Ukraine's war-hit wheat farmers fear for harvest as world clamours for grain

Conflict has blocked shipments of previous crop, leaving the country short of space to store millions of tonnes of wheat now ripening in the fields

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Oleksandr Chubuk’s warehouse should be empty, awaiting the new harvest, with his supply of winter wheat already shipped abroad. Instead, his storage bins in central Ukraine are piled high with grain he cannot move because of the war with Russia.

The green spikes of wheat are already ripening. Soon, the horizon will look like the Ukrainian flag, a sea of gold beneath a blue sky. Mr Chubuk expects to reap about 500 tonnes but for the first time in his 30 years as a farmer, he is uncertain of what to do with it.

“Hope is the only thing I have now,” he said.

Serhiy, a farmer, does not know what to do with the growing mound of grain in his barn in Ptyche, Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. AP

The war has trapped about 22 million tonnes of grain inside Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says, a growing crisis for the country known as the “breadbasket of Europe” for its exports of wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

Before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine could export about 6 million to 7 million tonnes of grain a month, but last month it shipped only 2 million, the Ukrainian Grain Association said. Normally, about 30 per cent of its grain is exported to Europe, 30 per cent to North Africa and 40 per cent to Asia, said Mykola Horbachov, head of the association.

With Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the fate of the coming harvest in Ukraine is in doubt. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says the war is endangering food supplies for many developing nations and could worsen hunger for up to 181 million people.

Meanwhile, many farmers in Ukraine could go bankrupt. They are facing the most difficult situation since gaining independence in 1991, Mr Horbachov said.

A wheat field in the countryside of Siversk, eastern Ukraine, that was burnt after air strikes by the Russian army. AFP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country is working with the UN, Ukraine and Russia to find a solution, offering safe corridors in the Black Sea for wheat shipments.

For now, Ukraine is trying less effective alternatives to export its grain, at least to Europe. Currently, 30 per cent of exports go via three Danube ports in the south-west of the country.

Ukraine also is trying to ship grain via 12 border crossings with European countries, but lorries must queue up for days and Europe’s infrastructure cannot yet absorb such a volume, Mr Horbachov said.

“It’s impossible to build such infrastructure in one year,” he said.

Russia’s invasion also caused transportation costs to soar. The price of delivering this year’s harvested barley to the closest Romanian port, Constanta, is now about $160 to $180 per tonne, up from $40 to $45. And yet a farmer selling barley receives less than $100 per tonne.

Losses are piling up, along with the harvest.

Quote
Most of the farmers are running the risk of becoming bankrupt very soon. But they don’t have any other option but to sell their grain cheaper than its cost
Mykola Horbachov, Ukrainian Grain Association

“Most of the farmers are running the risk of becoming bankrupt very soon. But they don’t have any other option but to sell their grain cheaper than its cost,” Mr Horbachov said.

On top of such challenges, not all farmers can sell.

Before the invasion, Mr Chubuk could sell a tonne of wheat from his farm in Kyiv region for about $270. Now he cannot find a buyer, even at $135 per tonne.

“The whole system backs up”, including storage options, said James Heneghan, senior vice president at Gro Intelligence, a global climate and agriculture data analytics company. The system was meant to keep Ukraine’s exports flowing, not store them.

Without money coming in for grain, future harvests are challenging. “Farmers need to purchase fertilisers, seeds, diesel, pay the salary,” Mr Horbachov said. “Ukrainian farmers can’t print money.”

The country has not yet run out of storage as the harvest begins.

Ukraine has about 60 million tonnes of commercial grain storage capacity, Mr Horbachov said, although 20 per cent of that is in Russian-occupied territories. Farmers themselves can store 18 million to 23 million tonnes, but some of that is also in occupied areas.

By the end of September, when the harvest of corn and sunflower seeds begins, Ukraine will face a shortage of storage capacity.

The FAO recently announced a $17 million project to help address the storage deficit. Mr Heneghan noted that one temporary solution could be providing farmers with silo bags for storage.

In eastern and southern regions near the front line, farmers continue to work their fields despite the threat to their lives.

“It can be finished in a moment by bombing, or as we see now, the fields are on fire,” said Yurii Vakulenko in the Dnipropetrovsk region, black smoke visible in the distance.

His workers risk their lives for little return, with storage depots now refusing to take their grain, he said.

Ukraine had a record-breaking grain harvest last year, collecting about 97 million tonnes. Even more had been expected this year.

Now, in the best-case scenario, farmers will harvest only 63 million tonnes of grain this year, Mr Horbachov estimated.

“Without opening the [Black Sea] ports, I don’t see any solution for Ukrainian farmers to survive,” he said. “And if they don’t survive, we won’t be able to feed African countries.”

Updated: July 10, 2022, 11:56 AM
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