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Ukraine's farmers face Russia's blockade and explosives on their lands this harvest

Farmers in Ukraine begin to harvest this year's wheat, barley and rapeseed crops as diplomats try to negotiate an end to Russia's Black Sea blockade of exports.

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Ukrainian farmer Mykhailo Liubchenko, 72, says he'll likely burn the field he stands in front of because unexploded ordnance makes harvesting the grain possibly fatal.
Ukrainian farmer Mykhailo Liubchenko, 72, says he'll likely burn the field he stands in front of because unexploded ordnance makes harvesting the grain possibly fatal. Peter Granitz | NPR

MYKOLAIV OBLAST, Ukraine — It only took Mykhailo Liubchenko homemade vodka to salvage some of his business.

Liubchenko, 72, farms wheat and sunflowers on the front lines of the Ukraine war's southern campaign. He says he paid off Russian soldiers with samogon — moonshine — so they wouldn't torch his fields or steal his equipment in the early weeks of the war in February.

"They were completely drunk," he says. "They didn't steal anything or destroy anything. The next day our Ukrainian forces pushed them back."

Months later, burned Russian tanks and vehicles still line the farm roads that square his several-thousand-acre plots. Red flags sprout above young sunflower shoots, alerting farmhands to unexploded ordnance left behind. A rocket sits perched on a tree trunk, in what looks like it was once a defensive military position.

"I have 1,000 hectares [2,471 acres] of winter wheat and barley, that I don't know how to harvest. I'll probably just light it on fire," he says. "If I let combines and tractors work, drivers could be blown up because there are still some shells."

Destroyed tanks and trucks line the farm roads that bisect Mykhailo Liubchenko's plots. The ground fighting has subsided, but there's almost daily shelling in his region near the front lines of the southern campaign of the war.
Destroyed tanks and trucks line the farm roads that bisect Mykhailo Liubchenko's plots. The ground fighting has subsided, but there's almost daily shelling in his region near the front lines of the southern campaign of the war. Peter Granitz | NPR

Ukraine is considered a breadbasket of Europe and a major exporter of wheat, corn, sunflower and other food. But Russian warships and Ukrainian mines are blocking shipping lanes through the Black Sea. The United Nations warns the blockade will worsen world hunger, which leaves Ukrainian farmers in the middle of a local and global crisis — right as the year's harvest begins.

Negotiations fail to reach result

Attempts by the U.N., Turkey and other parties to negotiate with Russia to let exports ship out of Ukrainian waters have so far failed. Moscow offered to help if the West lifted some of its sanctions and Ukraine cleared its mines around the ports.

Ukraine has been left out of the discussions, but a senior Ukrainian official said it would participate soon and expects the conversations to become more serious in July.

Meanwhile, global food prices have hovered near record highs their rise, even as some commodities, including wheat and corn, have dipped since their peaks.

In another record, up to 323 million people are on the brink of starvation, the Group of Seven global economic leaders warned on Monday, saying that factors including COVID-19 and climate change contributed.

The war in Ukraine "is dramatically aggravating the hunger crisis; it has triggered disruptions of agricultural production, supply chains and trade that have driven world food and fertiliser prices to unprecedented levels for which Russia bears enormous responsibility," the group's statement reads.

European Union officials accuse Russia of using hunger as a weapon, calling its blockade of Ukraine's shipping ports a war crime. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has warned about "the risk of a great famine in the world, especially in Africa."

Exports trickle out

Before the war, Ukraine exported 5 million to 6 million tons of food per month — with more than 90% of it going through Black Sea ports. But in May, Ukraine exported just 1.8 million tons.

"There was a lot of vessels that were scheduled to arrive in Ukrainian ports that just did a U-turn in the Black Sea," after Russia's invasion, says Mark Nugent, senior dry bulk analyst at Braemar Shipping Services.

Last year, Ukraine exported $27.8 billion worth of agricultural goods. It shipped more than 20 million tons of wheat and other cereal grains — 10% of the world total for those commodities. Ukraine is also normally the top producer of sunflower seed, oil and meal, as well as a leading corn exporter.

Ukraine's Agriculture Ministry thinks the maximum amount of exports by land would top out at about 2.2 million tons per month.

These days, about half of Ukraine's food shipments are going to Poland, Romania and Hungary by rail, and much of the rest by trucks. For farmers, it's costlier to ship by road.

"Right now we're preparing our trucks and getting passports for our drivers who don't have them," says Oleksandr Tatarov, a farmer who grows rapeseed, wheat and barley near Bashtanka, Ukraine.

Farmer Oleksandr Tatarov holds some of his rapeseed that he hopes to export for cooking oil. If he cannot sell this year's harvest, he'll store the seeds in silo bags in his field. The night before this photo was taken, Russian shelling destroyed one of his storage facilities.
Farmer Oleksandr Tatarov holds some of his rapeseed that he hopes to export for cooking oil. If he cannot sell this year's harvest, he'll store the seeds in silo bags in his field. The night before this photo was taken, Russian shelling destroyed one of his storage facilities. Polina Lytvynova | NPR

Trucking barley to the ports of Izmail and Reni in southern Ukraine "costs about 50%" of the price Tatarov earns, he tells NPR, as explosions can be heard in the distance.

He says he'll test a truck shipment to those ports, where they could be loaded on barges on the Danube River, but he's heard trucks have waited for weeks to unload.

Almost one-third of Tatarov's nearly 8,600 acres are under occupation or shelling. "We've pulled the curtain on those fields," he says.

The day before he meets NPR, one of his farm garages was hit by a Russian attack. A shell destroyed one of his four food storage facilities.

Running out of space

When the blockade began, Ukraine already had 23.5 million tons of grain and seed in storage, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in June. That left Ukraine's storage capacity about a third full, excluding the silos that are located in Russian-occupied territories.

Some of the remaining 5,000 tons of wheat Mykhailo Liubchenko harvested last season. A Russian blockade of the Black Sea has prevented him from selling the rest of last year's haul.
Some of the remaining 5,000 tons of wheat Mykhailo Liubchenko harvested last season. A Russian blockade of the Black Sea has prevented him from selling the rest of last year's haul. Peter Granitz | NPR

Now, the Agriculture Ministry anticipates running out of storage capacity by October, expecting a harvest of grains and seeds to be about 60 million tons — half of last year's.

"Part of our storage of facilities are in temporarily occupied territories, part of them were destroyed," Deputy Agriculture Minister Markiyan Dmytrasevych tells NPR. "We understand we'll face a deficit of grain storages. ... The deficit could be 10-15 million tons."

President Biden said the United States would help build temporary facilities in Poland.

Meanwhile, farmers like Tatarov will use massive silo bags to store as much as 200,000 tons of harvested grain and seeds in the fields. Other growers, including Vasily Khmilenko, are searching for bins to rent.

"I've never needed storage before," he says. "The port [in Odesa] is very close to us, so when we harvested, the trucks came straight to the field and took the grain."

Khmilenko says the harvested grain cannot sit in the field uncovered because rain would destroy it. He's negotiating with a company to store his entire yield, which he estimates to be between 400 and 500 tons.

He says he hopes they'll take some grain as payment.

The Ukrainian flag represents a blue sky over yellow farm fields, like grain on the farm of Vasily Khmilenko outside the city of Odesa.
The Ukrainian flag represents a blue sky over yellow farm fields, like grain on the farm of Vasily Khmilenko outside the city of Odesa. Peter Granitz | NPR

Liubchenko says he has experience demining as a former military colonel. He points out a pile of ordnance he says he removed from his fields. But that was earlier in the season, when the plants were shorter. It would be too dangerous to do that now, he says, because the taller plants obstruct his view of the ground.

He says he'll store as much of his harvest as he can and wait for the blockade to end.

A pile of rockets and shells that Mykhailo Liubchenko says he removed from his field. A former colonel in the Soviet army, Liubchenko says he spent part of his military career demining. He calls today's Russian forces 'the barbarians of the 21st century.'
A pile of rockets and shells that Mykhailo Liubchenko says he removed from his field. A former colonel in the Soviet army, Liubchenko says he spent part of his military career demining. He calls today's Russian forces "the barbarians of the 21st century." Peter Granitz | NPR

For Khmilenko, if he cannot sell this year, he says he'll be out about $70,000. "If we lose this it will be impossible to rebuild. I paid too much in this business to recover it," he says.

Khmilenko's farm is relatively far from the front lines, and he says he's confident Russian forces will not reach his land.

But the threat of shells, and potential fire from them, continues to haunt him. Russia has increased its shelling and missile attacks in the southern region in recent weeks, including attacks on food storage facilities in Mykolaiv and Odesa.

"The most important thing is that we de-blockade our seaport," Dmytrasevych says. "The only way to do that is to defeat the Russians. So we need weapons, weapons and weapons."

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Transcript :

SHANNON BOND, HOST:

There's been fierce fighting over a key city in eastern Ukraine. Lysychansk is the last major city in the region still under Ukrainian control. And today, Russia's defense minister says their forces have taken that city. This development would make it easier for Russian forces to stage moves into other parts of Ukraine. The effects of the conflict are being felt worldwide.

Before the war, Ukraine accounted for 10% of the world's exported wheat. But Russian warships are blocking that wheat and other food supplies from leaving the Black Sea. The United Nations has warned the blockade will worsen world hunger, and that leaves Ukrainian farmers caught in the middle of a local and global conflict right as this year's harvest begins. Here's NPR's Peter Granitz from southern Ukraine.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: A slight breeze sends a wave through the knee-high wheat and barley on Vasily Khmilenko's farm. A railway lines one of the edges of his 500 acres.

VASILY KHMILENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: Before the war, he says, there were a lot of trains moving grain to the seaport in nearby Odesa. Now they're rare. Khmilenko will start to harvest his crop any day. He thinks he'll haul in 400 to 500 tons of wheat and barley.

KHMILENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "Our food is for export," he says. "I don't know where we're going to store this grain. Just in the street?" he asks. Khmilenko says the usual buyers are not coming out this year because the port he used to ship his grain to is closed. If he can't sell his crop, he'll be out about $70,000. And, he says, he'll be done.

About a third of Ukraine's grain silos are full, says Deputy Agriculture Minister Markiyan Dmytrasevych. There are more than 20 million tons of last year's bumper crop in the country that have been blocked from export since February. And with the new harvest, the country will run out of capacity.

MARKIYAN DMYTRASEVYCH: Part of our storage facilities are in temporarily occupied territories. Part of them were destroyed. So we understand that we will face a deficit of grain storages. By October, the number can be from 10 to 15 million tons.

GRANITZ: Some farmers will need to buy silo bags - massive sacks that can hold the harvest in the field. Some will need to rent the few open bins or build their own. Food is being exported out of Ukraine by rail, but the track gauges in Ukraine are different than in neighboring countries. So the grain needs to be unloaded and loaded on a different train at the border. And by road and river - farmers can truck their products to the southern ports and then barge them up the Danube. Dmytrasevych says Ukraine exported 1.8 million tons in May.

DMYTRASEVYCH: We think that 2.1, 2.2 million tons per month could be a limit.

GRANITZ: That is less than half of what Ukraine exported per month before the war. What's not included in that number is the grain that Russia itself has exported from Ukrainian stockpiles. Dmytrasevych says there were nearly 2 million tons stored in now-occupied territories.

DMYTRASEVYCH: We know that they are stealing our grain with railway and with trucks, and they transport it to temporary occupied Crimea and to Russia.

GRANITZ: Mykhailo Liubchenko says he could fetch $330 a ton for wheat before the conflict, but the price has tanked.

MYKHAILO LIUBCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: Liubchenko says he trucked a load of wheat to western Ukraine and got only a hundred seventy dollars a ton. He says shipping by rail and road at those prices is operating at a loss. He has storage and plans to ride out the blockade when he hopes producer prices improve. It's not just transportation costs. His sunflower yield will be about a third of what he projected because his water source was cut off by the Russians. His land is on the front lines.

LIUBCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: Liubchenko says he has more than 2,000 productive acres that he'll likely burn because unexploded ordnance litter the fields. He shows us red flags poking above green shoots of sunflowers where workers have found shells and mines. On the way there, he takes us past a demolished Russian tank.

LIUBCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: There's no ground fighting here, but he says there's near-daily shelling. We hear two big artillery explosions in the distance.

Negotiations among Turkey, Russia and the United Nations to end the blockade have so far failed. Ukraine has yet to join the talks, but officials say they could any week now. Even if there is a deal, getting the food out of the ports could take months because of mines in the Black Sea. Russia says it wants them removed, but Ukraine worries doing that would allow Russia to attack. And Mark Nugent, an analyst with Braemar Shipping Services, says shipping companies would be unlikely to jump at a contract to transport the grain.

MARK NUGENT: I think a lot of companies would be hesitant definitely. There would have to be, firstly, assurance that there's no mines left. Because if not, the insurance cost would be sky high.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

GRANITZ: Volunteers repair the damage at a community building in the small farming village of Bashtanka. Shelling the week before demolished the local government building. It's where we meet Oleksandr Tatarov. About a third of his fields are either occupied or inaccessible because of fighting.

OLEKSANDR TATAROV: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "We've pulled the curtain on those fields," he says, meaning he won't try to harvest them.

TATAROV: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "Of course we'll harvest the rest," he says, "but we'll lose. If we compare last year's prices and this year's prices, we'll lose 40 to 50% of our income." He's got loans, and he's trying to negotiate a longer repayment plan. He can't qualify for any new ones because he's too close to the fighting. He stands in the middle of yellow, flowering rapeseed plants and says he's determined to continue. He'll reduce the acreage next year if he has to.

TATAROV: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: "We have to do this," he says. "We have 45 employees and haven't fired anyone. Ten of them went to fight. One is in captivity. We support their families. We have no right to stop." But if the war drags on and he cannot plant later this summer, he may have to, and that means less food for the world.

Peter Granitz, NPR News, Odesa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.