(Bloomberg) -- Oleksandr Klepach’s fields in southern Ukraine would normally be teeming with shoots of wheat and rapeseed in spring. This March, they’re infested with weeds instead.

The farmer couldn’t plant autumn-sown crops on his 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) because the area was occupied by Russian forces. Troops have since retreated, but mines still need to be cleared, costs for inputs like fuel and pesticides have soared and he hasn’t been able to find enough seed to sow barley now.

As a last option, he aims to prepare most of the land in time to plant sunflowers, a crop he hasn’t grown for eight years.

His juggling act is indicative of the challenges Ukraine’s agriculture sector faces a year into the invasion, as growers grapple to maintain a sector vital to both its economy and global food supplies. Farmers are cutting fertilizer use, idling land and switching to cheaper-to-grow oilseeds — all of which risk slashing grain output by a fifth from last year’s already-low level.

“It’s a critical situation,” said Kateryna Rybachenko, vice president of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club. “Ukrainian farms are well-equipped. We can recover. But the main question is how long this war will be going on.”

Last year, the bulk of Ukraine’s wheat was planted before Russia invaded, buffering production. Growers also had a financial cushion from the country’s record 2021 harvest, Rybachenko said.

Those reserves have since dwindled, exports have weakened, and plantings of major winter crops — like wheat — declined. Spring varieties are now being sown, but the total area of staple grains is still expected to sink.

The challenges facing farmers could slash Ukraine’s grain output to 47 million tons, about half its pre-war level, the International Grains Council forecasts. The drop will contribute to the smallest global stockpiles in nearly a decade, heightening the need for big crops elsewhere to maintain the retreat in world food prices. 

Slow logistics are a key hurdle for farmers, said Andrey Novoselov, senior analyst at Barva Invest. Black Sea export vessels often wait days or weeks for inspection, racking up charges that have weakened domestic prices. 

Significant volumes are also moving by rail and road, which has sparked a glut in neighboring European nations. Two-thirds of Ukraine’s annual grain production historically sells abroad, and the pace at which it enters the market is key to farmer earnings. 

Hazy prospects for the Black Sea crop-export deal renewed over the weekend add to uncertainty about how much will eventually cross borders. Russia said it has only agreed to extend the pact through mid-May, ahead of 2023 harvests.

Cost-Cutting Efforts 

Meanwhile, farmers across Ukraine are decreasing fertilizer use, spreading cheaper seeds and applying fewer chemicals in an effort to cut costs, according to Dmitry Skornyakov, Chief Executive Officer of agribusiness HarvEast.

His company normally farms 130,000 hectares, but has lost some two-thirds of its land to occupied areas. On the rest, corn plantings will fall to about 6,000 hectares, a third of pre-war levels, Skornyakov said. The company will instead boost sunflowers, niche crops like mustard and peas, as well as soybeans — though the local climate isn’t always suitable for them.

“At the moment, Ukrainian agriculture looks like gambling,” he said. “If there are perfect, ideal conditions, we can get a decent yield. But the chance is lower than usual.”

Crops like sunflowers and soybeans require less fertilizer than many grains, boosting the appeal to swap, Barva Invest’s Novoselov said. The cost to grow them is about $700 to $750 per hectare, versus $1,250 for corn, he estimated. 

Valeriy Martyshko plans to idle 100 of the 1,400 hectares he leases near Kyiv and is planting less corn because of the high energy costs to dry it after harvest. Slow, expensive logistics are restraining the country’s exports and domestic crop prices are largely unprofitable, said Martyshko, who is also involved in the region’s defense efforts. 

“There is one wish only — to have the farm survive,” he said. “I serve in the armed forces and I want to survive myself as a soldier, too.”

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