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With unsold grain piled high, a Polish farmer faces an uncertain future as the war in Ukraine rages on

CYWINY WOJSKIE, Poland (AP) — Piotr Korycki picks up a handful of wheat and watches as the yellow grains slide through his fingers.

All around him is grain piled high in a warehouse on his farm north of the Polish capital: hundreds of tons of wheat, rye and corn left over from last year’s harvest, but which he cannot sell at a profit.

With a new harvest on the horizon, he feels the pressure to sell what he has to prevent things from going wrong.

“The situation in our markets is really, really difficult,” Korycki said. “And if nothing changes, it could become critical within a year or two.”

Korycki’s frustrations have prompted him to help organize protests that have taken place in Poland over the past three months, part of farmers’ protests across Europe. The latest in Poland is expected on Wednesday.

His yard is full of hay bales and modern agricultural machinery, a testament to the changes Polish agriculture has undergone since the country joined the European Union almost two decades ago. The family farms 200 hectares of wheat, rye, corn and sugar beets.

The 34-year-old, a farmer like his father and grandfather, says his business has been seriously destabilized by Russia’s war against Ukraine, a result of the EU’s decision to allow free trade with Ukraine after the war started .

But the disruption of Ukrainian exports through the Black Sea has led to a huge flow of grains across Poland’s border with Ukraine, causing prices for food products to fall, while inflation has caused production costs and interest rates on loans to rise.

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Korycki did not feel the pain during the first year of the war. At first, the price of grain rose, but then fell dramatically. Although he managed to sell some of last year’s harvest, he still has 300 tons of grain and isn’t sure what to do with it. The surplus represents a loss of 100,000 zloty ($25,000), which he calls “very large.”

In the past, he is said to have taken the grain to the Baltic Sea coast to sell to buyers who export it abroad by ship. But with the collapse in prices, what he would get would not cover transportation costs. He expects the best he can do is to sell it as cattle feed at a loss closer to home.

“It will be crucial because land prices are rising, the prices of raw materials for production remain at high levels and the prices of the final product are simply constantly falling,” he said.

Korycki is also angry because he says the EU seems to have no idea what to do with the grain, “where to export it, under what conditions and for what money, so this problem will only get worse.”

The Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recognizes that the problem is real and is seeking relief for farmers in Brussels, where his voice carries weight after he served as president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019.

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Tusk has said that there are more than 20 million surplus tonnes of grain in storage in Europe, including 9 million tonnes in Poland alone.

“And the summer harvest hasn’t started yet,” Tusk said in late February. “We do not yet have the infrastructure with which this grain can be further exported.”

Adding to the anger of farmers across Europe are EU plans to fight climate change with policies called the Green Deal, which they say will create more administrative work and worsen financial burdens.

The calls from European farmers have grown louder, even as the European Commission has bowed to their pressure by rolling back some environmental requirements – despite warnings from scientists that agricultural production must become more environmentally sustainable in a period of climate change.

Paulina Sobiesiak-Penszko, a sociologist and agricultural expert at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, said the protests have become more radical and alleged they are being exploited by pro-Russian groups to push an anti-Ukrainian agenda.

What is lost, she argued, is the need to address the climate crisis, which requires new agricultural policies, and the needs of consumers, who would benefit, among other things, from reduced pesticide use in agriculture.

“This consumer voice is not being heard at all in the debate,” she said.

Korycki, as part of his work for a union representing the interests of farmers, is encouraging others to vote in the European Parliament elections in June.

“All problems start there in the European Parliament,” he said. “We will try to sensitize society so that the votes they cast will be well thought out and rational.”

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He believes the most rational choice is the Confederation, an anti-EU right-wing party that has been one of the loudest voices in Poland against Ukrainian imports.

Korycki said the Confederation is the only party that seems to have answers to farmers’ problems. He acknowledges that the EU has stimulated development in the agricultural sector, but believes that overall his family’s lives have not improved.

“Nothing is free,” he said of the EU. “What they gave us, they are now taking away.”

Sobiesiak-Penszko believes that growing frustration among farmers indicates that policymakers have not conveyed their views to farmers well enough in the years they have been planning changes.

“Farmers are not prepared for change,” she says. “They don’t understand the purpose and meaning of the green transformation.”

Korycki hopes that the war in Ukraine will end soon so that the situation can stabilize for him and his fellow farmers in this Central European country of 38 million inhabitants.

Other than that, he doesn’t really have a plan. He has taken out loans for equipment that need to be paid back and says farming is not a profession that someone can change on a whim.

“Generations have worked for this,” he said, sitting in the kitchen of his parents’ home. “There are some sentimental and family values ​​here, but also long-term commitments.”

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