Farming in Russia slipping backward Equipment, morale are in short supply

June 14, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff Writer

SHAKHOVO, Russia -- Grumbling, but making do, Russian farmers have overcome a lack of spare parts, drastic shortages of fuel (which anyway costs about 40 times as much as it did last year), and a near total breakdown of the cash economy, and somehow they've got the fields planted.

Here in the heart of the Black Soil region, with some of the most fertile farmland in the world, the grains are growing, the vegetables are sprouting, the sugar beets are slowly sweetening.

The fields roll on for miles to the distant horizon, the young barley almost blue-green against the dark earth, the rows of beets dotted with lines of stooped women hoeing weeds, the soft soil crisscrossed by horses pulling rough carts.

This gentle region, which stretches 100 miles and more across the border into Ukraine, was once the heart of the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union. Its output suffered under communism and is suffering even more under communism's demise. The effort to turn the tide here could determine the future of governments in both Moscow and Kiev.

Civil peace could depend ultimately on whether the shopper can find a scrap of meat in the store. Democracy could come to grief over a loaf of bread.

But while the new reform politicians try to figure out ways to promote privatization and entrepreneurial spirit, the truth today is that farming is slipping back toward an era of painful simplicity.

Equipment, money and morale are in short supply. Life on the farm is at its most basic.

Here in Shakhovo, Aleksei Yermakov puts his bucket down, spits, and chases an errant cow back down the lane.

A 50-year-old grandfather, he never imagined he'd have to cope with such fundamental problems as those he faces today.

The pumps are broken and there's no way to fix them, so he has to fetch water in buckets to irrigate his small private plot. He can't afford a new pair of shoes on his 1,000-ruble-a-month salary, so he is reduced to wearing old black running shoes with holes in the sides and no laces. In order to save every available drop of fuel for the tractors, the regional bus service has been scaled way back and gasoline for private cars is almost unavailable.

Even a bottle of vodka costs 100 rubles, or more than two days' pay, and here, in the land of the sugar beet, there's no processed sugar for making jam or moonshine.

"Life is just worse," Mr. Yermakov says.

When he's not taking care of his vegetables or his cow and three calves, Mr. Yermakov is a tractor driver on the Road to Communism Collective Farm (which kept its name but turned itself into a private enterprise in January).

The farm has about 6,000 acres under cultivation, and -- using as much manpower, horsepower and diesel power as its managers could summon -- the spring planting went ahead.

Now the three main questions are: Can the farmers themselves endure, can the harvest be brought in, and will it ever rain?

"Russia was once the richest country," says Aleksandr Ribelov, 70, who comes striding down the lane to see what the conversation's about. "After the war we could do anything here. A few years ago, we had tons of sugar here."

"And where's everything now?" asks Mr. Yermakov.

"When we had a planned economy, we had everything," says Mr. Ribelov, a gray-bearded war veteran who marched into Germany in 1945. "We had everything but birds' milk.

"Gorbachev sold off the nation. Now Yeltsin is doing the same. Russia will be poor again and life will be bad. Privatizing the farms? It's a good idea, but there's no way it can work, because there are no tractors, no spare parts, and no way to buy them."

The late evening sun sends long shadows through the little, rutted village set on a low rise above one of the countless marshy streams that interlace the rich black earth. Mosquitoes rise from the marsh, chickens scratch in the dooryards of the sagging old houses, the church -- once used as a granary but now back in service again -- hoists its golden crosses heavenward.

Mr. Yermakov scans the gathering thunderclouds. Will they bring relief from the 2-month-old dry spell? He squints and spits again.

The big collective farms of the Black Soil region were beached by the ebb of communism. Alexander Rutskoi, the Russian vice president and the man in charge of agriculture, is pushing to create a class of private farmers, but in the meantime the fields have to be worked, and the farms are still living in a world of government quotas and vast bureaucracies.

The structures are remnants from the old command economy, but they exist in a world where the economy has fractured and the system is grinding toward a halt.

President Boris N. Yeltsin recently announced that oil prices would not be set free, but they've still surged upward. Other prices, for everything from clothing to pesticides, have skyrocketed. The challenge in the farmlands this year is not to increase woeful productivity; it's just to keep going.

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