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What the war in Ukraine could mean for food

By Dobrych - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Ukraine farmland

Like so many of you, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make sense of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The other day, I reached out to my friend Harriet Jerusha Korim, a musician in Wellfleet whose dad is from Ukraine. She said she went there once on a trip with him in the late 1990s and they stayed in Lviv, the largest city in the western part of the country.

"It was right before Midsummer, and they had a beautiful market with herbs and people would bring in bunches of wild strawberries and anyway, so then we’d commute to go to this town Rohatyn where my father grew up," Harriet said.

Rohatyn is in a rural area. Most people there have a piece of land where they grow their own produce — potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, corn, plums, pears, raspberries. Harriet says she was surprised when she visited by how agricultural Ukraine was, and by how many grains she saw growing.

"Listeners may not know that Ukraine is considered to be the breadbasket of Europe because of the very, very rich dark soil. And there are parts of Ukraine that are very, very flat and perfectly suited to growing wheat crops and other grains, barley and wheat and all kinds of grains."

Harriet Jerusha Korim at a fundraiser for Ukraine in Wellfleet.
Elspeth Hay
Harriet Jerusha Korim at a fundraiser for Ukraine in Wellfleet.

In fact, Ukraine is one of the world’s leading exporters of grain, along with Russia. Together over the past five years these two countries have grown nearly 30 percent of the world’s wheat exports, not to mention corn, barley, and sunflower seed oil, which in some countries, is important for every day cooking.

Russia and Ukraine are also major suppliers of animal feed, farm fertilizers, and of course, fuel. Because of all of this, as war comes from Russia to Ukraine, Harriet says she’s found herself thinking about her father’s country and its farmers. From Spain to Egypt to Turkey nations that count on Ukrainian and Russian wheat to feed their people are running head on into shortages. Farmers in Ukraine should be planting wheat soon. And if this doesn’t happen, they and others may face famine. This has moved Harriet and her husband to express their grief and worry through music.

"When the farmers come to town, with their wagons broken down, the farmer is the one who feeds us all," Harriet said. "If you’ll only look and see, I know you will agree, that the farmer is the one that feeds us all. Farmer is the one…"

There are so many consequences of war. Who would have imagined that a war between Russia and Ukraine would clear grocery store shelves of wheat flour or drive up the price of animal feed or take noodles off the shelves in places as far away as Spain, Texas, and Indonesia? Right now the farmers of Ukraine should be getting ready to plant so they can later tend and harvest. But instead they are fighting, fleeing, and praying.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.