Ukraine grain farmers devastated by Russia’s Black Sea blockade

Volodymyr Onishchuk looks over the rented field where he plants wheat and barley, in Bashtanka, Ukraine, on June 24. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)
Volodymyr Onishchuk looks over the rented field where he plants wheat and barley, in Bashtanka, Ukraine, on June 24. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)
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BASHTANKA, Ukraine — The morning Russian tanks and troops stormed across Ukraine’s borders, Volodymyr Onishchuk’s grain got stuck. He had delivered about $100,000 worth to a storage site at Ukraine’s Black Sea port in Mykolaiv on Feb. 23, but by Feb. 24 — when the ship with his harvest was to set sail — Russian troops were on the ground and warships lingered menacingly off the Ukrainian coast.

On that day, Onishchuk wasn’t overly concerned that he hadn’t been paid yet. Fending off Russia was foremost on his mind. But then one week passed — and then a month and then four months — with Ukraine’s main ports still blockaded by Russia’s fleet. Not only was he missing the money from his last yield but a new crop was nearly ready to send to market, with no way to profitably move it. And future crops were uncertain.

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

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

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

Many farmers are declining to export the current harvest at all — unless a diplomatic solution is reached to unblock the Black Sea ports. Some said they’ll store their grain in silos for now. But with no money coming in, they might not be able to harvest this fall — threatening to dramatically slash the output of one of the world’s largest grain producers for years to come.

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

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Chumak and Onishchuk said that while wheat prices on the global market have skyrocketed to more than $400 a ton, wheat traders are offering them about $60 a ton because of the high cost of getting the grain out of the country — from expensive fuel to long delays at the border. Onishchuk, who rents his land and has to pay about 40 employees, said that covers only about half his costs.

Ukraine has worked to improve the other export routes, but they each come with their own headaches. Farmers and government officials said most of the grain is now going out via the Danube River, where it flows down to Romania’s Black Sea ports of Sulina and Constanta. But the Romanians are struggling to handle the volume of grain Ukraine needs to export, which creates costly waits, officials said.

More problematic is that Western countries helping Ukraine to move grain will soon have their hands full with their own harvests. Some grain has been loaded onto train cars going west, but the European Union and Ukraine use different sizes of track, so the grain must be transferred from one car to another at the border — another time-consuming and expensive task.

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

“They want to introduce the whole world to this,” Kubrakov said of the Russians. “They want the international community to take off some of the sanctions and then the grain can get out. So they’re holding people all over the world hostage basically. This is terrorism.”

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

Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said he expects Ukraine to have about 60 million tons of grain to export this year, including some of last year’s harvest that hasn’t been moved yet. But Ukraine is currently exporting 2 million tons of grain a month — only about a third the amount of previous years.

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

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

At Onishchuk’s farm in the Mykolaiv region, he walked through grain fields in brown slippers and pointed to a large crater where a missile had landed in March. This town of Bashtanka was the site of a fierce fight between Russian and Ukrainian forces before the Russians retreated in mid-March. Farming on Onishchuk’s plots had to be stopped until a de-miner could check the full territory — more than 5,000 acres.

He has since invested in a large metal safe to store important documents, such as his land lease agreement, in case there is more shelling.

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Onishchuk typically sells 5,000 tons of grain a year, a relatively modest yield. Unlike some of Ukraine’s biggest producers, he doesn’t own a large steel cylindrical grain bin, which can store dry grains for years. The cool brick warehouses he uses for storage hold 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 Mykolaiv port, he’s had to confront how much longer he can afford to wait and whether his business of 17 years might be doomed. He won’t be selling this latest harvest if the price remains so low. Will he plant in the fall?

“I’ll let you know,” he said. “I still have hope. If I didn’t have 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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