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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Farmers Plow Ahead With or Without State

MTOne of Viktor Lomakin's 450 pigs forcing his snout through wooden slats at Lomakin's farm. He renovated his barn with help from the agriculture project.
Editor's Note: This is the third of four stories.

BAYGUSHI, Vladimir Region -- A devastating fire, skyrocketing gasoline prices and the daily hardships of rural life would probably persuade any hardy farmer to hang up his sickle. Not Viktor Lomakin.

The 54-year-old construction worker turned hog farmer says his indefatigable work ethic has sustained him since he started his farm in 1993. "The peasants never surrender!" he declared.

The government, which has embarked on a national project to revive the country's agriculture sector, better hope there are more Lomakins out there.

To date, the agriculture project has been the toughest of the four projects -- including health care, housing and education -- to implement, a recent poll shows.

Lomakin, who recently secured a loan through the project, could be a poster boy for the national effort, with all his determination, earthiness and good cheer.

On a recent morning, the Vladimir region farmer stormed into his renovated pig barn, shouting, "Time to wake up, my beauties!"

Marching from one pen to the next, Lomakin made a point of checking on all his wards, from 15-day-old piglets to giant hogs. "I only feed them potatoes, whey, just the natural stuff. That's why they are so pretty," he yelled, as cranky pigs roused from their sleep began squealing uncontrollably.

A jokester full of energy and optimism, Lomakin takes care of his 450 hogs with the help of two grown sons and two hired hands at his farm, 190 kilometers east of Moscow.

"I wanted to make something that was mine," said Lomakin, who once managed construction crews that built grain silos and other rural infrastructure all over the Soviet Union.

After the 1991 collapse, he left construction work for a job at a small slaughterhouse in Vladimir. One of the pigs that arrived at the plant turned out to be pregnant and was spared; this unexpected development led Lomakin, sow in hand, to open his own farm.

Success Breeds Envy

Lomakin said he loved rural work, having grown up on a collective farm in the Kursk region, where his mother was a prize-winning calf farmer.

But nine years ago he nearly gave up after a fire destroyed his barn, along with 30 hogs and 25 cattle.

He was tight-lipped about the fire, saying one of his "well-wishers" did it -- someone who wanted to buy his meat but didn't like the price, or, just as likely, someone, a villager, a fellow farmer, who was jealous of his success, he said.

Envy, and the violent consequences that come with it, has been one of many scourges that has left Russia's farms incapable of feeding the nation.

When private farming was legalized in 1990, before the end of the Soviet Union, workers left collective farms in droves to launch their own small farms.

The following year, then-Prime Minister Ivan Silayev's government gave farmers a little more than $150 million, in 1991 dollars, to encourage privatization, according to AKKOR, the Russian farmers association.

But in the midst of the economic turmoil of the early 1990s, including the elimination of price controls and the dismantling of the Soviet state, many of the farming pioneers went bankrupt.

The rare success stories like Lomakin's were often met with hostility in rural communities besieged with rampant alcoholism, unemployment and crumbling apartment blocks.

It was common for neighbors or rivals to resort to arson to settle a score.

"I thought I was done with farming," Lomakin said of the 1998 fire.

Not quite. After the shock subsided, he said, Lomakin began scrounging all his savings and preparing for a comeback. "It was hard," he said. Two years later he began rebuilding.

Revivifying a Way of Life

Igor Tabakov / MT
"The national projects are not all that important," Lomakin says. What matters, he adds, is stubborness and hard work.
Today, Lomakin's is one of 261,000 officially registered private farms in the country.

The figures can be deceiving. Agriculture sector analysts say more than half of registered farms have effectively shut down. And a large fraction only exist on paper.

Indeed, estimates suggest that roughly 30 percent of registered farms, about 78,300, are actually up and running, said Sergei Kiselyov, head of the agricultural economics department at Moscow State University.

What's more, about 40 percent of Russia's large-scale farming operations operate at a loss, Kiselyov said.

Farmers must often contend with a lack of plumbing and pipeline gas, especially when they live more than a couple hundred kilometers from the capital.

Paradoxically, the economic boom is compounding rural problems, as cities, with more jobs and a higher standard of living, draw hordes of young people from the countryside.

The national agriculture project, first mapped out by President Vladimir Putin in late 2005 along with the three other projects, aims to reverse this trend.

The goal, government officials say, is not simply to create a booming farm sector that can feed Russians and make the country less dependent on importers.

It is also to shore up a fading agricultural tradition and way of life ravaged by collectivization and the wild fluctuations of the post-Soviet economy. And, no less important, the project aims to secure the country's hinterlands, which span 11 time zones.

"We must view agriculture not only as an important economic sector but also as a very important way of life [and] a sector that solves a whole slew of other national goals," Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev said during an online conference in November.

To that end, the government in 2006 spent nearly $250 million on the development of small farms like Lomakin's.

Another $280 million-plus went to increasing cattle and dairy production, and more than $75 million was spent on rural housing to lure people back to villages.

The figures come from the Agriculture Ministry.

"This is the first time in all of our modern history when this kind of money will be spent in the villages," First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who oversees the national projects, recently said, Interfax reported. "Indeed, the money has already arrived and has begun working."

Looking toward the year ahead, Medvedev, speaking at an AKKOR meeting late last year, said the state would spend nearly $5.3 billion on helping cultivate the agriculture sector, Interfax reported. Of that, nearly $602 million has been earmarked for loans for upgrading farms.

Confused Priorities

Igor Tabakov / MT
The farm got its start in 1993, after Lomakin happened upon a pregnant sow.
No one seems to dispute that the state has an important role to play in improving Russia's farming outlook, but public opinion and farming industry analysts are skeptical of the national project's effectiveness.

"I have the greatest admiration for farmers from Vladimir and other small farmers, but they are such tiny producers, it's a drop in the bucket," said Dmitry Rylko, head of the Moscow-based Agriculture Market Research Institute.

Spending precious resources on these farmers, Rylko said, would neither make the agriculture sector more efficient nor solve the deep-rooted social problems that bedevil village life.

Huge farms that incorporate all components of the food-production process are the wave of the future, he added. "Only large, vertically integrated holdings have the potential to be truly competitive," Rylko said.

Kiselyov, from Moscow State University, said the major problem with the national project is that it hasn't decided what its No. 1 priority is -- improving the Russian agriculture sector or alleviating rural-area social ills.

While there is no doubt that rural areas are in dire straits -- many isolated pockets face the possibility of total depopulation when their last residents die -- solving that problem does not necessarily jibe with boosting farm activity.

Moreover, the national project's third goal, beyond improving small farms' efficiency and rehabilitating village life, is modernizing meat and dairy production, and state spending has, so far, focused largely on large producers, not small farms. It's unclear how this third prong in the agriculture project helps or complements the other two objectives.

"There are lots of figures and details about how much will be spent buying cattle," Kiselyov said. "But there are no indicators for measuring what those expenditures will accomplish."

Failure to track the effectiveness of government spending, he said, poses a danger of the national project turning into a giant black hole that swallows up federal funds year in, year out.

The public also has reservations about the project. A majority of the 1,500 people in a public opinion poll in December in 44 cities and towns called the agriculture project the least successful of the four projects. Five percent call the project a success.

Doubts Persist

Even Lomakin has his doubts. Last year, he borrowed just shy of $113,000, the maximum allowed, to renovate his barn, which can now accommodate 1,000 pigs.

The government-subsidized loan came from the state-run Rosselkhozbank and included a 14 percent annual interest rate. That marked a four percentage point drop from four years ago, said Yelena Degtyaryova, head of a local farmers association, who helped convince Lomakin to take out the loan.

Rosselkhozbank and Sberbank, which is also state run, issued the vast majority of the agriculture project loans in 2006.

"The 3 million [rubles] is nice, but what can you really do with 3 million rubles?" Lomakin said. "It's nothing."

He added that he needed to scrape together another $75,000 to complete work on the barn.

One of the subsidized loan program's stipulations that has most irked farmers is the one that states that they must employ a professional construction crew to make improvements. Degtyaryova noted that many farmers say they can do the work better and cheaper on their own.

She conceded that the project was not perfect but added: "You can't make a personal program suited to each farmer."

Lomakin hasn't been sold. "Want my honest opinion?" he said. "The national projects are not all that important. Those of us who managed to stay afloat owe everything to out stubbornness, our work."