I've mentioned my ongoing concern about this topic...I thought some
of you might be interested. I'm hoping Will Easton of the Center for
Citizen Initiatives is still on this list. I'd love to hear his
comment on this article based on his experiences in Russia.
I saw a lot of Central-Valley/Bay Area assumption-making going on in
this story...and those parts frosted my shorts bigtime...but anyway
parts of it are instructive and informative. For instance, I found
it discouraging how the writer of this article equates a local food
system with "Dark Ages" in many places in this story. It seems to me
like a barter system and feeding one's own might be very wise
responses to the situation in Russia. Bush legs and Central
American bananas certainly aren't.
------- Forwarded Message Follows -------
Russian Farmland Withers on the Vine
Politics, mind-set keep nation on a diet of imports
Frank Viviano, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 1998
c1998 San Francisco Chronicle Page A1
Undulating gently through pastoral hills 150 miles south of Moscow,
the Plava River Valley is a farmer's dream come true. This is the
gateway to what Russians call ``Chernozym'' -- ``Black Earth country''
-- which boasts some of the most fertile soil in Europe, within three
hours' drive of a giant, hungry metropolis. The valley should be an
agricultural paradise, a cornucopia on the scale of California's
Central Valley or the south of France. Instead, it's a rural version
of purgatory, where tractors are vastly outnumbered by mules and crops
are harvested by stoop laborers who work 15-hour days under drenching
The harvesters earn the equivalent of $10 per week, often paid out in
sacks of potatoes or cucumbers rather than cash.
Lost in the Dark Ages at the dawn of the 21st century, the Plava
valley is a microcosm of Russia's larger crisis in the bitter harvest
season of 1998. It is a land caught between limitless potential and
``We ought to be rich,'' says farmer Valery Belozyorov, the mayor of
Plavsk, a town of 17,000 people that serves as the valley's
administrative center. ``We have wonderful soil. We have the
scientific know-how. We have qualified people. But what does it add
In Plavsk and across the agricultural heartland of Russia, it adds up
to unpaved roads so rutted and muddy that crops are often left to rot
in the fields, a level of productivity less than one-fourth that of
peasants in China -- and a farm economy that barely acknowledges the
existence of money, much less the needs and tastes of a consumer
Black Earth country has the natural wealth to feed an entire nation.
But it can barely feed itself.
The result is that consumers in Moscow and other large cities are
heavily dependent on imported food and deeply worried that their
country's spiraling economic crisis will cut off the lifeline abroad
and lead to famine.
``We are not going to stop imports,'' Deputy Prime Minister Gennady
Kulik reassured the public last week. ``They account for almost 50
percent of Russia's food market.''
Russia spent $15 billion buying foreign grain, produce, meat and
poultry in 1997. Two-thirds of all processed sausages, which account
for most of the nation's protein consumption, are made from imported
pork and beef.
Few consumer items are more familiar to urban dwellers than ``Bush
legs,'' frozen American chicken drumsticks. Their name alludes to
former President George Bush, whose administration oversaw a huge
increase in agricultural exports to the then-Soviet Union in the late
But despite Kulik's assertion, the crisis and the collapse of the
ruble -- which has fallen by more than 40 percent against the dollar
-- threaten to make Bush legs an endangered species here, along with
fresh Central American bananas, canned Italian tomatoes and frozen
Without prepayment in dollars or German marks, foreign agribusiness
firms are increasingly reluctant to ship their products to Russia.
Food imports dropped by 83 percent in September.
Domestic meats and produce cannot fill the gap, even though Russia is
physically the world's largest nation, twice the size of the United
States with only half its population. This year, the harvest is even
smaller than normal, with grain production down 48.2 percent from
1997 due to bad weather.
In the vast Russian heartland, where a barter system has always been
far more common than cash purchases, many farmers produce largely for
their own tables and exchange what's left over with other rural
Researchers at the the Moscow- based Institute of Social-Economic
Problems say that an astounding 80 percent of the rural population
lives outside the money economy.
Just under 50 percent of all Russian-raised meat and 34 percent of
dairy products come from personal garden plots measuring roughly 650
Potatoes make up the bulk of the national diet; nearly 280 pounds per
year per person, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. More than
half of Russia's potatoes are eaten by the people who grew them.
The demise of the Soviet Union has dramatically transformed other
areas of the economy, for better or worse, as private enterprise
ballooned in the cities. But change has made virtually no dent in
A portrait of rural Russia in 1998 is scarcely different from the one
that Josef Stalin created between 1929 and 1933, when private farms
were seized by the state and combined into ``kolkhozy,'' mammoth
``The government thought that most peasants would want to control
production themselves, if only they were given land of their own,''
said Belozyorov, who himself maintains a small private dairy
``In practice, it turned out that we lacked the right economic
conditions, the financial backing and market support, for that kind
of autonomy. There are very few of us left among those who tried to
go private,'' he said.
The crisis might have been expected to improve sales of local
produce, such as the milk, corn, cabbage and potatoes that are
Plavsk's staple crops. In fact, it has had the opposite effect.
``We used to have a fair amount of trade with people who came up the
highway from Belarus and Ukraine,'' said Belozyorov. ``But with the
ruble so unstable, they've disappeared.''
The two countries' borders with Russia are only a few hours' drive to
By grim happenstance, however, the proximity to Ukraine is still
responsible for a small cash flow into Plavsk. The town is just 220
miles downwind from Chernobyl, where a Ukrainian nuclear power plant
blew up in 1986, spewing nine tons of radioactive material into the
air. Hundreds of Plavsk residents were victims of radiation poisoning
and receive government disability checks.
The Plava Valley's struggling agricultural private sector -- and its
miserable infrastructure of potholed roads, 50-year-old
electrification grids and leaky irrigation systems -- reflects a
More than 280,000 experiments in private farming were undertaken in
Russia between 1991 and 1996. All but 4 percent of them wound up in
bankruptcy. Most arable Russian land remains in the possession of
27,000 giant kolkhozy and state-run farms.
``At present, there just aren't any financial resources available to
pay for the transition to private farming,'' said General Roman
Popkovich, deputy leader of Our Home is Russia, the nation's
second-largest political party. ``On top of that, no one really knows
what farmland should cost in Russia. So how can it be sold?''
A belated effort is being made to improve rural roads, with 600 miles
of new federal highways scheduled to open by the end of the year. But
officials concede that this is a tiny drop in a very big bucket.
``Russia needs a minimum of 1.5 million kilometers (900,000 miles) of
roads, while the total length of existing roads is only 554,000
kilometers (332,000 miles),'' according to the Federal Road Service.
A modern infrastructure alone won't improve the farm picture,
Popkovich believes. The more intractable problem, he says, is
``A farmer in the West thinks of himself as his own boss -- he uses
his own labor, on his own property, for his own profit. But here,
peasants are simply agricultural workers, factory workers in the
fields, and nothing more.''
Valentina Zhuravleva, a leader of the liberal Yabloko Party in the
lower Volga region, cites an experiment in which investors helped
establish one local family, with generations of agricultural
experience and seven children to help out, on a private farm. They
were also provided with a herd of sheep.
``But they had no machinery and no business plan, and in the end,
what they did was sell off the sheep and rent the land out to a
collective,'' Zhuravleva said.
``You need a real change in mentality, as well as a support system,
to make private farming work. And we have neither.''
Yet surprisingly, agricultural issues play little direct role in the
fierce political debates that now swirl around Russia's future.
Apart from a few legislators such as Popkovich and Zhuravleva, who
have studied the farm problem, the only politicians who address
agricultural questions regularly are members of the Agrarian Party --
a rural ally of the Communist Party which shares its opposition to
the privatization of land.
The Communists have very little else to say on the matter. In a
12-point manifesto on resolving the economic crisis, issued September
8, Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov made no mention at all of
Two days later, new Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov addressed the
State Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, offering his own
crisis package. It too made no mention of agriculture.
The Agrarian Party itself is dubious about the ability of Russian
farms to meet national demand.
The Primakov government should act to prop up ailing state poultry
and hog-breeding complexes as soon as possible, party chairman
Mikhail Lapshin said at a Moscow press conference on October 11. But
even with such subsidies, ``food imports should continue,'' he said.
``The solution to our problem won't come from our politicians. They
are only interested in making themselves rich,'' said a mother of two
in the Plavsk farmer's market, who refused to give her name and said
she didn't bother voting anymore.
``As far as I can see,'' she angrily snapped, ``the only answer is
for us to give all this land away to America.''
c1998 San Francisco Chronicle Page A1
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