As Russia's gruesome invasion of Ukraine drags towards its fourth month, eastern Australian agribusiness GrainCorp is not giving up on its eastern European trading desk in the battle torn country.
That's despite its boss tipping the war will likely create years of grain trade setbacks around the Black Sea and wider humanitarian consequences as global supplies run short.
Although GrainCorp gave up near-term hopes of shipping any grain from the fertile Ukrainian or Russian cropping regions near the Black Sea after war erupted on February 24, the company has made big efforts to retain and support about 15 nationals previously based in the Ukraine capital, Kyiv.
Aside from offering as much humanitarian aid as possible for its staff and two charities working in Ukraine, the company also values its local team's trading, language and local grain industry skills, and wants to retain them.
That team has subsequently continued working online as part of GrainCorp's international business unit, although staff have dispersed to various locations around the country.
Ukraine produced a significant 80 million tonnes of wheat, barley and corn last year, but international trade pundits expect its 2022 crop could easily shrink by 50 per cent.
Grain networks hurt
Acknowledging much of the Black Sea region's total harvest was unlikely to contribute notable volumes to the global trade for some time, GrainCorp managing director, Robert Spurway, said even if fighting ended soon, he expect a real recovery in agricultural commodity freight to be drawn out.
He said Ukrainian farmers had proven very resilient and continued to focus on any opportunity to plant as much crop as possible, but their supply chains had been sabotaged.
Most Ukrainian wheat and barley is grown in southern and central parts of the country, although other areas, including the eastern war zone are also farmed.
The "fog of war" made it hard to know what was really going on inside the country, particularly in relation to overall damage on farms and to road, rail, port and grain storage infrastructure.
"Geopolitically, the rest of the world will support Ukraine's recovery, but it will take some time to rebuild, and that includes dealing with shipping issues such as mines in the Black Sea," Mr Spurway said.
"I'm not equipped to say how long, but given fighting is continuing and we know there's already been significant infrastructure damage, it's probably going to be more like several years, than months."
In the meantime, GrainCorp has effectively written off about half a bulk shipment of grain it has in storage awaiting export from Ukraine.
Food security cost
Mr Spurway said while food exports from the region were not sanctioned, very few cargoes were moving through the Black Sea, subsequently causing an increasing supply gap which was set to extend the Ukranian humanitarian crisis to other parts of the world.
Middle East and African countries have become big users of Ukrainian grain in the past 20 years, with Egypt - once a major customer for Australia - buying about 80pc of its wheat needs from Ukraine and Russia.
In addition to GrainCorp closely monitoring the safety of its small local workforce in Ukraine and other nationals in the trade, workers at its Newcastle site lit up the big Carrington export grain terminal in the colours of Ukraine's national flag for a week in March, showing their own solidarity.
Canadian port opens
Meanwhile, after seven years in construction, GrainCorp's newest export site, the part-owned Canadian Fraser Grain Terminal in Vancouver, opened in March with a solid volume of throughput originating from US imports.
Drought in Canada last season left the 4m tonne export capacity facility confronting a massive drop in anticipated wheat volumes, but feed grain imports, particularly corn, have been keeping the operation relatively busy.
Mr Spurway said the terminal, a partnership with GrainCorp's half-owned GrainsConnect Canada and port operators Parrish and Heimbecker, was achieving all its performance targets and had been able to comfortably reverse its elevators to handle imports.
Volumes would continue to ramp up as the market normalised after last season's big dry.
Drought has definitely not been a problem for another "international" GrainCorp export business - its West Australian trading operation.
A record 24m tonne WA harvest - 30pc bigger than any previous harvest - and bullish global grain demand caused by the Ukraine war have combined to generate strong export margins.
Although small compared to WA's own grain handler, CBH, GrainCorp has shipped cargoes from the west for 15 years and is the state's third biggest grain exporter, coming in behind Viterra.
WA wheat and canola helps complement the eastern states' player's grain supply offering to overseas customers, particularly Asian buyers wanting noodle quality wheat.
"Our volumes and margins in WA reflect the size of this season's crop available for sale and global demand, although as a percentage of our total business they haven't changed greatly this year, Mr Spurway said.
GrainCorp also has a canola crushing plant in WA at Pinjarra, south of Perth, near the coastal town of Mandurah.
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