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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Faces Weak Grain Harvest

BATKIVSHCHYNA COLLECTIVE FARM, Ukraine -- Four shiny, new green-and-yellow John Deere combines parked at this 1,750-hectare farm in the grain-growing regions south of Kiev don't fill its chief agronomist with enthusiasm.

"They did a good job this year, but they need good diesel and good engine oil," said Ivan Odnosum. "God help us if there is a breakdown," he said of the machinery, loaned to the farm after the Ukrainian government bought it earlier this year.

The country's grain harvest this year is forecast to fall by more than 23 percent to only 28 million tons, and two harsh factors are to blame.

A drought scorched the steppes in May and June, stunting the growing wheat. And the farming sector, making the painful transition from Soviet central planning to a market economy, simply has no money.

Ukraine's black soil is so fertile that a diplomat described it as "rich enough to grow rubber boots."

But recently Ukraine has been losing its reputation as a breadbasket of Europe, earned in the years before brutal forced collectivization under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

"The wheat will not be of a good quality this year," said Hryhory Borsuk, a scientist at the Mironivka Wheat Institute, run by the Ukrainian Academy of Agrarian Sciences.

"The temperature on the ground reached 62 decrees Celsius this summer. We've never seen anything so bad," he said in an interview in his office, unlit since the government cut off electricity because of unpaid power bills.

The harvest is gathered in the dry areas, but rainfall in Western Ukraine has delayed harvesting there.

While Mironivka's scientists, some unpaid for months, carry on developing new strains of wheat resistant to Ukraine's extreme continental climate, Borsuk said the lack of cash in Ukraine's agricultural sector is as bad as the drought.

Collective farms and Ukraine's nascent private farming sector have no money for fertilizer, no money for herbicides and pesticides, no money to repair old or buy new machinery, no money for fuel, and none to buy good seed.

This year's harvest is down from last year's 36.5 million ton harvest, which in turn compares with 50 million tons in 1990, the year before independence. The decline is all the worse for people who recall wasteful Soviet times, when the Kremlin imported grain but priced bread so cheaply that people bought it to feed their pigs.

"Agriculture is very expensive, and there are no solutions to our problems on the horizon," said Odnosum.

A few kilometers down the two-lane road that passes Odnosum's farm, where the occaisional horse-drawn buggy passes by, is the 1,700 hectare Shevcjenko collective farm, built next to a village still neat and tidy despite post-Soviet decay.

Chief Accountant Natalya Sypron said the collective is strapped for cash, earlier this year bartering 220 tons of grain for diesel to fuel six rickety grain combines and tractors badly in need of repairs and basic maintenance.

The average family earns 160 million to 200 million karbovnats a year ($800 to $1,000), but many have not been paid in months. "People are working out of their own dedication," Sypron said.

Borsuk said the farm sector has two options: "We can sit down and cry, or we can do something."

He said the government plans to increase the sowing of winter wheat, which will be harvested next year.

Planted in late summer and early autumn, the grain is Ukraine's largest export item and traditionally grows better than summer wheat in Ukraine's soil.

The government has been trying to phase out huge subsidies to the farm sector and, in a move back to pre-Soviet days, has given up to 50 hectares of land to some 36,000 private farmers willing to go it alone.

Collective farms will last for the next few years, because most private farms now only produce enough to feed themselves with maybe a little extra to sell, said one private farmer.

"In the future, maybe, but it's better not to hurry," he said.

"Collectivization brought us a lot of pain. And it went too fast. Privatizing too quickly can also have a negative outcome."