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Russia: American Sends First Food-Aid Wheat To Far East

Bellingham, Wash., 23 March 1999 (RFE/RL -- The first in a series of promised shipments of donated American wheat under the Food for Progress aid program is to leave for the Russian Far East from the U.S. west coast within the week.

Tom Hammond, a senior vice president for Columbia Grain in Portland, Oregon confirmed reports of the impending shipment.

Hammond says the American freighter Juneau is expected to dock today at Columbia Grain's loading facility in Portland, near the mouth of the Columbia River, which forms the border between the states of Oregon and Washington.

He said the Juneau will take on 50,000 tons of hard grain winter wheat -- a Russian favorite for making bread. Another 30,000 tons will follow in early April. He said the wheat comes from the U.S. "Grain Belt" states of Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas.

While occasional commercial shipments of grain bound for Russia have passed through the Port of Portland and the nearby ports of Tacoma and Seattle to the north, Hammond said this shipment of wheat will mark the first time that food-aid travels the shortest route between the United States and the Russian Far East, which under Soviet rule was a closed military area.

Most such shipments -- even those destined for Siberia -- still take the much longer route across the Atlantic Ocean, usually to Saint Petersburg, before heading east on the Trans Siberian Railway.

This is the circuitous route being taken for other food-aid shipments now under way of about a million dollars worth of dried peas and lentils, even though they are grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Tim McGreevy is president of the USA Dried Peas and Lentils Council, which is based in the farming center of Moscow in western Idaho. The council represents growers, processors and shippers of these crops, most of which are grown in Idaho and neighboring Washington State. Although destined for an American aid-distribution project based in Vladivostok, they are being shipped east out of ports in the Southeastern United States and across the Atlantic Ocean because, he says, "that's where the ships are."

McGreevy explains that U.S. aid programs require that all shipments of donated food be carried on U.S.-registered vessels. Most of these, he says, have their home ports along the Atlantic Coast.

He estimates, however, that using an Atlantic route will about double the time needed to reach Vladivostok, but says no west coast ships were available when needed for the shipment of dried peas, lentils and other legumes.

McGreevy says the first of these are already on the Atlantic and should reach Russia by April. Then it will take at least another two weeks for them to make the long rail trip to Vladivostok.

This means that the winter wheat shipping next week out of the west coast port of Portland will likely reach its Russian Far East destination first.

The first shipment under the U.S.-Russian Food for Progress program reached St. Petersburg on March 12. But that shipment comprised seeds for green peas destined for Belgorod and Novgorod, as well as in the republics of North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and in the Krasnodar district. An additional shipment of 14,000 tons of corn seed was to reach St. Petersburg last week.

Under the Food for Progress agreement, the United States is to provide Russia more than 3 million metric tons of food and grain products, worth approximately $950 million. This assistance includes gifts and loans aimed to help Russian regions running low on locally produced food, seed and feed for livestock, and unable to afford imports after the crash of Russian financial markets last August 17.

Although the program was agreed upon last November, its implementation was delayed while U.S. officials sought assurances that the deal would not be tainted by corruption. The caution came in the wake of a similar program in 1992, in which much of the aid appeared on sale through black market channels and some just disappeared.

Meanwhile, first deliveries under a $500 million aid package from the European Union are expected to arrive by train on Wednesday. A ship carrying EU wheat is due in Kaliningrad a week later.