WASHINGTON — ONE quarter of the Soviet Union's grain rots on the ground or spoils before reaching the marketplace. Well over half the fruit and vegetables grown in there unfit for consumption. One in five potatoes actually makes it to the table. For reasons like these, the Soviet Union was the leading buyer of United States grains, corn, and soybeans in fiscal 1989, according to Christian Foster, a Department of Agriculture (USDA) economist.
The Soviets are ``our best customers, with an impeccable [payment] record,'' says Cooper Evans. The former Iowan farmer and congressman is President Bush's special assistant for agricultural trade and food aid.
Just looking at the trade numbers (box) might give the impression that the Soviet losses are American farmers' gains.
But US agricultural exporters are beginning to help the Soviets to develop a livestock and food-processing industry that is a step toward self-sufficiency.
Admittedly, the leading priority of US agriculture and trade officials is to protect and expand export markets. US Trade Representative Carla Hills and Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter stressed this at a Tuesday press conference at the Department of Agriculture. The US will probably hit a record $50 billion in net farm income this year, Mr. Yeutter said, and much of the revenue is from exports.
Americans are helping
But Americans are giving the assistance that the Soviets are asking for in buttressing their own production and increasing their food processing capacity. For instance, three months ago the National Food Processors Association signed a protocol with the Soviets for joint venture and turkey operations.
The Soviets are interested in stepping up their output of livestock products. Essential to this development are feed grains. The US share in the Soviet market for coarse grain is hovering around 70 percent this year. Mr. Foster of the USDA attributes the growth to:
Lower Soviet output of feed grains and roughage in 1988.
Tight supplies of coarse grains in competitor countries because of the 1988 drought.
Prices favoring corn over wheat and corn over European and Canadian barley (major competitors of US grains).
Continued Soviet priority given to livestock output.
Improved political ties between the US and Soviets.
Land reform considered
To reduce dependence on imports, Moscow has begun to encourage private holdings on a lease basis. The Supreme Soviet now in session has land ownership on the agenda. Another revolutionary concept has been introduced: to allow cooperative farmers to make decisions concerning what to grow, and where to market it.
A new policy of paying hard currency to wheat growers who surpass their quotas was not introduced in time to increase their plantings this year, but it did give them incentives to reduce spoilage.
Still, domestically grown wheat goes unused because of an inadequate farming, transportation, and distribution infrastructure.
The country cannot meet its basic food needs. Charlotte Nichols of US Wheat, an organization of US wheat growers that promotes exports, says that the situation is ``worse than two years ago,'' before perestroika (restructuring) reforms were conceived. ``The grocery stores are barren of essentials, such as bread,'' she says. US Wheat recently sponsored a trip to the Soviet Union, where it conducted sessions on milling and baking.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov spent several hours at the recent US trade show in Moscow, participating in official ceremonies, speaking to US businessmen, and fielding questions about the difficulties in doing business with the Soviet Union.
``Their involvement was a sign of the Soviet priority on trade with the United States,'' observes Mr. Evans.
The Soviet Union is now experiencing a population drain from the country to urban centers, where people expect to find better work, more complete infrastructure, and more goods.
The government is addressing this problem by attempting to regenerate the farmer's interest in rural life, says Evans. ``The Soviet Commission of Food and Agriculture is anxious to provide better `social amenities' from televisions to medical care, in order to encourage good people to remain on the farms,'' he says.