Good food goes to waste for want of private market

August 28, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

LYUBERTSI, U.S.S.R. -- When the new planners of the Soviet economy are looking for ways to get food to the people efficiently, they may want to visit the Belaya Dacha state farm. At least they're growing stuff right.

The farm has everything it could want for growing tomatoes: acres of well-built greenhouses, investment by a Dutch firm, an enviable location close to Moscow, a young energetic director and motivated workers.

The only thing it's lacking is a market.

Belaya Dacha grows wonderful fat tomatoes, sweet green peppers and big chunky onions, as good as any to be found in the private farmers' markets here.

But dealing with a system set up in the command economy days of communism, a system that's still in place even though the command economy has been falling apart for several years and was smashed in the past week, sometimes drives Viktor Semyonov, the farm's director, nearly to distraction.

Belaya Dacha is not by any means typical of state farms, which are plagued by sloth and waste. But that only makes its problems all the more striking.

Last year it was radishes. Belaya Dacha (which means White Cottage) grew a crop of outstanding radishes. The government took them for 25 kopecks a kilogram and put them in the state stores to sell for 50 kopecks.

No one bought them because that seemed too expensive for state radishes, even though these were far superior to the usual run.

Did the stores lower their prices? a bemused Mr. Semyonov asks. Of course not. The radishes simply sat on the shelves until they went bad. No one cared whether they sold or not.

Last winter it was cucumbers. The cucumbers coming from the southern part of the country were terribly poor. Mr. Semyonov offered to cut the price of his hothouse cucumbers to match the others.

The government distributors weren't interested. The farms in the south were fulfilling their contracts by shipping cucumbers. That's all that mattered.

The government of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev says farms such as Belaya Dacha should turn now to the private market.

The only problem is, a real private market doesn't exist in the Soviet Union.

There are, to be sure, individual markets where farmers supposedly sell the produce they themselves have raised.

But in Mr. Semyonov's view, those markets have two drawbacks. One is that they are nowhere near large enough to handle the 20,000 tons of vegetables that a state farm such as Belaya Dacha grows every year.

The other is that they are controlled by organized crime.

In dealing with the state system, Mr. Semyonov faces indifferent bureaucrats and corrupt distributors who steal the best produce.

In dealing with the private markets, he faces underworld chieftains who extort small fortunes from the vendors, thereby -- driving up the prices to five or six times the level in state stores.

An investigator with the Moscow police, Vecheslav Onishchenko, agrees with Mr. Semyonov.

None of the vendors at Moscow's Central Market is an actual farmer, he says. All are middlemen, most part of a group from Azerbaijan who control the market. Recently, when a legitimate farmer tried to set up a stand there, he says, two things happened.

First, enforcers smashed every last one of his tomatoes.

Then they beat him up.

Mr. Semyonov, who last spring visited Maryland, where he was the guest of Robert J. Walker, assistant secretary of agriculture, has two radical ideas for shaking food loose from the grips of the system and getting it to the consumers.

The first is to set up a wholesale market -- like the one in Jessup. You can't have a free-market economy, he argues, if you don't have a market mechanism.

Without a wholesale market, there's no rational way to arrive at prices, he says.

And there's no simple way for a store or other enterprise to cover its needs in one place. Moving food around the Soviet Union right now means dealing with a crazy quilt of five-year plans and missed connections.

His second idea: Let the big state farms run their own stores. Belaya Dacha is actually doing just that. Two stores have opened here in Lyubertsi that seem to be from another culture entirely.

Architecturally, they look something like a fast-food restaurant in the West. Inside they are clean. There are no lines. The food is good quality. Customers pay the clerks at the counters -- a radical departure from standard Soviet practice, where customers normally have to stand in three separate lines in order make a purchase.

Moreover, the clerks here are friendly. And the prices -- 6 rubles for a kilo of green peppers, is somewhat more than a state store would charge but about one-fifth as much as a vendor would charge in the Central Market.

Mr. Semyonov was elected director of Belaya Dacha three years ago by the workers themselves, eager to throw out the old bosses.

He immediately set about trying to make his stamp on his corner of the world. The farm employs 2,000 people and runs a school, gym, pool, kindergarten and a raft of social services as well as growing produce and raising pigs.

But even with that kind of structure to support, Mr. Semyonov says the prices in his stores reflect what food would cost if there were a real free-market system in the Soviet Union -- a little more than the current state prices but a lot less than the farmers' market.

"But in this monopoly, both consumers and producers are suffering," he says.

So far, there's been one hurdle he hasn't crossed. He has been unable to win the permits he would need to open any stores in Moscow itself, where the customers are.

But now there's a new government, and a new system in the offing. "I think those obstacles are temporary," he says. "I'm rather optimistic."

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