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.

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

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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.

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