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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Down With State Farms

In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of agricultural reform swept across many of the countries that formerly had centrally planned economies. In these countries, the highlight of reform has often been the break-up of collective agricultural enterprises into individual and small-group farms, a process usually carried out by the farmers themselves. The result has been major increases in efficiency and productivity. Unfortunately, the pace and scale of agrarian reform has lagged behind in Russia. Without major reform of the collective-farm system, Russia's agricultural sector will remain one of the world's least productive and least efficient.

One fact is indisputable: Russia's collectivized agriculture has been grossly unproductive even at its best. Russia's annual grain production during the period from 1990 to 1992 averaged 1,700 kilograms per hectare. In 1990, considered an exceptionally good year, it was 1,878 kilograms per hectare. The West European average during those years was 5,796 kilograms per hectare. The United States' average was 4,874 kilograms. If someone objects that these other countries are not as northerly or as cold as Russia, let them then consider Canada, with productivity of 2,554 kilograms per hectare (50 percent higher than Russia's) or Finland, with 3,110 kilograms per hectare (more than 80 percent higher than Russia's).

A large majority of the farms in all these countries are operated by single families, and virtually all farmland is privately owned and can be bought and sold. Moreover, none of these systems feature farm sizes anywhere close to the average 5,000 hectare behemoths that are still the hallmark of Russia's collectivized agriculture.

When discussing agrarian reform, a basic distinction must be made between the scale of farming (the issue of decollectivization) and the ownership of farmland (the issue of private ownership). Some analysts have argued that merely giving farm members ownership of collectively farmed land will not improve the agricultural situation. This is probably true, but largely irrelevant. What will greatly improve the agricultural situation is the gradual, voluntary break-up of collective farms into family farms and farms operated jointly by a handful of families, combined with full private land ownership.

Some analysts have also pointed to the experiences of China and Vietnam, implying that these countries' rapid agricultural development without land privatization lends credence to Russia's agricultural system. It is true that China and Vietnam have not privatized their land, and their agricultures have developed rapidly: China averaged 4,663 kilograms of grain per hectare from 1990 to 1992, and Vietnam averaged 3,077 kilograms per hectare.

However, those who praise China and Vietnam must take care not to omit the central fact that both of those countries decollectivized virtually their entire agricultural sectors in the early and mid 1980s, creating millions of small, family-operated farms. In both countries, agricultural production climbed by over 50 percent following decollectivization, precisely because one family's livelihood was now directly associated with one plot of land, farmed by themselves and no one else. No phalanx of managers and sub-managers had to stand over their shoulders to see that they worked. No agronomist had to insist that the fertilizer must be spread, not dumped. For the first time in many years, personal responsibility and personal motivation prevailed. To reach even higher levels of productivity, China and Vietnam are now introducing longer-term rights for their farms, with the right to buy and sell those rights.

It has also been argued that if there is private ownership in Russia, a small number of major landowners would buy up most of the land and Russia's agricultural workers would be turned into exploited, hired labor. But it was the system of collectivized farming itself -- even when it involved massive state subsidies -- that kept the great majority of Russian farm workers impoverished, disempowered and apathetic. Moreover, only a small fraction of farmland is bought and sold each year in the countries where private ownership of that land exists. Beyond that, reasonable restrictions on a land market can, if desired, be maintained as they are in many other countries: Ceilings can be adopted on the amount of agricultural land to prevent latifundium, and foreign ownership can be restricted.

Ultimately, as inefficient as collective agriculture is, no one that we have talked with during our six years of fieldwork on these issues in Russia has argued for the compulsory dissolution of collective farms. Free choice should be the guiding principle. Given free choice, the members of collective farms make it clear that they will be slow and cautious in moving toward individual farming. A transition that took four years in China may take 20 in Russia.

But it is logically difficult for the supporters of collective farming to argue against free choice. Let Russia adopt the laws and regulations necessary to allow those who want to leave the collectives to start peasant farms or any other type of enterprise do so freely. Let Russia adopt the laws to allow those who want to sell their land plots or land shares to others who are starting or expanding small or medium-sized farms to do so freely. Not only are the present laws on these issues gravely inadequate, but proposals keep surfacing -- such as the regressive draft Land Code -- that would destroy virtually all progress made since 1990.

An agricultural system that produces 50 or 100 percent more and that creates hundreds of billions of dollars of land value in the countryside where now none exists should at least pose an attractive alternative to a system that has, over the last 60 years, shown itself to be one of the least productive agricultural systems ever devised.

Roy Prosterman and Leonard Rolfes, lawyers at the Rural Development Institute in Seattle, have conducted field research and advised policy-makers in Russia since 1990. Prosterman has also worked on agrarian reform issues in 25 other countries. They contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.