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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Farmers Say Soviet Days Were Sweeter

Itar-TassMany Russian farms have gone bankrupt in the past decade and up to 80 percent of farm machinery is considered obsolete.
BIYSK, Altai -- Galina, who has farmed on the steppes of southern Siberia for a quarter of a century, said grain used to be a lot sweeter in Soviet days.

"Today's Russia is in total anarchy. We farmers have lost hope in everything," said 60-year-old Galina, gazing over the freshly sown fields of her native Altai region, once dubbed the granary of Siberia.

Over her lifetime, she has seen Altai lose its legendary status and turn into what locals call the Chechnya of Russian agriculture, referring to Moscow's seemingly insoluble conflict in the separatist province.

"Older people are dying out, villages are disappearing, and fields are choked with weeds up to your shoulders," Galina said. "Altai is no different from other farming regions."

With millions of hectares of arable land stretching to its border with Kazakhstan, Altai is still Russia's fourth-largest grain-producing area, with more than a half of its 3 million residents involved in farming.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most Soviet-style collective farms, or kolkhozy, were broken up and divided among the farmers who cultivated them.

But some remained as they had been for seven decades. Many Altai farmers still stubbornly cling to the old crumbling system in the absence of sufficient funds to invest in new technology, unable to wean themselves off state subsidies.

Almost a century of collective farming has left the region -- which still votes Communist -- ill equipped to survive the decade-old transition to the market economy.

"In the past couple of decades things have changed very little in our land," said Ivan, 62, who works near the vast, dilapidated Kosikha farm set up in 1932 as part of Stalin's collectivization. That campaign, along with purges and famines, killed millions of the well-to-do and destitute peasants.

"The government gave us a grain-drying machine just before the fall of Soviet rule. That was the last new thing we had."

In Soviet times, the government used to assign entire army battalions to help bring in the harvest when time was pressing.

But times have changed. Many Russian farms have gone bankrupt in the past decade and up to 80 percent of farm machinery is obsolete.

Mounds of rotting straw lie uncollected from last year's gigantic grain crop of 86.6 million metric tons, which raised hopes for a revival of flagging agriculture.

But the resulting fall in domestic prices and prospects for a weaker crop this year have dealt farmers a serious blow.

"There is a lot of discontent among our farmers," said Ivan Loor, a senior official from the local administration. "The last agricultural year was particularly bad for us. Average profitability fell from 53 percent to less than 10 percent."

Grain deliveries that bypass conventional market channels are part of the problem.

"We don't even know how much Altai produces in total because there is no control and things are being done in a very random fashion," a source close to local production said.

About a quarter of the country's grain crop -- expected to be about 70 million tons this year -- never reaches the market and vanishes into granaries, according to some reports.

Although agriculture attracts some investment, one in two Russian farms is in the red, stuck in a tangle of tax, debt and utilities regulations, according to some estimates.

About a quarter of Russia's workforce is involved in farming.

After the fall of communism, provinces continued to ask Moscow for fiscal privileges. The government's occasional reluctance has ignited discontent in the regions, while Moscow's pledges to bring in more farmer-support measures have fueled Western criticism as Russia struggles to join the World Trade Organization.

Record crops in the past two years due to good weather have brought agriculture back to the top of the government's agenda as Russia seeks to become a major emerging grain exporter along with heavyweights Canada and the United States.

Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev has in recent weeks vowed to give as much as 1.5 billion rubles ($50 million) to the sector. And President Vladimir Putin wants to restructure some of the sector's 340 billion ruble debt accumulated in the past decade. Last year, Moscow launched grain buying tenders to help producers who faced sinking prices after the bumper harvest.

Mikhail Lapshin, the head of the Altai region and chairman of Russia's left-wing Agrarian Party, is skeptical.

"Grain production in this country has been left to the winds of nature, and the winds of nature tend to hit the poorest most," he said in a recent interview.

"The ministry has widely advertised interventions ... but in fact they only buy from certain chosen producers."

"Putin is far too cautious. We need sweeping reforms, a quota system on energy tariffs and state guarantees like those in Europe to protect the farmer," said Vladimir Weinberger, who runs a big collective farm near Russia's border with Mongolia.

"None of this is possible ahead of elections," he said, referring to parliamentary polls in December and Putin's widely expected bid to seek a second term next March.

In the meantime, farmers have soaring fuel prices and expensive bank loans to worry about.

"Things were not perfect under the communists but at least the farmer used to be slightly less miserable," said the source in local production.