A small army of combine harvesters swept through an endless agricultural field on a recent afternoon in western Ukraine, throwing clouds of dust into the blue sky as the machines gathered in a sea golden wheat. Mountains of soybeans and corn will be harvested in the coming weeks. This will all add up to a backlog of 20 million tonnes of grain that was trapped in Ukraine during Russia’s grinding war.
Under a landmark deal brokered last week by the United Nations and Turkey, Moscow’s blockade on Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea would be lifted. If all goes as planned, a ship loaded with grain will set sail from a Ukrainian port in the next few days, releasing crops from an important breadbasket to a starving world.
But despite the fanfare in Brussels and Washington, the deal is being greeted with caution in the fields of Ukraine. Farmers who have lived for months under the risk of Russian missile attacks and economic uncertainty are skeptical that a deal will hold.
The roar of combines in these fields is a familiar din at this time of year, but much of the harvest will go straight to storage.
“Opening up Black Sea ports is not in itself the magic answer,” said Georg von Nolcken, chief executive of Continental Farmers Group, a large agribusiness with vast tracts around western Europe. Ukraine. “It’s certainly a step forward, but we can’t assume that the deal will bring Ukraine back to where it was” before the war, he said.
The lockdown triggered wild swings in crop prices and the cost of transporting them. Storage is running out for the latest harvests, leaving many scrambling to find makeshift solutions.
A missile strike on Saturday that hit Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port, shook confidence in the deal and risked undermining the effort before the deal could even be implemented.
“Nobody believes that Russia won’t attack again,” said Vasyl Levko, director of grain storage at MHP, one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural products companies.
There is political will from Ukraine’s allies: the White House has welcomed the deal, as have the United Nations and international aid organizations, which have warned of famine and potential political unrest for longer grain from Ukraine will remain blocked.
Freeing the grain for shipping should alleviate a growing hunger crisis brought about by Russian aggression – not so much because Ukrainian grain can be shipped to desperate countries faster, but because more supplies can help bring down prices, which rose after the war but fell recently. “It’s quite positive,” said Nikolay Gorbachev, director of the Ukrainian Grain Association. “It is possible to find the way.”
Yet even when reopened, Black Sea ports are expected to operate at around half their pre-war capacity, experts say, covering only part of the more than 20 million tonnes of grain on hold. The ships will take a path cleared of Ukrainian mines used to keep Russian vessels out and undergo inspections in Turkey to ensure they are not bringing weapons back to Ukraine.
Our coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war
- Cereal blockade: A groundbreaking deal aims to lift the Russian blockade on Ukrainian grain shipments, easing a global food crisis. But in the fields of Ukraine, farmers are skeptical.
- An ambitious counterattack: Ukraine prepared the ground to retake Kherson from Russia. But the effort would require enormous resources and could take a heavy toll.
- Economic devastation: As food, energy and commodity prices continue to soar around the world, few countries are feeling the bite as much as Ukraine.
- Inside a seat: For 80 days, at the Avtostal steelworks, a relentless Russian assault met unyielding Ukrainian resistance. It was like that for those who were there.
And it is not certain that enough ships will return. Shipping companies that once operated in the Black Sea took other freight routes. Insurers are reluctant to cover vessels in a conflict zone, and without insurance no one will board.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers are grappling with large amounts of trapped grain from last year’s harvest. Before the war, new crops flowed in and out of grain elevators – from harvest to export – like clockwork. But Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea has created a massive pileup.
Around 40 million more tonnes – of wheat, rapeseed, barley, soybeans, maize and sunflower seeds – are expected to be harvested in the coming months. Storage facilities not destroyed by Russian bombing are filling up and space is becoming scarce for freshly harvested crops.
At an MHP grain processing center an hour east of Lviv, a truck full of freshly harvested rapeseed – tiny, shiny and black – dumped its load into a sieve recently. The seed was moved to a dryer and then funneled into a towering silo that still had room available. A nearby silo didn’t: it was full of soybeans stuck there from the previous harvest.
A bigger worry was what to do with the current crop of winter-sown wheat, said Mr Levko, whose company uses the grain to make feed for the chicken farms it owns in Ukraine, as well as grain for export. With its silos at the Lviv site nearing capacity, the wheat will have to be stuffed into long plastic sheaths for temporary storage.
The company was scrambling to buy more sheaths, he said, but Russian rockets destroyed the only Ukrainian factory making them, and European manufacturers are swamped with orders and can’t keep up, Ms. Levko.
After the wheat comes the corn harvest. It will need to be piled on the ground and covered with a tarp to protect it from the thousands of crows and pigeons that hover nearby like dark clouds, as well as autumn rains, which can cause rot, added Mr. Levko.
“The crops will have to be stored everywhere,” he said, sweeping his arm across a vast field. He added that even if the Black Sea unblocking deal works, it could take months for Odessa’s transport capacity to help reduce the accumulation of grain.
In the meantime, farmers are trying to expand an alternative maze of transport routes they have forged across Europe since the outbreak of war.
Before the Russian blockade, Ukraine exported up to seven million tonnes of grain per month, mostly on ships that could carry heavy loads. Since then, Ukraine has only been able to get out around two million tonnes a month, via a hastily paved patchwork of land and river routes.
The Continental Farmers Group used to export its crops through the Black Sea, von Nolcken said. Deliveries by ship could arrive in 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 a circuitous route that involves making a giant counter-clockwise circle around Europe on trucks, trains, barges and ships via Poland , the North Sea and the English Channel, through the Strait of Gibraltar and back down to the Mediterranean, an odyssey that can last up to 18 days.
With so many exporters competing to get grain out of Ukraine, the cost of transporting it soared to around $130-230 a ton, from around $35 before the war, eastern regions close to areas occupied by the Russia facing the biggest price increases, von said. Nolcken added. At the same time, grain prices in Ukraine fell by about two-thirds because the blockade left farmers with too much grain, threatening the livelihoods of many.
European countries have worked hard to solve one of the biggest challenges: transporting grain by rail. Previously, Ukraine’s 38,000 grain wagons carried crops mostly to Black Sea ports, but they ran on Soviet-era tracks that don’t match those in Europe. Thus, rail shipments destined elsewhere must now be transferred to other trains once they reach the border.
The biggest opportunity to increase exports is in trucks. Roman Slaston, the head of Ukraine’s main agricultural lobby, said his group aims to deliver 40,000 tonnes of grain per day by truck. In June, the trucks were taking out 10,000 tons a day.
But this still only clears part of Ukraine’s backlog. And with so much extra traffic on the road, border crossings are blocked. It now takes four days – instead of four hours, before the war – for grain trucks to cross from Ukraine to Poland, said MFP’s Mr Levko. Crossing the Serbian border takes 10 days instead of two. The European Union is trying to facilitate safeguards with expedited border clearances.
“The question is, how long will the situation last?” said Mr. von Nolcken. “On February 24, everyone thought it would be a week-long exercise. More than 150 days later, we are talking about opening the ports again, with reservations.
But Ukraine still faces a harsh reality. Despite the war, the harvest has been abundant so far this year.
“We are creating a grain tsunami, producing more than we can export,” von Nolcken added. “We will always be sitting on crops that won’t come out.”
Erika Solomon contributed reporting from Lviv, Ukraine.