A success amid failures

Unlike many in Russia, Lenin State Farm makes a profit

September 27, 2005|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun foreign reporter

SLOBODA, Russia -- The workers squat in rows, the toes of their boots covered in dirt, and consign the carrots pulled from the soil to their place in the hierarchy of vegetables.

Undersized carrots go into a dusty crate earmarking them for animal feed; oddly shaped carrots go into a crate that fates them to become juice. Only the straightest, plumpest of the crop will find their way to the shelves of Moscow's grocery stores and markets.

It is harvest time at the privately owned Lenin State Farm, 14 miles south of central Moscow. Because of stubbornly cool weather that delayed the spring seeding, this year's carrot crop is smaller than last year's, and 2 tons of strawberries rotted in the fields because of ill-timed rain.

But Pavel N. Grudinin, the farm's director, can hardly complain as he surveys his 5,000 acres, in the shadow of the capital's Soviet-era high-rises.

Unlike so many farms in Russia, his is making a profit.

Lenin State Farm makes enough for Grudinin to buy high-quality seed from the Netherlands and reliable machinery from Sweden. There is money to hire seasonal workers to help bring in the harvest.

All around him, other farms have struggled and often failed to adapt to the realities of agriculture in a relatively free market.

Nearly 40 percent of the 45,000 farms carved from the Soviet era's state-owned farms are losing money. Some have been bought by corporations with little or no experience in agriculture, and critics fear that the companies are more eager to build houses on the land than to till it.

"It is just like after a plague in Europe," Grudinin said at the farm's office, where a bust of Lenin stands guard outside. "Everyone else has died off, and you are alive."

The 1990s were unkind to Russian agriculture. Farms lost government subsidies, and fertilizer and other necessities became luxuries. The acreage under cultivation fell, as did the number of farm workers. From 1990 to 2002, employment on the large corporate farms declined 60 percent, or 5.6 million people, according to Moscow's Institute for Economics, Labor and Management in Agriculture.

Lenin State Farm's success results in part from Grudinin's resourcefulness. In 1993, when he was vice director, the farm persuaded the local government, the Moscow oblast, to pay for the farm's social infrastructure, including schools and a hospital. In 1997, the farm diversified by growing vegetables, and it also began renting garage space to local businesses.

Last year, Lenin State Farm had a profit of $18 million without direct financial assistance from the state, said Grudinin, who owns 30 percent of the farm's shares. (He was unable to provide figures for the farm's total revenues.)

"We don't have anything to do with the government," says Grudinin, who is a deputy in the oblast legislature.

"If there had been no privatization, this farm would not exist," said Vladimir I. Zinin, who is in charge of the vegetable crops.

Given the colossal failures of Soviet agriculture, their pride is understandable. Forced collectivism led to peasant revolts and the arrest, exile or execution of alleged "wreckers." As punishment for falling short of impossible goals, villages were denied food and supplies; millions of peasants living on some of the Soviet Union's most fertile soil starved to death.

For much of Soviet history, the state's insistence on central planning, coupled with self-deception about the size of the harvests and corruption at every level, kept grocery store shelves bare.

Hard work and efficiency were of little importance on the farms. Konstantin A. Mezemtsev, former vice president of the Russian Association of Farms and Cooperatives, said many farms can't seem to escape that past.

"Fifty percent of farms remain Soviet," said Mezemtsev, editor in chief of the Peasant News media group. "That's the problem."

Founded in 1918, a year after the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin State Farm was originally named after a local village. According to local lore, peasants renamed the farm in Lenin's honor after he stopped here en route to his nearby country house.

The farm has grown since the 1920s, when its resources included 38 employees, 23 head of cattle, nine horses, two plows and a threshing machine.

Boris Y. Yevdokimov, the chief engineer, drives past the farm's fruit processing factory, where newly picked apples are being pressed for juice, and the milking parlor for 355 dairy cows.

Lenin State Farm has finished this year's harvest of 150 acres of potatoes and 300 acres of strawberries, the crop that gives the farm its bright red logo. So Yevdokimov shows off the carrot fields, where 80 workers crouch, pulling vegetables from the soil.

Depending on the season, the farm employs as many as 2,000 temporary laborers from as near as Moscow and as distant as Central Asia. They work efficiently because efficiency pays: Collecting more than 100 pails of carrots a day means 2 rubles - 6 cents - for each pail, rather than a ruble and a half.

A dozen Russian army recruits in camouflage lent a hand recently, not for pay but in the name of filling their plates: The military gets about 33 pounds of vegetables per man as compensation for a day's labor.


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