When Jonathan Clibborn graduated from university in agriculture in 2007, he had several places to choose from. He wanted to travel and use his farming skills. It was a draw between Ukraine, Canada and Sierra Leone.
Spotting the huge opportunities, he settled on Ukraine, which he describes as in the “Goldilocks zone”.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained independence in 1991, there was a lot of vacant and fallow land here and I just thought there was a great opportunity to come here and start a farm,” he says.
“It has always been considered the breadbasket of Europe, the soils here are excellent. It’s in this Goldilocks area where the soil, weather, and rainfall combine to make it a perfect growing area. We are able to grow relatively high-yielding crops.”
In 2014, he launched his own business, “Norbil Agri”, and now runs a steadily growing 10,000 acre farm. The farms in Ukraine are huge, much bigger than anything in Ireland.
As we drive through Ukrainian roads full of holes and craters, Jonathan points to his fields of yellow corn, which stretch out on either side as far as the eye can see. His farm is 50 km from one end to the other, and on a busy day he can travel up to 500 km.
Since arriving in Ukraine in 2007, he has noticed huge changes.
According to him, Ukraine has begun to realize its potential as an agricultural powerhouse, and this war has come at a time when the country is making huge strides in terms of progress.
“There has been a lot of investment here over the past 15 years,” he says. “Now we have Western equipment, we have the latest hybrids and the latest chemical technology in terms of fertilizers. It is now a state-of-the-art country. It’s just a shame that the war triggered and blocked that.”
“It’s the perfect storm right now with Ukraine locked down, sanctions on Russia, there’s no fertilizer coming to South America and the United States is as dry as a bone”
Powerhouse is a good way to describe Ukraine in terms of agricultural production. It is one of the largest grain producers in the world, a key player in the global food supply.
It and Russia together produce about 30% of the wheat traded in the world. Ukraine exports around 75% of the grain it produces and keeps the rest for the domestic market, but with the war having effectively locked the country in, those who depend on its exports face a huge crisis.
Countries like Eritrea, Armenia, Mongolia and Azerbaijan are nearly 100% dependent on grain exports from Ukraine. Many other countries, such as Egypt, which is the world’s largest wheat importer, depend heavily, if not exclusively, on Ukraine.
The impact of this war will be felt around the world. And even though miraculously the war ended tomorrow, Clibborn finds that a lot of damage has already been done.
“It’s the perfect storm right now with Ukraine locked down, sanctions on Russia, there’s no fertilizer to South America and the United States is as dry as a bone. So I don’t see global reserves being replenished anytime soon. The reality is that we’re exporting wheat to places that can’t grow it.”
Ukraine, along with sanctioned Russia and Belarus, is also a big producer of fertilizer – essential to ensure good crop yield and quality. And unfertilized crops mean they have less protein, which means animals that feed on that grain will be leaner. Less beef means meat prices go up and it’s usually the neediest people who suffer.
The impact of all this on the world’s poorest is not lost on food producers in Ukraine, who bear this on top of the stress of war.
“Ukraine is an exporting country. I don’t think we’ll ever starve, there’s too much produce here, but it’s North Africa and Southeast Asia – those areas depend on Ukrainian exports,” says Clibborn, who feels lucky to have ordered , and have already taken delivery of this year’s fertilizer.
But what about next year if this war, as many predict, continues now?
“We are going to change our crop rotation. One of our main crops is corn and it is the most nitrogen intensive crop. So we’re leaning towards low-input crops like soybeans, like buckwheat and we’re going more in that direction.
Farming in a war zone means constant firefighting. You put one on and start attacking another. For Clibborn, the past few weeks have brought one challenge after another, but access to funding is his overriding concern.
“For our business, the biggest concern has been cash, like any business in the world. Staff? There was a risk that staff would be recruited, so we don’t have anyone to drive the tractors and repair equipment. Then we felt it with parts not available. , then chemicals and seeds were stuck in some warehouses in inaccessible areas.
“Now things have gotten a bit easier, there is more diesel on the market which we are happier with, we have reserves in place but the main problem for us is that the banks are not financing.”
Jonathan takes us to his local grain elevator, where the grain is dried and cleaned to prepare it for sale. One of the men running it, Ivan, agrees that the war is having a terrible effect on the farming industry here.
“Very negatively because the majority went for export and it was exported through ports that are now blocked. The grain is blocked on the farms because there is no means of transport and to meet the commitments with the The ability to pass through stations is limited as there are few checkpoints you can use.
“Even the very small capacity that we have to transport will be damaged”
“So it’s very difficult because you can’t sell the stock you have and you can’t empty the containers for next year, and also you can’t sow for next year. So the harvest for this year and the sowing campaign for next year is affected.”
As the ports are closed, the only way to export is via the train lines. But the width of the railway tracks in Ukraine are wider than those in Poland and beyond, which means that the grain can only go as far as the border before having to be unloaded and then reloaded onto containers compatible with the tracks. Europeans.
And even the limited quantities of exports that can pass by rail are now targeted by Russian airstrikes.
On Monday, a nearby rail substation, which was used by farmers including Clibborn to transport their produce, was hit and destroyed.
Ivan says he is very worried about the threat of Russian airstrikes.
“They attacked the rail hub and that’s a very big concern. Even the very small capacity that we have to transport will be damaged. There will be no way to export and it’s very problematic to deliver because they (the Russia) want to destroy everything logistics in the country.