CNN  — 

Across Ukraine, in the shimmering heat, one sight is becoming familiar this summer: Combine harvesters sweeping across fields of grain in a race against fast-spreading fires.

The conflict’s front lines straddle some of Ukraine’s richest farmland. Whether caused by accident or intention, the fires darkening the summer sky are eating into a harvest that was always going to be tough to collect and even tougher to export.

Pavlo Serhienko is in the crosshairs of this battle. The 24-year-old is the third generation of his family to run a farm in the Vasylivka district of Zaporizhzhia. Since his father died from coronavirus, Serhienko is managing the 3,000-hectare farm on his own.

But nearly half the land is now too dangerous to cultivate, he told CNN on Saturday.

“We can’t even get there. It is either mined or near the occupied territories, literally the front line. We had occupiers on part of the fields.”

Serhienko has literally seen his family’s business go up in smoke.

Pavlo Serhienko said he has had to extinguish many fires which have started on his farm.

“For the last four days, all our knees are covered in blood, we are extinguishing [fires in] the fields. They [the Russians] especially hit the fields – fields with wheat and barley – every day.”

He said in the past few days he had lost 30 hectares of wheat, and 55 hectares of barley. And “those 1,200 hectares I can’t reach are also burning. But what can I do? I won’t even go there.”

The sowing season was just as dangerous. “We sowed a field of 40 hectares. We had to leave the field four times to finish it. Every time we left, they shelled the place instantly. Once there were 23 mortar hits.”

The farm's buildings and equipment have also been hit.

His buildings and equipment have also been hit – the animal farm and all the warehouses built over the past 20 years were destroyed.

“The planter was crushed, the winter workshop, where we repair tractors and combines, was also smashed.”

There are hundreds of farmers in a similar plight. Many likely face bankruptcy.

Targeted assaults

Ukrainian officials are in no doubt that part of Russia’s strategy is to destroy Ukraine’s agricultural wealth.

Last week, police in the southern Kherson region, one of Ukraine’s most productive arable areas, opened criminal proceedings over “the purposeful destruction” of crops by the Russian military.

The police accused Russian forces of “shelling agricultural land with incendiary shells. Large-scale fires occur every day, hundreds of hectares of wheat, barley and other grain crops have already burned.”

“In order to save at least part of the harvest, the villagers work on machinery next to a wall of fire,” the police said.

Buildings on Pavlo Serhienko's farm have been hit by artillery.

Once the fires start, there is little chance of extinguishing them. Many contested areas are without piped water, and it’s often too dangerous to try to tackle the blazes.

Kherson police allege that “the Russians deliberately do not allow anyone to extinguish the fires,” citing a fire that burned 12 hectares and adjacent pine forests in the occupied area around the village of Rozlyv.