“…the life of some forty million people depended on how the rates on various grains were set this season by the Odessa brokers in the bulletin.”

Vladimir Jabotinsky, The Five

ODESA, Ukraine — July begins the Ukrainian wheat harvest, and the stalks from the humus-saturated soil near the Black Sea are chest-high and golden. A 20-minute car ride separates the port city of Odesa from wheat fields that, aside from a line of low trees, extend north and east without visible end. The only natural sound is a loud whisper the wind elicits every minute or so from the expanse of grain.

But it isn’t a time of plenty in the breadbasket of Europe, and not only because Russia, for now, says it won’t continue the arrangement it made with the United Nations and Turkey that for a year permitted 32 million tons of Ukrainian grain to be exported from the country’s massive southern ports. The present war has stunted Ukraine’s grain industry at every stage, beginning months before harvest time.

Though blessed with an abundance of wheat-friendly chernozem — the Russian term for “black earth” — most Ukrainians fertilize their soil. “There’s a great shortage of nitrogen fertilizers,” says Denis Tkachenko, who helps run a trade association of Odesa region farms including about 12,000 acres. Fertilization means more grain enriched with the proteins enabling wheat to be baked into bread; poorer crops can be sold more cheaply for animal feed.

Before the war, Russia was a large exporter of fertilizer and also of ammonium, which is essential to the fertilizers used by farmers like those Tkachenko represents. Ukraine has some capacity to synthesize fertilizer for itself, but two of its major fertilizer plants are now controlled by Russia. The price of fertilizer shot up after the February 2022 invasion (and Russia’s temporary decision not to export any of its own) and has since come down, but not enough, Tkachenko says, for farmers to afford enough for every field.

And there are many fewer fields. More than a quarter of Ukraine’s grain country lies east of the Dnieper River, and has been controlled or threatened by Russia since the February 2022 invasion. Even in the relatively safe southwest, the Ukrainian military has commandeered — thereby disabling — a lot of farmland. Tkachenko says that about 3 to 5 percent of the fields in his region were fortified early in the war against a possible Russian sea invasion. Another farmer in the area tells me that a third of his nearly 10,000 acres have been used for trenches, mining and the like.

People seen rebuilding a destroyed farmhouse in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine.

Russia’s decision not to renew the U.N. Grain Initiative is painful to the industry, but even while the grain corridor functioned, Ukrainian farmers, merchants and officials reconsidered how to produce and to move the 40 percent of exports that 14 percent of the country’s labor force grows in fields. Forty percent of the agricultural total is grain — mostly corn, wheat, and barley — which for generations has departed Ukraine’s giant southern ports into the Black Sea, now patrolled by a hostile Russian navy. In 2021, Ukraine produced over 30 million tons of wheat, 9 million tons of barley, and over 40 million tons of corn — high numbers that declined by a third in 2022 and are expected to go down further in 2023.

Wartime changes to the grain industry — likely to be hastened by Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal — have been costly to farmers and to the country, which now finds itself in an unpleasant economic competition with friendly wartime neighbors like Poland and Romania. Shortages of land and labor combined with decent harvests elsewhere compelled many Ukrainian farmers to sell crops at a loss.

For farmers who’ve been able to work their land, the largest challenge has been transportation. Before the present conflict, nearly all grain left Ukraine through major ports on the Black Sea. Over the past 12 months, a third has instead traveled on trucks over narrow highways to river barges on the Danube River, or ports in Poland and Romania, where local workers resent competition from Ukrainian crops and truckers.

Because so much of Ukraine’s economy depends on agriculture generally and on grain specifically, how the country manages the current grain crisis will help determine whether it can both profitably grow food within its borders and remain popular outside them, even once the war is over.

I spent two weeks in and around Odesa this month talking to farmers, who expressed sorrow about not planting and harvesting all their fields, but not resentment or anger. In fact, I don’t think that I met anyone who was resentful about anything having to do with the war (though I’m told there’s an ongoing dispute about whether Pushkin Street should be renamed after a non-Russian). The city of Odesa is still dotted with sandbags from an urban self-defense operation at the beginning of the war that encircled the city’s grand Vienna-style opera house with fences and guard posts. Air raid sirens go off once or twice per day, most people ignore them, and life seems normal. People go to the beach — against official warnings — and sit at cafes and observe the midnight curfew. A performance of the opera Orfeo ed Euridice enticed over a hundred people to sit for several hours in a large and conspicuous building, on a hot July day, without air conditioning. Except for the ongoing war and the shrinking of the city’s Jewish population, Odesa seems much the way it does in The Five, a short novel by the Odesa-born revisionist Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky. Despite being written over a century ago, a local academic friend tells me, it remains the best depiction of the city.

The urban and rural Ukrainians I’ve met abide life within range of Russian missiles — and sometimes very near their targets — with a plucky cool. My Odesa friend tells me that the recent strike on the port damaged her favorite restaurant, injured one person, thank God no one was killed, and she now has to leave for an appointment.

The exemplar of this wry nonchalance is also one of the Ukrainians I met who had the least reason for it — a farmer named Oleg whose land in the tiny village of Myrne (close to the port city of Mykolaiv) straddled the line of battle for a period early in the war. When I say it’s Oleg’s land, I mean that he plants the seeds and drives the tractors and reaps the harvest. The agricultural businessmen I met near Odesa dressed in snazzy jeans and sneakers and had clean, soft hands. When I extend mine to Oleg, he laughs and shows me that they are covered with black grease from the machine he’s been repairing.

Oleg's neighbor's destroyed kitchen in Myrne, Mykoliav Oblast. The neighbor spent his whole life saving to build the house, which was destroyed by Russian shells.

Oleg shows me around his neighbor’s facilities, starting with an exploded missile that’s only a bit shorter than he is. A storage house that once held many tons of grain had its roof punched out by rockets now stacked in a pile near some wrecked tractors. Oleg’s neighbor owns over a thousand acres of land that last summer’s fighting kept him from harvesting — or from living close to. Oleg shows me what used to be the kitchen and the living room of the destroyed house his neighbor saved up his whole life to build.

I notice the kitchen is not entirely out of use, however, as a woman of about 70, 5 feet tall and wearing a green cloth dress decorated with white flowers, comes out of a nearby yard and introduces herself as Ada. When her son — Oleg’s neighbor — decamped for Mykolaiv after his house was destroyed, Ada remained in a converted underground storage house. She grows potatoes, tomatoes and onions, and tends to the grape vines her deceased husband loved to pick from. (It’s not the first time Ada has preferred the farm to a journey to a more hospitable place — her sister left Ukraine years ago for New York, she reports with bemusement.)

Oleg and his wife and sons also stayed, and he’s rented and harvested neighboring land while his own is sown with mines. (He asked me not to use his last name, since Myrne was contested during the war and may become so again if things go very badly for Ukraine.) Oleg proudly shows me a newish John Deere tractor, both more expensive and more dependable than the Belorussian models used by the farmers I met in Odesa. The grain Oleg is compelled to leave unpicked looks sickly and stunted, and shares the field with useless green thistle and what look like giant weeds. The Ukrainian army has assured Oleg that the makeshift road cut through the fields is safe to drive on, and Oleg is careful not to veer off it to the right or to the left.

We pass what looks to be a grandfather, grown daughter, and grandson trio schlepping hand-harvested grain in white bags on the backs of old bicycles, an indication that Oleg is one of the more prosperous farmers in the area. What Oleg says is an abandoned Russian tank position — all that’s left is a partially incinerated can of Russian kasha, or buckwheat porridge — abuts a small reservoir that the Russians drained while they were here. The lengthy, 5-foot-deep basin once full of clean water is now filled with garbage.

A view of crops rotting near Izium, Ukraine.

Impoverished, damaged, and abandoned farms may be the most vivid wound Moscow has lately inflicted on Ukraine’s grain industry, but a great shift in how grain moves through and out of Ukraine may abide long after the present conflict cools down. Even after Russia occupied five Ukrainian ports in 2014, the ports near the mouth of the Dnieper River (like Mykolaiv and Kherson) and the trio known as Big Odesa — Pivdennyi, Chornomorsk, Odesa itself — managed nearly the whole grain trade.

The Russian navy prevented Black Sea ports under Ukrainian control from exporting for the first five months of the war, but even under the now-suspended U.N. Grain Initiative, Black Sea ports exported only half the volume of grain they handled in peacetime. (During the best month of the initiative, October 2022, it was 75 percent, about 4.5 million tons, according to one official.) The rest left the country via the Danube River, automobile, and railway — 18.5 million tons, 5.5 million tons, and 11.2 million tons, respectively, from June 1, 2022, to July 30, 2023, according to the Ukrainian Grain Association.

Top: A pile of exploded rockets in a field on Oleg's farm in Myrne, Mykolaiv Oblast. Bottom: A barge carrying grain from Ukraine through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey. Before the present conflict, nearly all grain left Ukraine through major ports on the Black Sea, often eventually traveling through the Bosphorus Strait.

The large shift was both smaller than it would’ve been had Ukraine enjoyed a normal harvest season in 2022 and difficult at every step. Begin with the Danube, which hosts three sizable Ukrainian river ports at Izmail, Reni and Ust-Danube. Though large river barges can each carry over 10,000 tons of cargo, the most popular vessels now operating on the Danube carry only six to eight, according to Ivan Niyakiy, a former agent from the Transship Group and now the head of Soul Marine, a logistics company. By contrast, ships leaving Big Odesa can carry 50,000-100,000 tons of grain taken from one of the dozens of massive terminals clustered at the ports. The Danube has nothing like that infrastructure, which is why companies like Niyakiy’s are building new terminals there. Soul Marine expects its 20,000-ton terminal to be up and running this autumn, but even 10 such terminals would have the capacity of just a single terminal in Odesa. And grain that leaves Ukraine on a river barge can’t remain on a river barge. “You cannot carry grain with these little [river] vessels from Ismail to China,” Ivan explains, but needs transferring to larger vessels before it can go all over the world. 

Even getting the grain from the fields to the river is harder than getting it to the sea. Niyakiy tells me that the 125-mile drive from Odesa to Ismail can take up to seven hours and cost twice as much as trucking crops from the region to the Black Sea ports. Ukraine’s two-lane highways aren’t equipped for the current number of trucks, no matter how aggressively drivers pass one another on the road shoulders or across the median.

There are other reasons besides poor highways why the transition from maritime to land exports has been difficult. The wheels on Ukrainian train cars are not compatible with Polish and Romanian railroads. Trucks at the Polish and Romanian borders wait in long lines even under an initiative called Solidarity Lanes meant to smooth the entry of Ukrainian exports into the European Union. A major problem, says an executive at a U.S.-based logistics company, is that Ukraine’s longtime dependence on the Black Sea has left its dry-port infrastructure ill-equipped to process the current level of freight trucks. Bridges are too low or can’t support large numbers of vehicles. Waiting times at borders can be many hours.

A truck driver looks out the window of his truck as truck drivers queue on over 10 kilometers at the Rava-Ruska border checkpoint on the Ukrainian-Polish border. Ukraine's grain exports have transited through the EU to other countries since the war-torn nation's traditional Black Sea routes were blocked by the Russian invasion. | YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images

So long as a hostile Russian navy commands the Black Sea, land borders with the European Union will remain the most reliable way to transport cargo. But doing so even at current levels has political costs. Widespread dumping of Ukrainian grain onto Polish markets has angered Polish farmers, and the presence of thousands of Ukrainian truckers has strained local transportation companies there and in Romania. In June, the European Union expanded a ban on Ukrainian exports of grain to include Poland; at least until September 15, it will be legal only for Ukrainian grain to transit through Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary to the ports in those countries.

The EU ruling infuriated the Ukrainian government, which now finds itself in economic competition with the same countries that serve as conduits for Western weapons into Ukraine. Even once the war ends, the economic acrimony may not, especially if the Russians decide to continue making trouble on the Black Sea. They were doing so even in the weeks before the war, Dmytro Barinov, deputy head of the Ukraine Sea Port Authority, told me in an interview. In early February 2022, the Russian navy announced “exercises” that inhibited grain ships from traveling.

A partially incinerated can of Russian kasha — buckwheat porridge — held by Oleg, a farmer in Myrne, Mykolaiv Oblast.

Some Ukrainian officials both bristle at Russian malfeasance during the grain deal and don’t quite see another way to do things. “Every day, they block what they can,” Barinov says, referring to excessive inspections, delays in paperwork, arbitrary withholding of permits and other Russian methods of obstructing the grain deal in practice while it was in effect on paper.

It’s unclear whether the deal is coming back. Western officials were furious at the Russian non-renewal, and it’s possible that the dependence of poor nations on Ukrainian grain (directly and through U.N. programs) will induce Ukraine’s allies to escort grain ships through the Black Sea. Russian maritime belligerence may be self-defeating in the long term, as Ukraine realizes that it’s better off investing in land infrastructure that isn’t as vulnerable to Moscow. For now, Barinov emphasizes, that “without ports, it’s impossible.”

Even so, if Ukraine wishes to export its staple crops in the volumes at which it is accustomed to produce them, the impossible may have to become possible.

I suspect it will. I spent a very hot 4th of July in a gold wheat field under a blue sky — exactly the scene depicted on the Ukrainian flag. As I admired the expanse, I noticed that my excellent and normally composed translator began to stutter a bit. “Sorry,” he said, “it’s the grain.” I looked confused. “It is my Ukrainian nature,” he explained.

A people so moved by the produce of its land will not easily consent to part with either.

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