Oleh His marches with pride and purpose in rain-soaked mud through row upon row of large white polyethylene bags, each stamped with a Canadian logo and filled to bursting with this year’s harvest of grain.
The 24-year-old grain farmer with a slight build, fair hair and braces is also a volunteer with the Ukrainian military. He splits his time between running the family farm and sourcing money and supplies for the front.
When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, His knew right away he would have a problem.
“The logistical connection of agricultural products with the rest of the world has broken,” His said in Ukrainian through a translator at his farm, AgroKorovai, just 17 kilometres from the border with Poland.
Despite the relatively safe location, the war has devastated local farms in the region.
Usual trade routes through the Black Sea to Africa and Asia were cut off. The cost of diesel and fertilizer used to grow and harvest crops grew substantially.
The port blockages caused a food crisis in some parts of Africa. Without large warehouses to keep the harvest from rotting, His said some farms had to sell their grain at a loss and went bankrupt.
In December, after farmers delayed harvesting their crops for as long as they possibly could, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) distributed 26,000 grain sleeves donated by Canada and Japan all over Ukraine.
“We thought they wouldn’t arrive in time but everything was fine,” said His, who received 10 sleeves from Canada and also bought some of his own, just in case.
The sleeves are long white plastic bags that span the lengths of the field. They protect grain from the elements until it can be sold and exported.
“We sleeved it and freed up our hands to wait and get it out smoothly. This saved us a lot of money,” His said.
The mild winter was on their side, as far as timing was concerned, said Pierre Vauthier, head of the FAO control office in Ukraine.
“Some of it arrived very late and yes, of course, they’re going to use (the sleeves) next year, but it’s very, very marginal,” Vauthier said in an online interview from Kyiv.
Many farms closer to the front line have seen what little storage capacity they had blown up or destroyed by enemy shelling and landmines, said Vauthier, and about 15 per cent of the grain storage capacity in the country is gone.
“The impact is quite big,” he said.
The news prompted Canada to partner with Japan to prevent Ukrainian grain from going to waste with a $52-million investment into the sleeves.
The project was announced last June, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met other G7 leaders in Germany to discuss measures to halt the famine caused by the Russian invasion.
Altogether the grain storage should prevent more than five million tonnes of grain from going to waste, but the challenges are unlikely to abate as Ukraine enters its second year of war.
A deal struck in the summer between Russia and Ukraine to open up ports in Odesa to allow grain exports to be transported through the Black Sea has improved the situation, but it’s slow and inefficient, Vauthier said.
It is up for renewal in March, and Vauthier said reaching another deal is essential.
“I hope that they’re going to come to an agreement, they’re going to agree to continue to do what is absolutely critical for the country and for food security worldwide,” he said.
He expects exports to be squeezed again in 2023, and said more grain sleeves might be needed to preserve the grain harvest. Smaller farms will need mobile grain storage units, which look like plastic circus tents, for warehousing grain.
The FAO is also working to deliver seeds and generators to farms near the front line to keep up production.
His said he hopes Canada and other countries will donate more sleeves, but with the profit he was able to salvage this year he plans to buy some of his own next year.
“It is much more profitable than building a warehouse,” he said. “Building materials have become more expensive, so building warehouses is more costly than before. We built warehouses for 5,000 tons last year, which was expensive, and now it would be even more costly.”
The war has also spurred him to look for new markets for his grain, rather than selling directly to traders in Odesa.
He now has a truck that his farm loads up with grain from the sleeves and delivers it directly to Poland.
“Any crisis is an opportunity,” His said.
“Even in such a crisis, we do not give up but start looking for opportunities.”
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
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