A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Planting season has arrived in many parts of the world, including Ukraine. The country is one of the largest producers of wheat, corn and sunflower oil. But the war has wreaked havoc on the so-called bread basket of Europe. The Ministry of Agriculture now says that 30% of farmland is occupied or unsafe. The disruptions have led to surging prices, raising fears of food shortages in parts of the developing world. NPR correspondent Franco Ordoñez takes us to a farm in northeast Ukraine, just across the border from Russia.
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FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: On a rainy afternoon, Anatolii Kulibaba walked slowly through the mud past his red combine to a dark pickup truck on his property. The windshield is smashed. The doors are caved in. The grill is riddled with bullet holes. It's all that's left of his son's confrontation with the Russians early in the war.
ANATOLII KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) He was just 45. He had his whole life ahead of him.
ORDOÑEZ: He was driving into his little village just as Russian soldiers were trying to take control of it. Two months later, the 70-year-old Kulibaba is trying to work through the pain, but he's struggling. His son Oleksandr handled most of the duties of the farm. Kulibaba says he could really use Oleksandr's help right now trying to restart production after those same Russian forces took over their farm.
KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) This is where the firing position was - so many machine guns.
ORDOÑEZ: Kulibaba explains how he was forced to flee when hundreds of Russian troops took over the land near the village of Bilka, less than 25 miles from the Russian border. They killed and cooked his pigs, slept in his barn and parked their tanks in his cornfield.
KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) My fields were destroyed by the shelling.
ORDOÑEZ: By the time he returned four weeks later, the Russians had used his tractors to dig up trenches and ripped up much of his 200 hectares of land with their heavy tanks. They stole 10,000 liters of his fuel. They took the batteries out of his combines.
KULIBABA: (Speaking Ukrainian).
ORDOÑEZ: He thinks he can maybe farm half of the land now, but he doesn't really know.
KULIBABA: (Through interpreter) We are afraid to go out there. We don't know where the mines are.
ORDOÑEZ: Ukraine and Russia account for over a quarter of the world's wheat exports. And it's not just farmers on the front line, like Kulibaba, who have been impacted by this war. Gas prices are surging, and farmers across the country are struggling to find fertilizer to grow new crops. And whatever they will produce is going to be even harder to sell. Ukrainian grains have been stuck in makeshift silos across the country and, particularly, by ports near Odesa along the Black Sea, their main export route. The Russians have blocked ships from departing and, according to the Ukrainians, left naval mines for those that try to sneak by.
SERGII LESHCHENKO: This year we're going to have much less harvest. But it's important to have one, at least to cover internal needs.
ORDOÑEZ: Sergii Leshchenko is a senior adviser to President Zelenskyy's chief of staff. He says they've tried to expand new export routes to the west by train and south via small ports along the Danube River. But he says it's far from sufficient.
LESHCHENKO: There is still a bottleneck for proper export of Ukrainian foods. It's impossible without making Odesa region work properly.
ELENA NEROBA: We're talking about hunger.
ORDOÑEZ: That's trade analyst Elena Neroba, who says families in developing nations who rely on Ukrainian wheat will now struggle to afford more expensive wheat. She points to places like Indonesia that get 28% of its wheat from Ukraine and Bangladesh that gets 21%. Egypt imports almost 80% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia.
NEROBA: Russian behavior, Russian invasion will lead not just to death in Ukraine, but in a few months, people start dying all over the world from hunger.
ORDOÑEZ: Mariia Bogonos is the head of the Center for Food and Land Use Research at the Kyiv School of Economics. She says the war has set the Ukrainian agriculture sector back years, especially after gains made in developing healthier and organic crops. She said it was hard enough trying to recover from the 2014 Russian invasion in the east.
MARIIA BOGONOS: It's painful - I mean, how much effort was put into developing this sector, so moving from Soviet past to this market-oriented way of living. And now we have to stop all this and talk about food security again.
ORDOÑEZ: While the United States does not import Ukrainian wheat, Joe Glauber says it will not be immune from the supply shock. Glauber is a former chief economist for the Department of Agriculture. He says American consumers will likely see prices go up on many wheat-based products, from bread to cereal to noodles to pizza.
JOE GLAUBER: The loss of Ukraine right now - in the sense that no grain is moving out of their ports - has pushed up prices 20%, 25% over price levels which were already high and rising.
VALERII KYSELOV: (Speakin Ukrainian).
ORDOÑEZ: Kulibaba's son-in-law, Valerii Kyselov, motions to the barn where the Russians spent the night. Spent munitions and discarded meal packs litter the ground under a rickety trailer. He promises it's safe, that there are no mines, and walks inside. The bales of hay upstairs where the Russians slept still have impressions of their bodies. On the wall, they left a message that depicts NATO soldiers in a sexual act and insults the Pentagon. Kyselov explains that it's been weeks since the farm produced any income. The family is starting to worry about Kulibaba and whether he'll be able to pay back the loans he used to purchase his combine and other expensive equipment.
KYSELOV: (Through interpreter) If you can plan, you can pay your loan. But the Russians took away the possibility to earn money.
ORDOÑEZ: He also worries how his father-in-law is dealing with the trauma of losing his son. Kulibaba insists the farm will survive. It will take time to clear the mines, but it will produce again. What's harder, he said, is dealing with the loss of his son and just trying to understand why all this happened.
KULIBABA: (Speaking Ukrainian).
ORDOÑEZ: "We are peaceful people," he says. "We did not attack anyone. We're on our own land." And he says he'll never understand any of this.
Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Bilka, Ukraine.
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