15 and continuing every day until March 31, with the exception of Dec. 25. Read more about reserving a tour.

About 90 miles southeast of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the city of Columbia was once the second largest in California. Between 1850 and 1880, more than a billion dollars’ worth of gold was mined in the area. And in 1945, the State Legislature designated the site the Columbia State Historic Park so that a typical gold rush town could be preserved.

During the holiday season, visitors to the park can watch confectioners make giant handmade candy canes and can enjoy special events, including a Los Posadas Nativity procession and a Christmas equestrian parade.

Though spring is typically the best time to catch its famous wildflower blooms, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a lovely place to visit in the winter. The largest state park in California, it offers miles of hiking trails, sweeping vistas of the rugged Borrego Badlands, excellent stargazing and “an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California desert,” said Jorge Moreno, a state parks department spokesman.

Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park is 2,000 acres of dense pine, fir, aspen and cedar forest along the quiet western shores of Lake Tahoe. Winter visitors to Sugar Pine Point can camp in the snow and explore miles of marked cross-country skiing trails.

Thirty miles south of Redding, William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park is a memorial to William B. Ide, a leader of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican control of California. The park features an old adobe home, blacksmith shop and other historic sites, which can be toured on the weekends. The park’s annual Pioneer Christmas Party, which recreates the settlers’ earliest holiday celebrations, will take place this year on Dec. 17.

Today’s tip comes from Lyn Allred, who recommends the town of Cambria on the Central Coast:

“Right on the ocean, the peaceful wooden path has gorgeous vistas and benches on which to contemplate life. Hotels line the street across from the ocean and the quaint Old Cambria is a quick drive east. Be sure to stop by Linn’s for some yummy treats. Many hotels will welcome your dog, too.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


Have you visited any of the travel destinations that we’ve recommended in the newsletter? Send us a few lines about your trip, and a photo!

We’d like to share them in upcoming editions of the newsletter. Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com. Please include your name and the city in which you live


The Times recently asked readers to tell us what they were thankful for this year, in fewer than 100 words. The responses touched on large moments of gratitude, like a lifesaving drug or the birth of a child, as well as the mundane joys of life, like ice cream and exercise.

Here’s a sweet one from Annalisa McMorrow, 53, who lives in Point Reyes Station:

“A tiny record store opened up in our tiny Northern California town. I am a vinyl junkie and immediately became a regular. Now, one of the owners knows my tastes so well, he’ll text me randomly: “Mule Variations and Swordfishtrombones. Interested?” I’m the round-the-clock caregiver for my disabled husband. The owners hold the LPs for me until I can make it in. Their store is a bright spot of promise and nostalgia in a life that can be sad.”


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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Slain Idaho student Madison Mogen’s stepdad speaks out: ‘We’re angry’

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The devastated stepfather of Madison Mogen, one of the four slain University of Idaho students, described her death as “the hardest thing in the world” — as he shared his frustration in the lack of progress in the case.

“It’s still hard to believe sometimes. We get up in the morning, and it’s like, ‘Nah this isn’t happening,’ then it kicks in,” Scott Laramie told Fox News Digital on Monday.

The 21-year-old student known as Maddie, her close friend Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20, were butchered in the off-campus home in Moscow on Nov. 13.

Authorities have not yet named a suspect or found the knife used in the massacre that has left the community reeling.

Laramie said police told him they have no leads nearly three weeks after the shocking crime.

Jake Schriger and his girlfriend Maddie Mogen, one of the four slain University of Idaho students.
maddiemogen/Instagram

“They update us every day. We asked them to check in with us whether they have anything or not,” he told the outlet, as he lamented the agonizing lack of progress in the probe.

“We’re angry. Anybody would be,” he said. “I’m just hoping they come up with something sooner than later. I just would like to have justice for these kids.”

Maddie was raised by Laramie — whom she called dad — and her mother Karen Laramie in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Slain Idaho students
Slain University of Idaho students Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21.

“We love her and we miss her, and it’s the hardest thing in the world to try to figure out how to live without her,” a tearful Laramie told the news outlet.

“It’s the hardest thing to imagine right now,” he added.

On Friday, Mogen’s boyfriend, Jake Schriger, also broke his silence about losing her.


Here’s the latest coverage on the brutal killings of four college friends:


“She was the first person I talked to every morning and the last person I talked to before bed,” Schriger said at a vigil held in Post Falls, Idaho. “She was the person that I loved most.”

Laramie told Fox News Digital that he has been in touch with Schriger.

“He’s all broken up. He’s having a hard time dealing with this too. Those two, they were really good together. They really clicked,” he said.

The house where the slain roommates lived.
The four roommates shared the house with two others who were unharmed.

The scene of the Univ. of Idaho murders.
Cops have not named a suspect in the murders.

Investigators on scene of murders.
Investigators have not recovered a murder weapon.

Blood seeps through wall of murder house
Blood seeped through the exterior wall of the home.

Madison Mogen
Madison’s family has been left shattered by the shocking murders.

flyer seeking information
Authorities have not yet named a suspect or found the knife used in the massacre that has left the community reeling.

Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves.
Madison and Kaylee were close friends, according to their families.

Maddie adored all things pink and sparkly and loved rewatching the 1987 flick “The Princess Bride,” Laramie told the outlet.

“Everybody just wanted to be near her,” he said. “She had the world at her fingertips, and could have done anything she wanted to do. We were just so proud of her.”

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China’s Xi to Visit Saudi Arabia for Regional Summits

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — China’s leader will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for a flurry of summits bringing together heads of state from across the Middle East, a region where longtime American allies are growing increasingly closer to China.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will visit the kingdom for three days and attend Saudi-China, Gulf-China and Arab-China summits, the Saudi state news agency reported on Tuesday. More than 30 heads of states and leaders of international organizations plan to attend, the report said, adding that Saudi Arabia and China were expected to sign a “strategic partnership.”

Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed at deepening China’s decades-old ties with the Gulf region, which started narrowly as a bid to secure oil, and have since developed into a complex relationship involving arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects.

The Chinese leader is expected to sign a flurry of contracts with the Saudi government and other Gulf States, sending a message that Beijing’s clout in the region is growing at a time when Washington has pulled away from the Middle East to devote more attention to Asia.

The grand state visit will inevitably draw comparisons to Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for his first trip abroad as president in 2017. He was greeted by streets decorated with American flags and an enormous image of his face projected on the side of a building.

Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century. But its authoritarian rulers have long sought to deepen other alliances to prepare for an emerging multipolar world.

U.S.-Saudi ties have been especially fractious over the past few years, with the administration of President Biden declaring a “recalibration” of the relationship and pressing the kingdom over human rights violations, including the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident at the time — by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

“Xi clearly wants to make a statement at a moment at which the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is strained,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It’s a good moment to replant the flag, if you wish. And I think it’s a good moment for the Gulf States to say, ‘Hey, we have other options. Washington, you’re not the only ones out there.’”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Vivian Nereim reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and David Pierson from Singapore.

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