Second year of the war: Ukrainian farmers are left with no harvest

The thick white hoses full of wheat on the farm are Dietrich Treis's pride, his yield this year - and at the same time his biggest problem.

Second year of the war: Ukrainian farmers are left with no harvest

The thick white hoses full of wheat on the farm are Dietrich Treis's pride, his yield this year - and at the same time his biggest problem. Because like agriculture in Ukraine as a whole, the German agricultural company UIFK Agro near Kiev is left with the harvest. Of course he could sell the wheat, says managing director Treis: "I would now get 80 to 90 euros per ton from the farm. But that doesn't cover the costs." Otherwise, wheat is currently traded on the stock exchanges for around 235 euros a ton.

The Russian war of aggression is now hitting the major agricultural producer Ukraine for the second year. Ukrainian grain is important for stability on the world market and for supplying poorer countries. Until July, Ukraine was still able to export wheat, corn, oilseeds and fertilizer across the Black Sea - a maritime corridor negotiated by the United Nations and Turkey made this possible.

War restricts exports

But since then Russia has blocked the main export route again. Ukrainian grain has to make expensive journeys abroad via river ports on the Danube or by train - against resistance from neighbors such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia on the eastern edge of the EU.

The government in Kiev expects a total harvest of 79 million tons this year - 10 percent more than in 2022. "Around 25 percent of the harvested grain is enough for domestic needs, the rest has to be exported," says Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. "Because that means income for the farmers, foreign currency for the state and food for starving countries."

Treis, a mechanical engineer, has been working in Ukraine since 1999. He has been managing director of UIFK Agro since 2017 and believed that he had actually put the difficult years behind him. “We bought a completely new machine park here,” he says. A German investor's company grows wheat, corn, sunflowers, rapeseed and rye on 6,500 hectares. This is a medium-sized company by Ukrainian standards; It is located in the village of Korshi, about 60 kilometers east of the capital Kiev.

Beware of mines in the field

Sunflowers are harvested on this warm autumn day. Combine harvesters cut off the dried out plants in the field. One truck after another transports the black mass of sunflower seeds to the high silo on the farm. Production manager Alexander Zein monitors the work in the field. And he makes sure that all vehicles only use secured, mine-free access roads. He points to the edge of the forest, where no combine harvester is allowed to come too close. In the spring of 2022, Russian positions were in the next village.

Mines and bullet residue are another problem for Ukrainian agriculture in addition to sales difficulties. Zein and Treis report that farmers in their region also drove tractors onto mines. According to the Interior Ministry in Kiev, 174,000 square kilometers or 30 percent of the country's area is affected by war. Around 80,000 square kilometers of agricultural land could not be used - more than the area of ​​Bavaria. The most fertile black earth soils are in the east and south of Ukraine - exactly where there is fighting.

In the first spring of the war in 2022, the Russians withdrew from the Kiev area just in time; Treis was able to have the fields cultivated. Even after the mine search, his people sat on the tractor wearing protective vests. In 2022, business was still “pretty normal,” he says. "But we had 30 percent less revenue."

In the spring of this year he had 4,000 tons of corn brought to the Black Sea port of Pivdennyj. When Russia blocked the grain corridor, 3,000 tons were able to be diverted to Reni on the Danube. But 1,000 tons of corn are still stuck in the Black Sea.

Too few wagons for transport abroad

The 2023 summer harvest could only be brought west by rail. But wagons are in short supply. Grain traders in Ukraine find Polish customs clearance at the EU's external border to be slow. A train travels to Germany for up to two weeks. Treis does not understand Warsaw's accusation that Ukrainian grain is being squandered in Poland. "I'm not interested in dumping if I can earn more money elsewhere."

It is simply the case that every amount of grain in the EU affects prices for all farmers. Treis hopes for solidarity with Ukraine. "All EU states are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and are committed to free trade. This should not only apply when times are easy," he says.

The situation of the companies is critical

If this summer's wheat is not sold soon, farmers will lack money for wages and seeds for the next sowing. Many companies' existence is threatened. “The situation is very critical for farmers, large and small,” says Ukrainian farmer Alexander Felschun.

He farms just over 1,000 hectares in the village of Bobryk near Kiev. His company was occupied by Russian soldiers in spring 2022. Six tractors and five cars were destroyed, he says. He had the fields cleared of mines at his own expense.

Felschun used to sell some of his corn to Ukrainian chicken farms and export some of it. This summer the corn harvest was mediocre due to the long drought. At some point, he hopes, exports across the Black Sea will be possible again as before. "We want the war to end as quickly as possible. Now everyone should work for victory."