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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bumper Rains Threaten Bumper Wheat

NOVOSIBIRSK, Western Siberia -- Russia's Siberian grain farmers see a potentially record wheat crop in their fertile, rolling fields but worry that pounding rains could destroy their hard work.

"Oh, look, it's already golden," said Vladimir Krivtsov, crops specialist at the Novosibirsk regional administration's agriculture department, pointing at wheat waving in a field yet to be harvested because of continuing heavy downpours.

A rain-soaked August and late planting have Novosibirsk farmers on edge, wondering if what they have said could be their biggest crop since the early 1970s will be lost to rain.

"The crop is good, but it cannot be gathered -- how can we not be worried?" Krivtsov said.

Capricious continental climate changes dog central and western Siberia, where sunshine is quickly replaced by torrential downpours, and the first snows arrive in mid-October.

Farmers have sent their red Russian combine harvesters to the yellow fields only to call them back after a few hours when the storm clouds roll in.

Soaked fields cannot support harvesters or tractors, and wet grain cannot be put into elevators.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zaveryukha, in charge of the harvest, said recently the country's hopes were riding on the Siberian harvest.

"It [net grain output] will all depend on Siberia," Zaveryukha said, adding that the Tomsk and Altai grain-growing regions had had steady rains for up to 10 weeks.

The Novosibirsk region, in southern central Siberia, had received almost one-third of its average annual rainfall in August alone, Krivtsov said -- up from an average of about one-fifth during the month.

A trip through wheat fields outside Novosibirsk is a soggy, slippery slog through mature crops nestling in mud.

Still, some grain experts in Novosibirsk -- one of the three main Siberian grain-growing regions and a potential source of export to other regions and abroad -- say that in spite of the rains, the 1996 crop could be exceptional.

"Some farms have yields as high as 4 tons per hectare -- that's some kind of a record," said crop specialist Svetlana Lipatova, deputy head of the Novosibirsk Food Corp., one of the area's chief government buyers.

She said average yields could be 1.6 tons to 1.8 tons this year, up from 1.28 tons in 1995 and a good 1.32 tons in 1994.

Specialists see a minimum grain crop in the Novosibirsk region of 2.5 million tons, up from 2.3 million tons in 1995. Some even say this year's output could top 1972's record 3 million tons.

"The whole of western Siberia could ship 2 million tons to 2.5 million tons this year," said Mikhail Golovatyuk, head of agricultural economics at the Novosibirsk Scientific Research Institute.

Last year, western Siberia, including grain-belt leaders Novosibirsk and the neighboring Altai and Omsk regions, exported about half a million tons, he said.

But until Siberia's harvest is actually safe and dry in silos and elevators, farmers are worried.

"The weather is not giving us a way out," said Viktor Mustafin, in charge of crop growing at the Yarovkoye privatized farm outside Novosibirsk.

Sitting in a Soviet-built concrete building and smoking a strong cigarette, he looked over his land, where combines were out for the afternoon trying to beat showers forecast for that evening.

"The first five days of the harvest [in mid-August] were sunny, and then rain, rain, rain.

"Rain hurts the grain quality, and snow could close us down later on. We use every hour we can to harvest."

Vladimir Tyazhelnikov, deputy director of Novosibirskkhleboprodukt, a semi-official grain procurer, said moisture levels in grain he was receiving were 25 percent to 27 percent, far higher than his targeted 18 percent to 20 percent.

"There could be a situation where farmers rush out and cut all at once [during a lull in the rain], and then there would be a huge backup at the elevator," he said.

"Whether the grain will be bread-quality or fodder depends on the weather."