Serhii Braylovskyy could only watch forlornly as a wall of flames slowly made its way across a wheat field on his farm near Shyriaieve, a small town in southern Ukraine.
Luckily the grain had already been harvested from the roughly four-hectare plot, but the flash fire was yet another set back in what has already been a year of misery for Mr. Braylovskyy and just about every other Ukrainian farmer.
This was supposed to be another record-setting summer for growers with bumper crop yields and booming exports of wheat, barley, corn and oil seeds. But then everything changed when Russian bombs began falling on Feb. 24.
The war immediately forced the closing of Ukraine’s three main ports on the Black Sea, cutting off nearly all exports. As the conflict dragged on, the price for Ukrainian grain plummeted and the cost of inputs such as fuel and fertilizer soared. By harvest time, many farmers were dodging missile strikes as they tried to bring in their crops. On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the harvest will likely be around half of what was expected.
“We hope the war will finish soon because if it doesn’t, you will see the end of agriculture in this area,” Mr. Braylovskyy said as he turned away from the fire.
Back before the war, Mr. Braylovskyy would store up as much grain as possible in a warehouse on the farm and wait for prices to increase. He knew he could move quickly and take advantage of any sudden uptick because the Black Sea ports were just down the road.
Now, he’s selling whatever grain he has for next to nothing just to generate enough cash to keep going. Some grain has been moving by truck, rail or along the Danube River, but the volumes are minuscule and the price paid to farmers is a pittance.
A deal struck last month between Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations to reopen the Black Sea ports would be life-changing for farmers. But the sides can’t agree on the routes the ships would take, leaving the ports firmly closed for now.
The fate of the agreement has been put into further doubt by heavy Russian strikes that hit the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv early on Sunday, killing Oleksiy Vadatursky, the owner of one of the country’s largest grain exporters. Also on Sunday, there was a drone strike on Russia’s naval base in Crimea and the port city of Odesa was recently hit by a Russian rocket attack.
Farming was supposed to be a fresh start for Mr. Braylovskyy. He got into agriculture in 2007 with his father, 64-year old Andre, after they both gave up driving tour buses around Europe. The Braylovskyys are from the Shyriaieve area and Mr. Braylovskyy, 39, had helped farmers with harvesting over the years, so buying a farm wasn’t a big stretch.
It was an auspicious start. “We started with 350 hectares and two broken Soviet tractors,” he recalled with a laugh. The farm has nearly doubled in size to 600 hectares of wheat, barley and corn. Mr. Braylovskyy has also bought three new tractors, a combine and four trucks that he rents out to other farmers to haul grain. He has nine employees and he’s invested heavily over the years in new buildings, weighing scales and equipment.
But without a harvest to sell this year and no guarantees the war will end before winter planting starts, Mr. Braylovskyy is struggling to make ends meet. The best price he can get for his wheat is 31 per cent lower than last year, while his cost per hectare has jumped by more than 40 per cent.
For now, the revenue from the trucking operation has been a saviour but that won’t last much longer and he’s engaged in a constant juggling act to keep everything going. “I expect that half the farmers around here won’t plant this winter,” he said. He doesn’t have much choice but to try and grow a winter crop in order to bring in whatever cash he can. “It will be a big risk for us, but we need to plant.”
There’s also a patriotic motivation. Mr. Braylovskyy can’t fathom sitting on his hands and not farming while young Ukrainian soldiers are dying at the front. “We need to keep the economy running,” he said.
Even before the war started, he’d been facing challenges. This part of Ukraine has always been arid, but Mr. Braylovskyy is convinced that global warming is making things worse. This has been a particularly dry summer and his parched fields have received about a third of the normal rainfall, which has reduced his yield per hectare by 20 per cent.
The same kind of drought two years ago cost him 80 per cent of his crop. “We are feeling climate change the most in this country,” he said.
Then there’s the constant battle with corruption. Last year, Mr. Braylovskyy got into a dispute over a loan he’d taken out from a local bank. The case ended up in court and rather than paying bribes to resolve the matter, Mr. Braylovskyy fought on. He ended up paying 30 per cent more in penalties. “Living honestly costs 30 per cent more in this country,” he said shaking his head. “We need to defeat corruption.”
Later over pizza and juice at a small cafe in Shyriaieve, Mr. Braylovskyy mused about the future of Ukraine as he held his two-year-old daughter on his lap. He talked about the need to end corruption and install leaders that can put the country on the right course. He looked at how far neighbouring Poland had come since it joined the European Union in 2004 and said there was no reason Ukraine couldn’t do just as well.
“With proper management, this country could do anything,” he said. Then he laughed and added: “First we will kick the Russians and then we will move forward.”
With a report from Reuters
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