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Russia's war in Ukraine threatens wheat farming in Romania

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia and Ukraine supply a quarter of the world's wheat. At least, they did before the war.

JOE GLAUBER: These are global markets. So what happens in Ukraine happens all over the world.

MARTIN: Joe Glauber is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and former chief economist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He says Russia's invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global supply chains and sent prices soaring.

GLAUBER: We've seen agricultural prices for most grains and oilseeds increase by about 20 to 30%. Remember that prices were already high before the war started.

MARTIN: Although Romania is not in the same league as Ukraine and Russia, it is also one of the European Union's largest wheat exporters.

GLAUBER: Any grain that's coming out and moving into the world market is going to help replace some of the grain that normally would come out of those Ukraine ports.

MARTIN: That got us wondering whether this could provide an opening for Romania to step in.

CATALIN BOCIRNEA: (Through interpreter) So this is what I'm saying. Maybe on one hand, one can say that this is an opportunity. But on the other hand, if we do not manage to raise all those crops, then there is no opportunity there.

MARTIN: Catalin Bocirnea has been working for one of the largest farms near Constanta, Romania, since 1999. Speaking through our interpreter, he explains that the farm he manages should benefit from its location close to a port on the Black Sea.

BOCIRNEA: (Through interpreter) Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that we can fill in the gap of Ukraine and Russia because we don't have their acreage. But I think you have two key words there - fertilizers and irrigation.

MARTIN: The cost of fertilizer and the long-term effects of severe drought are Bocirnea's primary concerns. The war may have made an opening in the market, but farms need fertilizer, which used to come from Russia, until Western sanctions kicked in. Now fertilizer for the farm Bocirnea manages costs three times what it used to.

BOCIRNEA: (Through interpreter) We, as a big farm, have acquired our fertilizers beforehand. But this is completely not the case of the smaller farms. And then the smaller farms - they make up biggest acreage in Romania. So basically this is where the great loss will be this year.

MARTIN: Add to that the price of fuel needed for all the farms' tractors and to transport the grain to market - that has doubled - and the war starts to look less and less like an opportunity for Romanian farmers. And none of those things are his biggest worry.

BOCIRNEA: Apa.

MARTIN: Water - this area experienced severe drought in 2020.

BOCIRNEA: (Through interpreter) Until now, this year we had enough water. So then the plants are growing OK, I can say. But I just hope that in the following few months we will have some more water.

MARTIN: Planting more crops is a gamble against climate change. And it's early spring, so farmers like Bocirnea don't have a lot of time to decide what and how much to plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

MARTIN: Out in the fields, strong winds blow dust clouds across long stretches of ankle-high wheatgrass. As Bocirnea pulls up a handful to pose for a photograph, two fighter jets zoom overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTER JETS FLYING)

MARTIN: Fourteen kilometers away is the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, where close to 2,000 U.S. service members are currently stationed, along with other NATO troops, reminding us that the war is not far away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.