‘This is where I have to be’: Irish farmer in Ukraine forges on through Russia’s war and grain blockade

Moscow accused of stealing and ‘weaponising’ Ukrainian crops, fuelling global hunger crisis

Fifteen years of farming in Ukraine have taught Jonathan Clibborn to take the unexpected in his stride, but nothing could prepare him for the last four months.

Russia’s all-out invasion has killed thousands of Ukrainians, displaced millions, devastated the country’s economy and placed its Black Sea ports under a naval blockade, strangling export routes for grain and fuelling fears of a global food crisis.

For Clibborn it has meant not only seeing horrors befall a beloved country where he married, has raised three boys and built up his own farm, but staving off the threat of financial disaster as war laid waste to his business plans and those of an entire nation.

He was with his family at his parents’ home in Clogheen, Co Tipperary, when Russian president Vladimir Putin poured troops and armour into Ukraine in the early hours of February 24th, missiles struck major cities and even many of Kyiv’s allies predicted that the capital and much of the country would soon fall.

“All sorts of stuff was racing through my mind,” Clibborn recalls. “But we had to put the fertilizer out in a week or so, and so I decided to come back out and feel the situation on the ground.”

On March 3rd he crossed the border in a clattery local train from the Polish town of Przemysl to Lviv in western Ukraine, which had already become the main transit hub for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s bid to take Kyiv, Kharkiv and other major cities further east.

“I’ve never witnessed anything like it. I spent the night in Lviv train station because of the curfew in the city, and the suffering there was hard to comprehend. It was so cold inside the station and there was no space even to sit down,” Clibborn (37) says.

“And there were some characters on that train: spy types, foreigners coming to fight who had done tours of duty, other volunteers wanting to do good but who had no experience, and Ukrainians coming back to get their families out or to join up,” he recalls.

“It was a surreal trip that I’ll never forget. I was just glad the family was over in Ireland and safe, and that the kids weren’t witnessing all this.”

Back on his 4,000-hectare (10,000-acre) holding in Staryi Sambir, 90km southwest of Lviv, where his main crops are corn, wheat and soybeans, Clibborn soon realised the scale of the problems that he and farmers across Ukraine were facing.

The Russian blockade of Ukraine’s big ports on the Black and Azov Seas – Odesa, Mykolaiv and Mariupol – shut the routes through which the world’s fourth-biggest exporter of grains usually ships out 90 per cent of the corn, wheat and barley that it sells abroad.

Trucks and trains cannot move cargos of comparable size, so delivery schedules went haywire, grain traders stopped buying and farmers’ cashflow dried up.

Millions of tonnes of grain are now stuck in silos that would usually be ready to take in the coming harvest of winter wheat, and Clibborn and many other farmers were forced to move crops to makeshift facilities when storage contracts expired.

“We haven’t exported anything during the war because the ports are blocked, trucking is too expensive and with rail the queues are too long and the buyer doesn’t want to sign contracts when he’ll only get it maybe in three or four months,” Clibborn explains.

Farmers have been selling at knockdown prices just to empty silos, or pay for the next season’s seeds or for diesel and other essentials that inflation is making costlier; Ukrainian banks, meanwhile, are reluctant to lend during wartime without the kind of government guarantee that does not extend to foreign firms like Clibborn’s Norbilc Agri.

“It’s been a rollercoaster … and I don’t sleep as soundly as I used to, that’s for sure,” he admits. “But in western Ukraine we have nothing to complain about compared to people over there.”

He means people in eastern and southern Ukraine, where missile strikes and shelling have been most intense, cities like Mariupol and Sievierodonetsk have been largely destroyed with huge loss of life, and Russian forces now occupy swathes of territory.

The Clibborns have helped provide accommodation on their farm or nearby for about 14 people from the partly occupied Zaporizhzhia region, including Ihor Mistyuk, a fellow farmer whose own home has been taken over by Russian officers and whose tractors and trucks have been stolen.

Mistyuk hoped the Russians might pass by his village of Balochky, an out-of-the-way place where only about 100 people live, which is about 120km from government-held Zaporizhzhia city and a similar distance from occupied Mariupol, now a place of carnage.

But then power to the village was knocked out, stopping the pumps that provide water for residents, and the phone signal started to fail, and in early March the sound of helicopter and tank fire across the fields presaged the arrival of Russian troops.

Some of them claimed to have thought they were going on exercises rather than invading Ukraine; others said they had come to kill Ukrainian nationalists; the commander of one unit, drunk, threatened to shoot Mistyuk and his father.

Mistyuk (31) recalls how the Russians shot up and looted one local woman’s house after finding a photograph of her son in Ukrainian military uniform, and how they broke down the gate of a schoolteacher, shot dead his dog and fired at his feet while accusing him of working for the military.

When explosions in a nearby town began to shake their home, Mistyuk and his wife and new-born baby left for government-held territory along roads lined with mines and dotted with battle-scarred buildings, and through checkpoints where Russian troops questioned and inspected him for tattoos that in their eyes would mark him out as a Ukrainian soldier or nationalist.

“Local farmers can only sell for a pittance, and the Russians are bringing in produce from Crimea and other areas they’ve occupied. They’re trying to introduce the rouble and it’s really difficult to get [Ukrainian] hryvnia; there are people who will take a payment from your card and give you cash, minus a 21 per cent cut; life is hard there,” Mistyuk explains.

“In a nearby district two Russians and two Chechens came to a farmer and demanded that he sell them his sunflower seeds for something like 4,000 hryvnia (€128) a tonne, while before the war the price was about 17,000 hryvnia,” he says.

“‘Why so little?’ the farmer asked, and the Chechen punched him. ‘Why are you hitting me,’ he said, and they told him ‘We haven’t even started hitting you yet.’”

Ukrainian officials say Russia has stolen at least 400,000 tonnes of grain from areas it has occupied this year, and the Kyiv School of Economics estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars of storage infrastructure and more than half a billion dollars of agricultural products have been destroyed in Russian missile attacks.

“Russia is strangling Ukraine’s economy by blocking the ports,” says Andy Hunder, president of the American chamber of commerce in Kyiv, whose members include major US firms working across Ukraine’s agricultural sector, from seed production and crop protection to farm machinery and grain trading.

“We’re looking at forecasts of GDP contraction of 45 per cent in 2022. It’s killing the economy … and also creating global food security problems and putting millions of lives at risk,” he adds, warning that many farmers may not sow crops later this year if storage silos are still full.

“It’s clear there is no real alternative to the ports, because the railways have very small capacity, so it’s like using a teaspoon to get the grain out… There has to be some sort of international solution to this – it’s a massive, massive challenge.”

Moscow blames the food crisis on western sanctions and says Ukraine must demine its ports before shipping can resume; Ukraine wants guarantees that Russia will not use such an opportunity to storm coastal cities; and western powers are so far unwilling to provide naval protection for cargo vessels plying potentially dangerous stretches of the Black Sea.

The Kremlin denies “weaponising” food supplies, but Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of Russian propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today), recently summed up such a putative strategy like this: “All our hope is on famine… Meaning that now famine will begin and they will come to their senses and lift sanctions and make friends with us, because they will acknowledge that it’s impossible not to be friends with us.”

Clibborn’s farm is 1,000km from the frontline, but the war is inescapable: Russia has bombed military bases nearby, the rail network in Lviv region is a frequent target for cruise missiles, and funerals for fallen soldiers are held almost daily in this fiercely patriotic area.

“Everyone around here knows somebody who has died, and the stories you hear from the east – it’s just horrific,” he says.

“But we’re here for the long term and so, while it is very, very difficult, we’re trying to stay active and keep trudging along – that’s how I mentally deal with it and I think it’s best for the staff as well.”

Clibborn’s three sons, Jacob, Andrew and Alex, are now in primary school in Ireland, and with a smile he describes them as “very pro-Ukrainian and anti-Putin – and we encourage that”.

“I’m really proud of people here. Whether they have a uniform on or not, they are just really helping and sticking together. It gives you goosebumps, what they’re doing and I feel honoured to be part of it,” he says.

“This is where I have to be right now. Ukraine is going to come out of this, and then there will be so much help pouring in – it’s going to be phenomenal.”