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Russian blockade in Odesa disrupts Ukrainian farmers' grain exports

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag represent a blue sky over a field of wheat. Ukraine is one of the world's biggest exporters of grain and cooking oil. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says much of the world is affected, as Russia's invasion disrupts the growing and shipment of that grain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Millions of people may starve if Russia's blockade of the Black Sea continues.

INSKEEP: We've been covering different aspects of this story. Now we'll find out how it looks to the people growing the grain. NPR's Peter Granitz is in Odesa along the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. Hey there, Peter.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do you hear from farmers?

GRANITZ: Well, I hear that they are worried. And that's probably not surprising. They are worried about their livelihoods, about their businesses and, of course, their safety. They're worried about actually getting hurt in the war. They're also concerned about artillery landing in their fields and actually ruining their yield. Yesterday, I went out to see a farmer named Vasiliy Klimenko (ph) about 30 miles outside of Odesa. He's got a pretty big farm. It's about a thousand acres. He farms some sunflowers for cooking oil, but mostly it's winter wheat and barley. And that means he plants it in the fall and then he harvests it in the early summer. And he's actually getting ready to do that right now. But he doesn't know what the price is going to be.

VASYLIY KHMILENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: He says, the grain elevators at the port are full. And that's why brokers aren't going to give him a price just yet. And he says he really wants the price so he knows just how bad financially this year is going to be. Steve, Ukraine says there are more than 23 million tons of grain still in the country that cannot get out. Wow. And Vasiliy starts harvesting in a couple of weeks. And he's worried if he harvests the grain, it's just going to rot. And that puts him in the hole.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember, the main blockage here is the Black Sea ports, including the one that you're in there, Odesa. And we can remind people that Turkey, a neighboring nation, has been hosting these negotiations with Russia, the idea of which is to reopen the ports for grain shipments. Any progress?

GRANITZ: No, there is no progress. There's no deal yet. And the conversation this week was between the Russian and the Turkish foreign ministers in Ankara. But Ukraine wasn't there. I think we should say that, you know - step back and say that these Russian warships are just floating out in the Black Sea. Now, you can't actually see them from the shores of Odesa, but those ships enforce the blockade. And the goal of these talks would be to open some kind of shipping lane that would allow Ukraine to export its grain. Now, to do that safely, they would need another country - likely Turkey - to escort it safely through. Russia is doing this because it wants sanctions relief, right? You know, they want the world to come to their side. But Ukraine rejected the deal outright. Obviously, Ukraine wants the ports open so it can sell the grain to the world because it needs the money. And a lot of countries need the food. The U.N. has warned that food shortages and hunger could get worse this year if things don't improve.

INSKEEP: I don't understand, Peter, why anyone would think Russia would ever agree to a deal. They went to war against Ukraine. They want to destroy the Ukrainian government. They want to degrade the Ukrainian economy. And if there's extra pressure on the world because people are desperate for grain, that's extra pressure on Russia's side.

GRANITZ: I don't think you're alone in thinking that, Steve, or not understanding that, Steve. I think Russia can play this as long as it wants. It clearly has the leverage here. It doesn't need to remove its ships from the Black Sea. And the longer this goes on, the more those countries are vulnerable. The more they need the food, the more they need to see an end to the conflict. And one way to do that would be to go to Russia's side and say, hey, look; they need to get some kind of relief, that way we get our relief.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Granitz is in Odesa, Ukraine. Peter, thanks so much.

GRANITZ: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.