Anxiety grows for Ukrainian grain farmers as harvest begins

By HANNA ARHIROVA
Associated press

ZHURIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Oleksandr Chubuk’s warehouse is expected to be empty, waiting for the new harvest, with his supply of winter wheat already shipped overseas. Instead, its storage bins in central Ukraine are full of grain it cannot ship because of the war with Russia.

The green ears of wheat are already ripening. Soon the horizon will resemble the Ukrainian flag, a sea of ​​gold under a blue sky. Chubuk expects to harvest 500 tons, but for the first time in 30 years as a farmer, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

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

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

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine could export 6 to 7 million tonnes of grain per month, but by June it was shipping just 2.2 million tonnes, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association. Normally, it sends around 30% of its cereals to Europe, 30% to North Africa and 40% to Asia, said Mykola Horbachov, head of the association.

With the Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, the fate of Ukraine’s upcoming harvest is uncertain. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the war is endangering the food supply of many developing countries and could worsen hunger among 181 million people.

Meanwhile, many Ukrainian farmers could go bankrupt. They face the most difficult situation since their independence in 1991, Horbachov said.

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

For now, Ukraine is trying less efficient alternatives to export its grain, at least to Europe. Currently, 30% of exports pass through three Danube ports in southwestern Ukraine.

The country is also trying to ship grain through 12 border crossings with European countries, but trucks have to queue for days and Europe’s infrastructure cannot yet absorb such a volume of grain, Horbachov said.

“It’s impossible to build such an infrastructure in a year,” he told The Associated Press.

The invasion of Russia also caused transportation costs to skyrocket. The price to deliver barley harvested this year to the nearest Romanian port, Constanta, is now $160-180 a tonne, down from $40-45. Yet a farmer who sells barley to a trader receives less than $100 a ton.

The losses accumulate, as well as the harvest.

“Most farmers run the risk of going bankrupt very soon. But they have no choice but to sell their grain for less than it costs,” Horbachov said.

In addition to these challenges, not all farmers can sell their grain.

Before the invasion, Chubuk could sell a ton of wheat from his farm in the Kyiv region for $270. Now he can’t find a buyer, even at $135 a ton.

“The entire system is backed up,” including storage options, said James Heneghan, senior vice president of Gro Intelligence, a global climate and agricultural data analytics company. The system was intended to maintain the flow of Ukrainian exports, not store them.

Without money for cereals, future harvests are difficult. “Farmers have to buy fertilizers, seeds, diesel, pay the salary,” Horbachov said. “Ukrainian farmers can’t print money.”

The country is not yet short of storage as the harvest begins.

Ukraine has about 65-67 million tonnes of commercial grain storage capacity, according to Horbachov, although 20% of that capacity is in Russian-occupied territories. The farmers themselves can store between 20 and 25 million tonnes, but some of it is also in the occupied areas.

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

The FAO recently announced a $17 million project to help fill the storage gap. Gro Intelligence’s Heneghan noted that a temporary solution could be to provide farmers with silo bags for storage.

In the eastern and southern regions close to the frontline, farmers continue to work their fields despite the threat to their lives.

“It can be finished in an instant with shelling, or as we see now, the fields are on fire,” said Yurii Vakulenko in the Dnipropetrovsk region, black smoke visible in the distance.

Its workers are risking their lives for little return, with storage facilities now refusing to take their grain, Vakulenko said.

Ukraine recorded a record grain harvest last year, with 107 million tonnes. We expected even more this year.

Now, in the best-case scenario, farmers will only harvest 70 million tonnes of grain this year, Horbachov estimated.

“Without opening the (Black Sea) ports, I see no solution for Ukrainian farmers to survive,” he said. “And if they don’t survive, we won’t be able to feed African countries.

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Francesca Ebel, Valerii Rezik and Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Ukraine and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine