February 9, 2023

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Crops ‘stocked everywhere’: Ukraine’s harvest is piling up

Crops 'stocked everywhere': Ukraine's harvest is piling up

A small army of harvesting machines rolled across an endless farm field on a recent afternoon in western Ukraine, clouding dust in a blue sky as machines gather in a sea of ​​golden wheat. Mountains of soybeans and corn will be harvested in the coming weeks. And all this will add to the 20 million tons of accumulated grain that was trapped in Ukraine during the grinding Russian war.

under hack deal Mediated by the United Nations and Turkey last week, the blockade imposed by Moscow on Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea will be lifted. If all goes wellIn the coming days, a ship laden with grain will set sail from a Ukrainian port, releasing crops from a major breadbasket into a hungry world.

But despite the uproar in Brussels and Washington, the deal is greeted with caution in the Ukrainian fields. Farmers, who have lived for months under the threat of Russian missile attacks and economic uncertainty, are skeptical that the deal will last.

The roar of combine harvesters in these fields is a familiar racket this time of year, but much of the crop will go straight into storage.

“The opening of the Black Sea ports is not in itself a panacea,” said Georg von Nolken, CEO of Continental Farmers Group, a large agricultural company with vast tracts in western Ukraine. “It is certainly a step forward, but we cannot assume that the deal will return Ukraine to what it was” before the war, he said.

This blockage has led to severe fluctuations in the prices of crops and the cost of transporting them. Storage is running out for the latest crops, leaving many people scrambling to look for temporary solutions.

Saturday’s missile attack on Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port on the Black Sea, has shaken confidence in the deal and Risk undermining the effort before the agreement is put into effect.

“No one believes that Russia will not attack again,” said Vasyl Levko, director of grain storage at MHP, one of the largest agricultural production companies in Ukraine.

There is political will from Ukraine’s allies: The White House welcomed the agreement, as did the United Nations and international aid organizations, which have warned of potential famine and political unrest the longer Ukraine’s grain ban continues.

Freeing grain for shipment is expected to ease the growing hunger crisis caused by Russian aggression — not because Ukrainian grain might be shipped faster to desperate countries, but because more supplies could help bring down prices, which rose after the war but led to a decline the prices. at recent days. “It’s very positive,” said Nikolai Gorbachev, president of the Ukrainian Grain Association. “You may find the way.”

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However, even when reopened, the Black Sea ports are expected to operate at about half their pre-war capacity, experts say, and cover only a portion of the more than 20 million tons of accumulated grain. The ships will head through a path cleared of Ukrainian mines used to prevent Russian ships from entering, and will withstand inspections in Turkey to ensure they are not carrying weapons into Ukraine.

It is not certain that enough ships will venture back. Previously, shipping companies operating in the Black Sea took other shipping methods. Insurers warn that ships in the conflict zone are covered, and without insurance, no one will ship.

Meanwhile, farmers in Ukraine are struggling over massive amounts of grain trapped from last year’s crops. Before the war, new crops were coming in and out of the grain elevators – from harvest to export – like clockwork. But Russia’s blockage on the Black Sea led to a massive backlog.

An estimated additional 40 million tons – from wheat, rapeseed, barley, soybeans, corn and sunflower seeds – are expected to be harvested in the coming months. Storage facilities not destroyed by Russian bombing filled up, and space for freshly harvested crops was becoming increasingly scarce.

At the MHP grain processing center an hour east of Lviv, a truck full of freshly harvested rapeseed – small, shiny and black – threw its cargo into a sieve one day. The seeds were transferred to a dryer and then routed to a tall silo that still had some room available. A nearby silo was not: it was full of soybeans stuck there from the previous harvest.

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The biggest concern was what to do with the current winter wheat crop, said Mr. Levko, whose company uses the grain to produce feed for its chicken farms in Ukraine, as well as grain for export. With the close capacity of his silos at the Lviv site, the wheat will have to be stuffed into tall plastic casings for temporary storage.

Mr. Levko said the company was scrambling to buy more sheaths, but Russian missiles had destroyed the only Ukrainian factory that made them, and European manufacturers were flooded with orders and couldn’t keep up.

After wheat comes the corn harvest. Mr. Lefko added that this would have to be stacked on the ground and covered with a tarp to protect it from the thousands of crows and pigeons swirling nearby like black clouds, as well as from autumn rains that can cause mold.

Crops should be stocked everywhere,” he said, sweeping his arm over a wide field. He added that even if the Black Sea embargo deal was successful, it could take months for Odessa’s shipping capacity to help ease the grain backlog.

Meanwhile, farmers are trying to expand the alternative labyrinth of transport routes they have built across Europe since the outbreak of war.

Before the Russian blockade, Ukraine was exporting up to seven million tons of grain per month, mostly on ships that could carry large loads. Since then, Ukraine has managed to output only about 2 million tons per month, via a cobbled mixture of road and river roads.

Mr. von Nolken said the Continental Farmers Group used to export crops across the Black Sea. Shipments can reach the Middle East and North Africa in as little as six days.

But the blockade has forced the company to put some of its grain on an indirect path that includes creating a giant counterclockwise circle around Europe on trucks, trains, barges and ships across Poland, the North Sea and the English Channel, through the Strait of Gibraltar and back to the Mediterranean, a journey that could take Up to 18 days.

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With many exporters competing to get grain out of Ukraine, the cost of transporting it has risen to about $130 to $230 a tonne from about $35 before the war, with eastern regions near Russian-occupied regions facing the biggest price hikes, Mr. von Nolken added. . At the same time, grain prices within Ukraine have fallen by about two-thirds because the blockade has left farmers with large quantities of grain, threatening the livelihoods of many.

European countries are working hard to solve one of the biggest challenges: transporting grain by rail. Previously, the 38,000 Ukrainian grain carts mostly carried crops to the Black Sea ports, but they run on Soviet-era tracks that are incomparable to those in Europe. So rail freight destined for other places must now be transferred to other trains once they reach the border.

The biggest opportunity to increase exports is trucks. Roman Slastun, head of Ukraine’s main agricultural lobby, said his group was aiming to get 40,000 tons of grain per day by truck. By June, the trucks were churning out 10,000 tons per day.

But this only relieves part of the backlog in Ukraine. As traffic increases on the road, the border crossings are congested. MFP’s Mr. Lefko said it now takes four days – instead of four hours before the war – for grain trucks to cross from Ukraine to Poland. It takes 10 days to cross the Serbian border instead of two. The European Union is trying to facilitate backup operations with express border clearances.

“The question is, how long will the situation last?” Mr. von Nolken said. “On February 24, everyone assumed that this would be a one-week training. After more than 150 days, we are talking about opening the ports again, with reservations.”

But the harsh reality still faces Ukraine. Despite the war, it has been a great harvest so far this year.

“We build a tsunami out of grain, and we produce more than we can export,” added Mr. von Nolken. “We’ll still be sitting on crops that won’t come out.”

Erica Suleiman Reporting contributed from Lviv, Ukraine.