Saturday, May 18, 2024
31 C
Brunei Town

Anxiety grows for Ukraine’s grain farmers as harvest begins

ZHURIVKA, UKRAINE (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 out 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. Chubuk expects to reap 500 tonnes, but for the first time in his 30 years as a farmer, he’s uncertain about what to do with it. “Hope is the only thing I have now,” he said.

The war has trapped about 22 million tonnes of grain inside Ukraine, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, 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 six million to seven million tonnes of grain per month, but in June it shipped only 2.2 million tonnes, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association. Normally, it sends about 30 per cent of its grain to Europe, 30 per cent to North Africa and 40 per cent to Asia, said head of the association Mykola Horbachov. With Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the fate of the upcoming harvest in Ukraine is in doubt. The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization said 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, Horbachov 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 per cent of exports go via three Danube River ports in southwestern Ukraine.

A farmer collects harvest from his field near the front line in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine. PHOTO: AP

The country also is 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, Horbachov said.

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

Russia’s invasion also caused transportation costs to soar. The price to deliver this year’s harvested barley to the closest Romanian port, Constanta, is now USD160 to USD180 per tonne, up from USD40 to USD45. And yet a farmer selling barley to a trader gets less than USD100 per tonne.

The losses are piling up, along with the harvest.

“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,” Horbachov said.

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

Before the invasion, Chubuk could sell a tonne of wheat from his Kyiv region farm for USD270. Now he can’t find a buyer even at USD135 per tonne.

“The whole system backs up,” including storage options, said senior vice president at Gro Intelligence James Heneghan, 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,” Horbachov said. “Ukrainian farmers can’t print money.”

The country hasn’t yet run out of storage as the harvest begins.

Ukraine has about 65 million to 67 million tonnes of commercial grain storage capacity, according to Horbachov, although 20 per cent of that is in Russian-occupied territories.

Farmers themselves can store 20 million to 25 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 USD17 million project to help address the storage deficit.

Heneghan of Gro Intelligence 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 facilities now refusing to take their grain, Vakulenko said.

Ukraine had a record-breaking grain harvest last year, collecting 107 million tonnes. Even more had been expected this year.

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