Amid Russian naval blockades, Ukrainian farmers fear their grain has nowhere to go

With Ukraine's major ports either under Russia's control or hemmed in by its naval blockade, the coming grain harvest is being greeted with trepidation. About 20 million tonnes of wheat is already stuck in Ukraine, leading to dire warnings from the United Nations about the potential impact on global hunger.

Ukraine is world's 5th-largest exporter of wheat, as well as a major exporter of corn and sunflower

The ordered rows of farmland in this southwest corner of Ukraine can feel like an anomaly in a country under attack.

Fields and pastures in other regions are pockmarked by shelling, with farmers unable to work their land.

Here, in countryside just west of the Black Sea port city of Odesa, trucks spraying insecticide move through planted crops in long, slow sweeps, the metal arms that carry the nozzles spread wide like a dragonfly's wings.

Baby sunflower plants are already reaching skyward and fields of wheat are just starting to deepen in colour.

But with Ukraine's major ports either under Russia's control or hemmed in by its naval blockade, the coming harvest is greeted with as much trepidation here as in the rest of the country.

About 20 million tonnes of wheat is already stuck in Ukraine with nowhere to go, leading to dire warnings from the United Nations about the potential impact on global hunger.

"We might be able to store some of it here, but it's certainly a problem," said Leon Grechishchev, the chief technologist at the Petrodolinske agricultural farm, near Odesa.

The farm keeps 700 head of cattle and has about a thousand hectares of land.

"Our biggest clients are grain traders here in Ukraine," said Grechishcev. "They ship their products to the U.S., Canada and so on."

'It's a nightmare right now'

That was before the war, of course. Ukraine is the world's fifth-largest exporter of wheat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as a major exporter of both corn and sunflower oil.

National and international efforts to find alternative ways of moving grain out of the country have been beset by logistical problems.

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"It's a nightmare right now," said Oleg Kostyuk, general manager with the Ukrainian freight company Formag Group Ltd.

"We have over 80 ships, merchant ships, docked in Ukrainian ports — I'm not talking only about Odesa — full and ready to go for export. At the same time, port silos are full of old crop and land silos are also full."

Some of the bigger farms have looked at trying to expand their own methods of transportation on land, but fuel shortages and red tape at borders with European Union countries act as disincentives.

"We're also trying to increase our trucking fleet," said Kostyuk, "but again, it will not be enough. Because the system itself, the border, the land system, they have their own limitations."

Efforts to move grain by rail are hindered by incompatible track gauges between Ukraine and European countries.

"Small ports on the Danube River, they might be another solution,"said Kostyuk. "Even [if] everything will work well — rail, road, the river ports — we will [only] be able to export two, maybe three million tons."

Negotiating tactics

That has increased calls for some kind of protected corridor through the Black Sea that would allow Ukraine to ship its grain again.

"Truly, failure to open those ports in the Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food scrutiny," said David Beasley, the executive director of the UN's World Food Program, last month. "And it will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world."

But any notion of a protected corridor or naval escorts would require considerable resources, a great deal of political will and, likely, Russian co-operation.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a televised interview denying that Moscow was preventing grain exports from leaving Ukraine, despite the presence of Russian warships off the coast of Odesa.

"If someone wants to solve the problem of exporting Ukrainian grain, please, the easiest way is through Belarus," he said. "No one is stopping it. But for this you have to lift sanctions [imposed on] Belarus."

The Kremlin had already indicated it would be willing to allow grain ships to move from Ukraine's Black Sea ports in exchange for a lifting of sanctions against Russia.

WATCH | Ukraine's president calls on Russia to end blockade of Black Sea port city of Odesa:

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CBC News Network's Aarti Pole speaks with Volodymyr Dubovyk, an international relations professor at Odesa National University.

Even if an agreement is reached, the waters off the coast of Ukraine will need to be made safe.

"More than 500 anchor-type anti-ship mines have been planted by the Russians in our Exclusive Economic Zone," said Odesa-based military analyst Oleksandr Kovalenko, referring to the area of the sea in which sovereign states are accorded special rights under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Russia insists Ukraine has in fact planted the mines. A handful of the mines usually tethered and held just below the surface of the water have been found drifting in the Black Sea, possibly set loose by storms, according to Kovalenko.

"The Russians have used anchor mines," he said. "They're more or less stationary."

The problem of anti-ship mines

Some news reports have suggested that Turkey, a NATO member, hopes to win Russia's agreement by offering up Turkish vessels to remove anti-ship mines and provide a naval escort. Turkey will host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks on the subject on Wednesday.

Kovalenko believes it would require a month or two to demine the waters in order to create a corridor that grain ships could safely travel through.

Freight expert Oleg Kostyuk, however, doesn't think the sea corridor is a realistic solution.

"As far as I understand, according to military estimations, the best-case scenarios is three months up to six months to demine," he said, adding that any deployment of NATO ships to the Black Sea would be seen as problematic.

Lithuania has proposed a "coalition of the willing" to escort grain ships through the Black Sea, rather than an operation run by NATO.

With the wheat harvest set to start in a little over a month, Ukrainian farmers say they desperately need a solution. But they're also extremely doubtful one is in sight.

Ihor Shumeiko, an agronomist at another big farm west of Odesa, isn't even sure they'll be able to cut their crops, because the combine owners who usually send their machines down from the north are afraid to do so with a Russian fleet parked in the Black Sea, firing cruise missiles into the country.

There are also worries that Russian soldiers occupying territory east of Odesa and the shipbuilding city of Mykolaiv beyond it could move toward them if Russia gains the upper hand in fighting.

On top of all that, Shumeiko simply doesn't believe Russia will agree to let Ukraine export its grain.

"They want to keep us down," he said. "Politically and psychologically."

WATCH | War in Ukraine hampers grain exports:

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More than 20 million tonnes of harvested Ukrainian grain is stuck inside the country because of Russia's blockade of major ports.

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