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Ukraine’s anxious grain farmers face uncertainty as harvest begins

They have no way of shipping their produce out of the country due to the war with Russia.

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A farmer harvests crops round a crater left by a Russian rocket in his field in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

A farmer harvests crops round a crater left by a Russian rocket in his field in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

A farmer harvests crops round a crater left by a Russian rocket in his field in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

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 ship 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 500 tons, but for the first time in his 30 years as a farmer, he is uncertain about what to do with it.

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

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

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A farmer harvests his crops in a field in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, with smoke rising in the distance on the front line (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

A farmer harvests his crops in a field in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, with smoke rising in the distance on the front line (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

AP/PA Images

A farmer harvests his crops in a field in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine, with smoke rising in the distance on the front line (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

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Before Russia’s invasion, Ukraine could export six to seven million tons of grain per month, but in June it shipped only 2.2 million, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association.

Normally, it sends about 30% of its grain to Europe, 30% to north Africa and 40% to Asia.

With Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the fate of the upcoming 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, Mykola Horbachov, head of the Ukrainian Grain Association, said.

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% of exports go via three Danube River ports in south-western Ukraine.

The country is also trying to ship grain via 12 border crossings with European countries, but trucks must wait in line for days and Europe’s infrastructure cannot yet absorb such a volume of grain, Mr Horbachov said.

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Farmer Andriy Zubko checks his crops in a field in Ukraine’s Donetsk region (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Farmer Andriy Zubko checks his crops in a field in Ukraine’s Donetsk region (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

AP/PA Images

Farmer Andriy Zubko checks his crops in a field in Ukraine’s Donetsk region (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Russia’s invasion has also caused transportation costs to soar. The price to deliver this year’s harvested barley to the closest Romanian port, Constanta, is now about £140 per ton, up from about £35. And yet a farmer selling barley to a trader gets less than £83 per ton.

The losses are piling up, along with the harvest.

Mr Horbachov said: “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.”

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

Before the invasion, Mr Chubuk could sell a ton of wheat from his Kyiv region farm for £225. Now he cannot find a buyer even at £112 per ton.

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.”

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A farmer stands in a crater left by a Russian shell on his land in the village of Ptyche, eastern Donetsk region (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

A farmer stands in a crater left by a Russian shell on his land in the village of Ptyche, eastern Donetsk region (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

AP/PA Images

A farmer stands in a crater left by a Russian shell on his land in the village of Ptyche, eastern Donetsk region (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The country has not yet run out of grain storage, but that could happen by the end of September when the harvest of corn and sunflower seeds begins.

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, with black smoke visible in the distance.

His workers risk their lives for little return, with storage facilities now refusing to take their grain, Mr Vakulenko said.

Ukraine had a record-breaking grain harvest last year, collecting 107 million tons.

Even more had been expected this year, but now even the best-case scenario forecasts a harvest of only 70 million tons.

Mr Horbachov warned: “Without opening the (Black Sea) ports, I don’t see any solution for Ukrainian farmers to survive.

“And if they don’t survive, we won’t be able to feed African countries.”


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