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Yury Anatoliyovych directs a tractor to dispense insecticide on one of his fields, preparing it to sow flaxseed, in Ukraine's northern Kherson oblast on May 25, 2022. 'We don’t know whether we will harvest or not. But we at least need to try,' he said.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

With Black Sea ports blocked by the Russian navy and the world on the precipice of food shortfalls, Ukraine’s efforts to deliver its grains to market have been snarled by slow border crossings that have created an immense backup on the country’s rail lines.

Ukrainian Railways now counts more than 9,000 grain cars loaded and ready for export to other parts of Europe. But only about 450 cars a day are moving out of the country, and Ukraine’s efforts to double that number have run into a series of problems.

Customs and health inspections have delayed cross-border movements already slowed by the need to transload cargoes from Ukraine’s wider gauge track to the narrower European standard. European countries have struggled to marshal sufficient space in granaries and railcars to move the vast quantities of Ukrainian grains. And insurers have made it nearly impossible for European grain cars to enter Ukraine, demanding deposits of 80 per cent of their value – despite Ukrainian government pledges to compensate losses.

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“This is slowing us down,” said Viacheslav Yeromin, an executive who heads the freight division of Ukrainian Railways. He has pushed to resolve the bottlenecks, but admits that frustration has made him undiplomatic. Roughly 20 million tonnes of last year’s harvest remain in Ukraine, and the new harvest will begin soon.

“We understand that old Europe is well-fed with a nice quality of life and slow decision-making. But we really would like it if they would run at the same speed we are,” he said.

Three months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the country’s frustrated attempts to export its agricultural products have come to embody the broader war, which Ukraine has fought with immense stamina but which, it has said, it cannot win alone.

Agricultural goods are not the only products struggling to get out of Ukraine. In total, 36,500 railcars are moving toward Europe, loaded with containers, iron ore and other materials. That’s enough to fill a continuous line of track more than 400 kilometres in length.

Ukraine’s agricultural and industrial sectors have been built around moving goods through the Black Sea, where ports around Odesa and Mykolaiv have served as the critical bridge connecting one of the world’s great bread baskets with distant grocery stores and dinner plates.

Agricultural economists estimate that Ukraine provides food for 350 million people.

The closure of those ports by the Russian navy has prompted a race to find alternatives. Efforts to increase exports via the Danube have, to date, fallen far short of government goals. The railway has considerable transport capacity, since it previously moved more than half of the country’s grain to ports. But getting trainloads out of Ukraine has proven far more difficult.

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It has become clear that Ukraine’s network of rail tracks and roads cannot replace more than a fraction of the capacity of its shipping ports. Russia’s naval blockade amounts to “a cheap and efficient way to strangle us and the world,” said Andrey Kuzmenko, a shipping executive in Odesa.

The situation is growing more acute. Ukrainian farmers are now a month from beginning the 2022 harvest, as winter wheat and rye mature. Some are investing in their own trucks to self-dispatch product out of the country.

Meanwhile, Gro Intelligence, a New York-based agricultural analysis firm, has warned that global wheat stockpiles have fallen to just 10 weeks of supply. That comes as wheat-growing regions around the world report their lowest levels of soil moisture in more than a decade – although Russian farmers have benefited from favourable weather, and may see a rise in output this year. Such an outcome stands to give Russia even greater leverage over global food supplies.

Ukraine’s farmers have shown fortitude under fire. In the early days of the war, some used tractors to tow away tanks. With the arrival of spring, those living near conflict areas have sown and fertilized under fire. The country has succeeded in planting nearly three-quarters of its fields.

They have done so with no assurance that they will be able to sell their crops – or even that their fields will be sufficiently free of fighting to allow for the collection of what grows. Commodity prices are another unknown. At the moment, farmers able to sell their goods are doing so at a loss.

“We don’t know whether we will harvest or not. But we at least need to try,” said Yury Anatoliyovych, a farmer in northern Kherson oblast, as he watched a tractor spray insecticide on one of his fields, preparing it to sow flaxseed. It was among the last of his 1,500 hectares to be planted this year.

Putting seeds in the ground this year has at times required courage. Mr. Anatoliyovych and Serhii Dolezhanskyi, a colleague, have tilled fields pocked by mortars and plucked rocket tails from the earth to continue their work.

Mr. Dolezhanskyi described working on one strip of land between Ukrainian and Russian artillery positions, at the front line in the northern part of Kherson oblast.

“When the Russians fire, their shells land in that field,” he said. “When they stop shooting, we quickly sneak in to apply herbicide.” Artillery shells have landed before and behind Mr. Dolezhanskyi’s home.

Financial anxiety has added to the pressure on local farmers. Nick Melnik works 3,000 hectares with his father, who has farmed for 40 years. “For the first time in our lives, we have borrowed money from the government,” he said. “To be honest, we wanted to sow only half of our fields. But the government insisted that we plant them all,” to support global food stocks.

Mr. Melnik has taken matters into his own hands, dispatching four trucks with sunflower oil to Bulgaria as a test. He is contemplating the purchase of more trucks. Shipping costs nearly 10 times what it did before, and fuel shortages add to the complexity. But “there is no choice here,” Mr. Melnik said. “The winner is whoever can assemble a logistics chain.”

Still, he knows there is only so much he can do. “We are really waiting on the international community to find us a solution to unblock our ports, because this has become a problem for all of us,” he said.

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