Ukraine farmers running on empty

PARIS: After making it through the spring planting season, sometimes with the help of bulletproof vests and helmets, Ukraine’s farmers are facing another challenge – finding enough diesel for the harvest to come.

The war with Russia cut fuel supplies just as farmers stepped up work for the spring season and they have lost about 85% of their normal supplies since the conflict started on Feb 24, farmers, fuel distributors and analysts say.

The total area planted with grain this spring is already expected to be up to 30% smaller than last year because of the fighting, and yields could drop too if farmers don’t get fuel so they can apply chemicals and harvest crops at the right time.

Ukraine was the world’s fourth largest grain exporter last season, shipping staples such as wheat and maize to Africa and the Middle East, as well as supplying half the grain procured by the UN’s World Food Programme for emergency aid.

With Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blockaded, getting crops out is fast becoming a global issue and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is attempting to broker a deal for grain shipments to resume – and calm world food markets.

In the year to the end of June 2021, Ukraine exported 45 million tonnes of grain. It had been expected to ramp that up to 65 million after a record harvest late last year but the war has left some 21 million tonnes stranded in silos.

And while security has been the most pressing issue for farmers so far, with swathes of land cut off by Russian advances or damaged by shelling, fuel shortages are starting to bite as the next harvest looms.

“Fuel is the biggest problem at the moment, more than anything,” said Kees Huizinga, a Dutch national who runs a 15,000ha farm.

Ukrainian farmers use most of the 1.5 million tonnes of diesel they consume each year, or more than 10% of Ukraine’s annual fuel demand, in the spring season.

Ukraine usually relies on Russia, Belarus and imports from elsewhere coming in by sea for most of its fuel.

Now, Ukraine has been forced to embark on costly and complex ways to bring in fuel via land from neighbours such as Poland and Romania, though a lack of capacity and red tape has slowed these efforts, the Ukrainian Oil and Gas Association said.

That task has become more daunting as countries nearby are facing their own diesel shortages.

Farms have also adjusted crop plans. Notably, they have shifted away from corn as it is intensive to grow and can produce bumper harvests that could overwhelm Ukraine’s already brimming grain silos.

Instead, they are opting more for barley, soybeans and sunflower seeds because they are cheaper crops to grow and generate smaller volumes once harvested.

With timing so important for farming, fuel to power machines can be a make-or-break factor, said Mike Lee, director of Green Square Agro Consulting, which specialises in crop analysis in the Black Sea region.

“If you don’t have diesel, you can’t drive a tractor, no matter how much fertiliser and seed you have.” — Reuters

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