Public Says Farmers Need the Most Help

Nearly three-quarters of Russians think that helping agriculture should be a top government priority, giving farmers more than double the public support for any other sector, state pollster VTsIOM said Tuesday.

The survey, conducted last week in 42 regions, asked 1,600 people to name no more than five economic sectors that they think are most in need of state support to buck off the effects of the economic crisis.

Agriculture was the most popular by a long shot, with 72 percent naming it as a sector meriting priority help from the state. The construction and food-production industries took second and third place, making it onto the lists of 31 percent and 26 percent of respondents.

The least popular choices were the banking, marketing and retail, and telecoms industries, garnering the sympathy of only 9 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent of those polled, respectively.

While the government's initial anti-crisis program focused on bailing out the banking sector and indebted industrial giants, First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov has overseen a less-publicized effort to help farmers, including a major lending program ahead of the spring sowing season.

The support for the sector also shines a spotlight on still little-known Agriculture Minister Yelena Skrynnik, who replaced the ministry's longtime head, Alexei Gordeyev, last month.

Under the revised 2009 federal budget, spending on agriculture was slashed 15.3 percent amid broad cost cutting to help rein in a burgeoning deficit. But that doesn't mean that the government isn't paying attention to its farmers.

The economic crisis has given the state cause to worry about credit needs and refinancing for farmers, agricultural-equipment and food producers and the rural population.

In February, state-controlled Rosselkhozbank, which focuses on lending to the agriculture sector, received a 45 billion ruble ($1.3 billion) capital injection, boosting its total charter capital to 106 billion rubles.

Since August, the State Food Market Agency has purchased 8 million tons of grain for about 37 billion rubles to maintain price stability on the market and protect farmers' competitiveness.

The government also gave a 25 billion ruble boost to the charter capital of leasing giant Rosagroleasing, which was headed by Skrynnik until she was appointed minister. The funds, which will go toward the company's purchase of farm vehicles, industrial equipment and cattle, will help shore up domestic manufacturers' flagging sales.

The government is also considering investing 74 billion rubles to build and modernize more dairy and meat production facilities.