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


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.

At the Lenin Collective Farm in Glukhov, Ukraine, what once was a growing concern now needs subsidies from Kiev in order to survive. The price of gasoline has gone to about 12 rubles a liter; the selling price of milk has stayed fixed at 4 rubles a liter. In Ukraine, the prices of meat and grain are also kept low by the government.

With little money on hand, the farm has turned over much of its vegetable fields to its workers, ostensibly because it can't afford to pay for police protection for the vulnerable vegetables.

The idea is that the workers will take more of an interest themselves in guarding the plots -- but it's also clear the farm expects them to produce more vegetables. Everything up to the state quota will be turned back to the farm; everything else, they can keep, for sale in the village markets.

But a lot of the commerce here is in the form of barter now because of the scarcity of goods and the relative worthlessness of the ruble. It's crude, but it keeps some semblance of an economy going.

"We're managing, but it's a step back, of course," says Anatoly Volokhov, an electrician whose family has taken nearly nine acres on the Lenin Farm for vegetables.

"Well, thank God for sugar beets, at least we can get something for them," says Nadezhda Putovoitova, who used to keep the books for the collective farm. "We've been trying to save money to buy things -- a refrigerator, a freezer -- but whenever we get enough money saved, they raise the prices."

Sugar, more available here than in Russia, but barely so, is better than money. It has even replaced vodka as the preferred currency. Right now, millions of sugar beets are banked in the rich, warm soil of Ukraine, earning a sort of compound interest as they ripen and sweeten their way toward harvest.

On a street in Glukhov last week, a man approached a foreigner and offered 88 pounds of sugar in exchange for a bicycle.

Mr. Volokhov is growing sugar beets (some as feed for his pigs) and radishes. He'd like to get more land, but he doesn't see how he could farm it. A tractor, even if he could find one, costs 300,000 rubles. Mr. Volokhov's father and grandfather, who both worked on the farm, amassed joint life savings of just 10,000 rubles (or about $100).

"Of course, that's nothing now," he says.

The Lenin Farm covers about 14,000 acres, has 800 workers and grows 60 different crops. The farm produces 14 tons of milk daily and 800 tons of meat annually. Natalya Tishenko, the farm's agronomist, is a determined sprite of a woman who is a true believer in Soviet agriculture.

Private dairy farming, for instance, she dismisses out of hand."That's a utopia because there's just no technology for it," she says.

The farm, she says, will meet its quotas, which are unchanged from last year. "We have less fuel, but it's enough."

"But you know, someone's trying to make us poor," she adds darkly.

Quiet discontent seems to shimmer in the warm June sun. People in the farmlands are getting by, but barely. The crops are sown. Will there be fuel enough to bring them in? Last year,

prices were fixed and Soviet agriculture, although clumsy, was not reeling. Still, shelves in the cities were bare by January.

What happens next winter, now that life on the farm has become so much more adverse?

"Well, it's harder every year," answers Vassily Neskorodov, 60, who patiently drives a horse-drawn cart through the Russian village of Stanovoe, taking 80 liters of milk from his neighbors' cows to the dairy.

His cart is made of planks so rough-hewn they still have the bark on them. He drives a cart, he says, because the back roads are too rutted for cars. He would sell the milk to the dairy for 3.30 rubles a liter, or about $2.50 for the entire load.

"You know, there's one good thing from all this," he says. "With fuel so scarce, everybody's out in the fields. Even the managers are getting their hands dirty now. That's good, at least."

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