Ukrainian grain farmers devastated by Russian Black Sea blockade

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Volodymyr Onishchuk looks at the rented field where he plants wheat and barley, in Bashtanka, Ukraine, June 24.  (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)
Volodymyr Onishchuk looks at the rented field where he plants wheat and barley, in Bashtanka, Ukraine, June 24. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)

BASHTANKA, Ukraine — The morning Russian tanks and troops stormed Ukraine’s borders, Volodymyr Onishchuk’s grain got stuck. It had delivered about $100,000 to a storage site at Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Mykolaiv on February 23, but on February 24 – when the ship with its harvest was due to set sail – Russian troops were on the ground and the ships of war lingered menacingly. the Ukrainian coast.

That day, Onishchuk wasn’t too worried that he hadn’t been paid yet. Pushing back against Russia was first and foremost on his mind. But a week passed – then a month, then four months – with the main Ukrainian ports still blocked by the Russian fleet. Not only was he missing the money from his last crop, but a new crop was almost ready to be sent to market, with no way to move it profitably. And future harvests were uncertain.

“If we don’t sell this grain now and cover our expenses, tomorrow we simply won’t be able to sow,” he said.

Farmers across Ukraine are increasingly feeling the financial pressure of Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea, and the economic collapse of the sector is affecting food security around the world. Ukraine accounted for 10% of global wheat exports in 2021, according the United Nations.

The high cost of exporting grain via alternative routes – by truck or train to a western neighbor or on a barge through smaller ports on the Danube – means farmers are losing money, they said .

Many farmers refuse to export the current harvest – unless a diplomatic solution is found to unblock the Black Sea ports. Some said they would store their grain in silos for now. But with no money coming in, they may not be able to harvest this fall – threatening to dramatically reduce production at one of the world’s biggest grain producers for years to come.

“We feed the world, but we also have to feed ourselves,” said Oleksandr Chumak, a farmer from the southern region of Odessa.

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Chumak and Onishchuk said that while wheat prices on the world market have skyrocketed to over $400 a ton, wheat traders are offering them around $60 a ton because of the high cost of moving the wheat. cereals out of the country – expensive fuel with long delays At the border. Onishchuk, which leases its land and has to pay about 40 staff, said that only covers about half of its costs.

Ukraine has worked to improve other export routes, but each comes with its own headaches. Farmers and government officials said most grain now transits through the Danube, from where it flows to Romania’s Black Sea ports of Sulina and Constanta. But Romanians are struggling to manage the volume of grain Ukraine needs to export, creating costly expectations, officials said.

Most problematic is that Western countries that help Ukraine transport grain will soon have their hands full with their own crops. Some of the grain has been loaded onto wagons going west, but the European Union and Ukraine use different sized tracks, so the grain has to be transferred from wagon to wagon at the border – another time-consuming and costly task.

Ukraine will have plenty of grain for its own consumption, but Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov has said Russia is trying to create another Holodomor, on a global scale – a reference to the 1930s famine. when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union.

“They want to present this to the whole world,” Kubrakov said of the Russians. “They want the international community to lift some of the sanctions and then the grain can come out. So they are holding people all over the world hostage. It is terrorism. »

“Even after all our efforts, we understand that we can only export about 20% of what we need,” Kubrakov added.

Ukraine’s Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said he expects Ukraine to have around 60 million tonnes of grain to export this year, including part of last year’s harvest which has not yet been moved. But Ukraine currently exports 2 million tonnes of grain per month, only about a third of the amount of previous years.

“Many of us don’t have enough capital to pay salaries – and I’m not even talking about taxes,” said Chumak, the farmer from the Odessa region.

“We just need to destroy the entire Russian fleet and everything will be fine,” he said. “Long-range rocket systems will be cheaper than solving these logistical problems.”

At the Onishchuk farm in the Mykolaiv region, he walked through grain fields in brown slippers and showed a large crater where a missile had landed in March. This town of Bashtanka was the scene of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces before the Russians retreated in mid-March. Farming on the Onishchuk plots had to be stopped until a deminer could check the entire territory – over 5,000 acres.

He’s since invested in a large metal safe to store important documents, like his land lease, in case there’s more bombing.

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Onishchuk typically sells 5,000 tons of grain per year, a relatively modest return. Unlike some of the larger Ukrainian producers, it does not have a large cylindrical steel grain silo, which can store dry grain for years. The fresh brick warehouses he uses for storage contain less grain and only for about six months. Solskyi said the Agriculture Ministry is working to provide farmers with other storage options, including large plastic silo bags.

But with Onishchuk still waiting for his last shipment to leave the port of Mykolaiv, he had to wonder how long he can afford to wait and whether his 17-year-old business could be doomed. He will not sell this last harvest if the price remains so low. Will it plant in the fall?

“I’ll let you know,” he said. “I still have hope. If I hadn’t had hope, I would have fled the country.

Lesia Prokopenko, Kostiantyn Khudov and David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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