Olena Lysenko for NPR
BILKA, Ukraine — For Ukrainian farmer Anatolii Kulibaba, this year’s planting season comes with angst. Kulibaba is among the many who were forced to flee their homeland when Russian forces moved in with their tanks.
In the early days of the war, Russian soldiers dealt an even crueler blow: Kulibaba’s son, Oleksandr, was killed as he traveled to his village of Bilka, 25 miles from the Russian border.
“I was only 45 years old. I had my whole life ahead of me,” says Kulibaba.
Two months later, Kulibaba, 70, is still trying to work through the pain, but it’s a struggle. He desperately misses his son, who also ran most of the farm chores.
Kulibaba says he could really use Oleksandr’s help right now, trying to restart production after Russian forces took control and destroyed parts of his farm.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, and the war has wreaked havoc on the so-called “breadbasket of Europe”. Together, Ukraine and Russia account for more than a quarter of world wheat exports. Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture now says that 30% of the country’s farmland is occupied or unsafe.
Kulibaba says Russian troops slept in his barn, slaughtered and cooked his pigs, and parked their tanks in his cornfields.
“My fields were destroyed by shelling,” says Kulibaba.
When he returned to the farm in April, some four weeks after fleeing, the Russians had used their tractors to dig trenches and leveled much of his 494 acres with their heavy tanks. She had more than 2,600 gallons of fuel stolen and the batteries removed from her harvesters.
He thinks that maybe he can farm half his land now, but he doesn’t really know. There is no sure way that he can assess.
“We are afraid to go out,” he says. “We don’t know where the mines are.”
Ukraine’s export routes are blocked
In Ukraine, it is not just those on the front lines, like Kulibaba, who have been affected. Gasoline prices are rising and farmers are struggling to find fertilizer to grow new crops. And whatever they produce will be even harder to sell.
Ukrainian grain has been stuck in makeshift silos across the country and particularly in port cities like Odessa, along its main export route, the Black Sea. The Russians have blocked the boats from leaving and, according to the Ukrainians, have left naval mines for those trying to sneak past.
“This year, we are going to have a much smaller harvest,” says Sergii Leshchenko, senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff. “But it is important [have a harvest]at least to cover internal needs”.
Leshchenko says that the government is working to help with global needs. They have tried to expand new export routes west by rail and south through small ports along the Danube River. But he says that is far from enough.
“There are still [a] bottleneck for the proper export of Ukrainian food,” he says. “It is impossible without making the Odessa region work properly.”
Experts warn of food shortages and rising prices
Disruptions from the war have caused prices to rise and have raised fears of food shortages in parts of the developing world. kyiv-based trade analyst Elena Neroba warns that the global impacts will be profound, as families in developing countries that relied on Ukrainian crops will struggle to afford more expensive wheat.
He points to places like Indonesia, which imports 28% of its wheat from the Ukraine, and Bangladesh, which receives 21%. Egypt imports nearly 80% of its wheat from the Ukraine and Russia.
“The Russian invasion will not only cause deaths in Ukraine,” he warns. “But in a few months, people will start to starve all over the world.”
The war has set Ukraine’s agricultural sector back years, especially after advances made in developing organic and healthier crops, according to Mariia Bogonos, director of the Center for Food and Land Use at the kyiv School of Economics.
She says it was quite difficult trying to recover from the 2014 Russian invasion of the east.
“It’s painful,” says Bogonos. “How much effort was put into developing this sector. So going from [the] Soviet past to this market-oriented way of life. And now we have to stop all this and go back to talking about food security in the country.”
While the United States does not import Ukrainian wheat, it will not be immune to the supply shock.
Joe Glauber, a former chief economist at the Department of Agriculture, says American consumers are likely to see prices rise for wheat-based products, from bread to cereal to pizza.
“Ukraine’s loss right now, in the sense that no grain leaves its ports, has pushed prices up 25% above price levels, which were already high and rising,” says Glauber, lead researcher of the International Food Policy Research Institute, referring to increases since the beginning of the war. “And that’s central to this story in that the markets were already tight with low inventories and very high prices, the highest prices we’ve seen in about 10 years for many commodities, even before the Russian invasion.”
Getting family farms back up and running will be tough
Kulibaba’s son-in-law, Valeria Kyselov, points to the barn where the Russians spent most of their time while occupying the family farm in Bilka. Spent ammunition and discarded food packages litter the ground beneath a dilapidated trailer.
Kyselov promises that there are no mines inside and goes up to the second floor. The hay bales above still bear traces of where the Russians slept.
On the wall, a crossed out message refers to NATO soldiers in a sexual act and insults the Pentagon.
It’s been weeks since the farm produced any income, says Kyselov. The family is beginning to worry about whether Kulibaba will be able to repay the loans he used to buy his harvester and other expensive equipment, some of which has been stolen.
“If you can plan, you can pay off your loan,” Kyselov said. “But the Russians took away the possibility of making money.”
She is also concerned about how her father-in-law is dealing with the trauma of losing his son.
Kulibaba insists that the farm will survive. It will take time to clear the mines, but he promises that he will produce again.
What is more difficult, he says, is dealing with the loss of Oleksandr and trying to understand why all this had to happen.
“We are peaceful people,” he says. “We are not attacking anyone. We are on our own land.”
Olena Lysenko contributed to this story from Bilka, Ukraine.