Uncertainty in Ukraine drives up grain prices

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As farmers in the Ukraine enter the planting season for corn and wheat, a cascade of issues including limited financing, a devalued currency, political uncertainty and mounting tension with Russia have made buyers cautious about Ukrainian grains.

In recent months, the expected prices of both corn and wheat have increased significantly reflecting risk in the market. Planting conditions for corn and wheat are favorable in the Ukraine, as heavy rains followed by dry conditions have led to good soil moisture.

However, financing has become an issue for many Ukrainian farmers as rejections and high interest rates are making it difficult for them to purchase needed materials. It is difficult at this point to project the cumulative effects.

Notable effect

Clearly a reduction in fertilizer of chemical use, lower quality seed or reduction in acreage may have notable effects on production. There is also speculation that many farmers will switch land from corn to barley, or leave the land fallow and wait for winter wheat planting.

Both barley and winter wheat have considerably lower input costs.

“Those two possibilities, along with the reduction in inputs at the same levels we’ve seen in the past, (mean that) we’re definitely going to see a reduced corn crop from the Ukraine this coming year,” said Cary Sifferath, U.S. Grains Council regional director for the Middle East and Africa.

Ukrainian exports have slowed in the last month, a result of quality issues and political turmoil. According to Sifferath, several buyers in the region who received shipments of Ukrainian grain early in the year were not happy with the quality.

Storage issues

The issue, he said, is lack of enough proper drying and storage facilities for grain, especially corn.

“While there’s plenty of new storage being built in the Ukraine, there (are) still a lot of less-than-ideal storage and drying facilities,” he said. “So, they tend to have more grain quality problems, especially as we get further along in the crop year.”

With political uncertainty and the Russian takeover of Crimea, many have worried about potential bottlenecks in corn exporting from the country. However, Crimean ports don’t ship a significant amount of corn, Sifferath said, meaning most corn ports remain open and operational.

Even so, concerns about an expanded conflict have increased risk premiums for traders and ship owners, leading to higher freight and shipping costs.

The possibility of continued crisis has also caused the Ukrainian hryvnia, the local currency, to depreciate significantly, making farmers sit on their valuable grains while waiting for the right price.

“Because of the ongoing conflict, the currency has devalued maybe 30-35 percent versus the dollar,” Sifferath said. “If I’m a farmer and I have corn or wheat in my storage bin on my farm, that grain is just as valuable as U.S. dollars to the world market. So, I may be better off holding the grain than selling it in local currency.”

Spikes in futures

All of these turbulent conditions in the Ukraine have caused spikes in corn and wheat futures.

In May, the Chicago Board of Trade corn futures hit a peak, the highest since September and up 11 percent compared to last year. Similarly, wheat futures increased nearly five percent in May, the largest jump in price since September 2012.

As many buyers wait out the uncertainty in the Ukraine, prices continue to rise as farmers hold on to their grain, causing next year’s yield forecasts to take a hit.

Conditions remain turbulent as violence escalates in Eastern Ukraine and major cities like Odessa, which could further hurt crop yields as farmers who are in the Army Reserve are mobilized.

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