Svitlana Nadich is almost beyond hoping that even a little rain will fall on her brittle, parched wheatfields in southern Ukraine.

The $20,000 investment made by four village families, the sowing and care in applying fertilizer, all appear to be in vain as the region endures its worst drought in more than a century.

"Some people from the city ask God not to send rain to keep things dry. We do the opposite. We keep asking: 'Give us rain!"' she said while collecting some withered shoots.

"If you don't want to have mercy on us, then have mercy on our children. We have had no more than 10 minutes of rain."

With a snap parliamentary election due in September, drought and the prospect of further, hugely unpopular rises in bread prices are high on the political agenda -- and surely the last thing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich wanted.

Bread prices have gone up in a number of regions. The increases are by no means uniform but in general prices have risen by up to 10 percent with the biggest increases in central and western Ukraine.

Yanukovich, long at odds with pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, has threatened to sack top farm officials if further rises occur. One of the prime minister's deputies blamed the liberal opposition, aligned with Yushchenko, for the increases.

Kherson region near the Black Sea, in the heart of Ukraine's grain belt, is one of 10 areas hit by drought -- 60 percent of grainfields have felt the effects. The government on Monday reduced its crop forecast to 30 million metric tons from 38 million.

Walking through the stunted shoots in Nadich's field -- which rise to a man's calf rather than his waist -- produces no normal "swish" of passing through a thriving grain field.

Rather, an agonizing crunching noise resounds. Dust clouds billow throughout the area around Urozhaine -- "bumper crop" in Ukrainian.

"Whatever we manage to save will be used as feed to keep our cattle alive," Nadich said, a straw hat shielding her from searing sunlight. "We just don't know how we're going to live."


Harvesters are rendered useless by seedlings about 15 cm (six inches) tall, each containing an alarming four seeds per ear, instead of the normal 17 to 18.

"We have invested so much and what will we get? Nothing. There will be nothing to sow next year," Oleksander Danylko said, stepping down from the wheel of his combine harvester.

"There won't even be money for fuel. From 10 hectares, we threshed 1.5 metric tons. That might be enough for the chickens in the yard."

Kherson routinely harvests a million metric tons of grain and sowed 500,000 hectares this year but forecasters say the region could lose at least 60 percent. Farmers say yields are about 0.15 metric tons per hectare compared with 3.5 in 2006.

The thermometer at the nearby weather station shows 32 degrees (90 Fahrenheit). Soil temperatures register 53 degrees (127 Fahrenheit).

"We haven't seen such a period of drought for more than 100 years, with our wheat and barley and rapeseed suffering so badly," said Anna Pashnyuk, the station's chief forecaster.

"Our sunflowers are also in a terrible state."

The din from the corner comes from the ageing telex machine dispatching a report on conditions to regional centers.

Drought and a poor harvest also stand to create havoc on international grain markets, with traders closely watching each day without rain.

Last season, the government slapped quotas on grain exports, enraging traders and Ukraine's trading partners. The U.S. ambassador told ministers that was no way to integrate Ukraine into world markets.

Ministers say they are ready to introduce restrictions again from next month -- to keep down those sensitive bread prices.

Stepan Melnychuk, head of the regional meteorological service, shakes his head as he tours farms and reflects on the knock-on effect drought will have on next year's crop.

"If we get no rain, the situation will truly become critical for next year's winter crops," he said.

"This could produce another bad harvest next year."