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Trucker runs gauntlet to haul Ukrainian grain

A Dutch trucker has started hauling grain out of Ukraine that was sold to a customer in the European Union. But he says customs checks at the Polish border are extremely slow and difficult.

Gerjan Wielink runs his own agriculture trading and transport company at Dronten in The Netherlands and is just back from another journey to Ukraine. Right after the Russians invaded Ukraine he decided to volunteer his services and his trucks to transport humanitarian aid – mainly food – to various towns and cities desperate for help.

Wielink, along with two of his other drivers, have just completed their fourth trip to Ukraine. They’ve clocked more than 2,800 miles each, delivering food into the war-torn cities of Kharkiv, Odesa and Mykolaiv.

But this latest time the convoy ventured southwest on the return journey to pick up loads of grain in Cherkasy, about 125 miles south of Kyiv – grain that had been sold in The Netherlands. Wielink has planned more similar trips but he said there are many challenges to the trips – including slow border checks, language barriers and limited supplies of diesel.

“We have been over in Ukraine four times now delivering food and built up a good relationship with the border guards, but crossing can take a long time,” he said. “Normally we cross the border entering from Lviv in Ukraine, where local truck drivers are waiting for up to five days to cross. But we usually can pass the kilometers of queues as we are on humanitarian runs.”

Using special trailers with moving floors, Wielink and his team were able to transport pallets and boxes of food to the besieged cities. They could then load up with loose barley on the return leg. The walking floors make it easy to unload the grain at its final destination.

“The (moving-floor) trailers were perfect to transport the humanitarian aid out and collect the grain on the way back,” Wielink said.

The three trucks collected 22 tonnes each of barley at the farm of Kees Huizinga and successfully delivered it to the customer in The Netherlands – but needed to wait 27 hours at the border crossing.

“With all the Ukrainian ports blocked by the Russians, the farmers in Ukraine have no way to export their much-needed grain to countries around the world,” Wielink said. “People are going to starve in some developing nations if they don’t get Ukrainian grain.

“I know the 66 tonnes we hauled out is just a small amount going into the EU, but it’s a start. And it gives the farmer some more storage space for this year’s harvest, which is starting soon.”

Negotiating the border and busy Ukrainian roads was a challenge on this trip for Wielink but he also faced fuel shortages.

“Once we crossed the Dnipro River in Ukraine, the roads in the west of the country became very busy with traffic as life starts to return to normal there,” he said. “Fuel is also in very short supply there. We were lucky the farmer was able to spare a few liters to allow us to get to the border but my fuel light came on just as I was crossing. Luckily I made it to a gas station 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from the border in Poland.

“But it’s the crossing that presents the biggest challenges. Even though we passed many Ukrainian trucks in the queue we still had to wait 27 hours at the border.

“The Polish authorities are very slow and there is a huge language barrier. There are only two guards on duty there and one of them even had to phone his daughter to translate into English for us to understand.

“There really should be grain corridors in operation at several border crossings so we can run quicker across the border to get grain out of Ukraine. The checks are very strict indeed. If the trailer weighed 10 kilograms more than it should (22 pounds), then that can cause a major headache.”

With 20 years experience behind him, award-winning agricultural journalist Chris McCullough is always on the hunt for his next story. He grew up on the family dairy farm in the heart of Northern Ireland and is based on the country’s east coast. He travels around the world to bring readers international news. He has many friends and colleagues in Ukraine.

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