As he sits in his tractor and prepares for another long day planting sunflowers and corn, Adrian Wawrzyniak thinks about the challenges facing his farm in southwest Poland. It’s not bugs or floods or drought that worry him. It’s the farmers across the border in Ukraine.
Like most Poles, Mr. Wawrzyniak backs Ukraine in its war with Russia. But he’s far less enthusiastic about what he and so many other Polish farmers see as the European Union’s ill-conceived support for Ukrainian growers.
The EU dropped its tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural imports last spring and facilitated the westward shipment of grain on rail cars, trucks and river boats. The initiatives were hailed at the time as a demonstration of Europe’s solidarity with Ukraine and a commitment to ensure grain got to countries in need.
But bottlenecks soon developed, and much of the wheat, corn and barley has been piling up in silos across Poland and neighbouring countries. About 2.45 million tonnes of grain have crossed into Poland in the past year, up from 100,000 annually before the war, according to Polish government figures.
The excess has pushed down prices and created a logistical nightmare for farmers like Mr. Wawrzyniak.
“This is really going crazy – something is wrong,” he said.
He has no idea what he’ll do with the crops he’s planting on his 400-hectare farm. His storage sheds are still full of last year’s harvest, and prices for his wheat and corn have fallen 40 per cent. He has already lost about 500,000 zlotych ($163,000) this year, and that’s not taking into account the soaring costs of fertilizer and fuel, which have more than doubled.
“In three months the harvest starts, and I don’t have any space to store the new crop,” he said. “And what we have, I want to sell, but now the price is too low.”
He’s 34 years old with a pregnant wife, a one-year-old son and little else to fall back on. He took over the farm in 2009 from his father, but the couple still rely on Mr. Wawrzyniak’s parents. His mother, Grażyna, handles most of the logistics, while his father, Sławomir, works in the fields with a Ukrainian farmhand who is caring for his daughter and grandson after fleeing the war.
Mr. Wawrzyniak is part of a national farmers’ group, Solidarity NSZZ, which has organized several protests to demand compensation for the EU’s policy on Ukrainian grains. “Poland has given Ukraine €8-billion worth of aid, and nothing has gone to Polish farmers,” he said.
The outcry has rattled Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS, which is facing an election this fall. Much of the party’s support comes from the countryside and farmers like the Wawrzyniak family – devout Catholics who keep a Bible in their living room open to a gospel passage and faithfully cross themselves whenever they pass one of the many religious shrines in the area.
Last month the government announced a 10-billion zlotych package for farmers and banned further imports of Ukrainian grain and foodstuffs. Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria followed with similar bans. “We are and remain unchanged friends and allies of Ukraine,” said PiS Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. “But it is the duty of every state, every authority – good authority in any case – to protect the interests of its citizens.”
The import restrictions caught the EU off guard. Suddenly, some of Ukraine’s biggest supporters in Europe were undermining a key EU effort to backstop Ukraine’s economy.
Agriculture has always been critical to Ukraine. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine was one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, barley and oilseeds, and most of it went to Africa, the Middle East and China. Nearly all the country’s exports were shipped from ports along the Black Sea, but the war has slowed those volumes to a trickle and has left overland routes to Europe as the only viable option.
Last month the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, brokered a compromise and announced restrictions on imports of Ukrainian corn, wheat, rapeseed and sunflower oil into Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary. Those products can only be imported if they are in transit to other countries, and containers must be sealed and tracked while en route. The commission also announced a €100-million program for farmers in those five countries.
The announcement has received mixed reviews. Farmers in Poland are cautiously hopeful but say the financial support isn’t nearly enough considering they’ve lost €2-billion, according to estimates by Solidarity NSZZ.
There are those in Ukraine who say Polish farmers brought these problems on themselves. When commodity prices soared immediately after the war started, they waited too long to sell, hoping for even higher prices. The Polish government also advised them to hold off.
“They were greedy – they wanted to benefit from the situation,” said Viktor Korobko, a grain trader based in Odesa, Ukraine. “This is just a greed and fear situation, that’s it.” He added that Ukrainian farmers are struggling to survive and don’t receive anywhere near the same subsidies from the EU as Polish farmers.
Mr. Wawrzyniak acknowledged that EU financing helped him buy his tractor and other farm equipment. But Polish farmers had to meet strict regulations regarding things such as pesticide use when Poland joined the EU in 2004, he said, something Brussels has not required of Ukrainian farmers, even though they now have tariff-free access to the bloc.
He’s waiting to see the effect of the EU’s import restrictions. But he and Solidarity NSZZ plan to keep up the pressure – they want the restrictions to remain in place for at least a year – and are organizing a march on the EU’s headquarters in Brussels this month.
“Yes, we are still worried,” he said. “But what else can we do?”