E. Germans' 'grain problem' is linked to appetite for fuel

East Germany's huge collective farms are probably the most successful in the Soviet bloc. But even they are running into trouble.

No less an authority than Erich Honecker, the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party and state chief, has said so. Last fall he proclaimed at a Central Committee meeting, ''The grain problem is quite comparable in its importance now with the oil problem.''

This is serious, indeed, for the more than 2-million-ton cut in Soviet oil deliveries to East Germany in 1982 (down from 19 million to 17 million metric tons) is causing sharp cutbacks in fuel use.

And a hike in the price the Soviets charge Eastern Europe for oil puts more pressure on the budget. The rolling adjustment to the average world price over the past five years means the 1979 jump from $12 or $13 to $32 to $35 a barrel is pushing up East Europeans' import bills every year.

Therein lies part of the farm collectives' problem. Agriculture is a gas guzzler. Mechanization accounts for much of the sector's success, including a good harvest last year in a generally poor year in Eastern Europe. It provides East Germans with more meat in their diet than any of their East European neighbors enjoy.

Because of the energy squeeze, farms are being asked to reduce - some reports say to halve - their fuel consumption. And they are being asked to pay the full, unsubsidized price for diesel fuel.

This will be a heavy burden, especially since fuel consumption on the farm is also increased by what East German officials are implicitly coming to regard as overspecialization. Huge ''industrial-style'' agricultural production collectives (LPGs) that raise only livestock are at some distance from l2,000 -acre to l7,000-acre LPGs that raise nothing but grain. A lot of gas is needed just to transport fodder to the cattle.

Fuel cuts are thus likely to slow food production. They coincide with an across-the-board reduction in agricultural and other investments, with price changes intended to lower the current 6.3-million-mark (about

.7 million) farm subsidies, and with labor shortages that left 10 percent of 1980's sugar-beet crop in the fields.

In some concession to the difficulties, the current five-year plan calls for an agricultural expansion of only 3.7 percent. This won't bring East Germany much closer to its goal of food self-sufficiency--and an end to annual half-billion-dollar fodder imports from the United States --by 1985.

Nor will it bring East Germany any closer economically to the West Germans, with whom East Germans are most apt to compare themselves. One recent study by West German economists calculated that, while prewar agricultural production was 7 percent higher in what is now East Germany than in what is now West Germany, by 1971 East German production was 27 percent below West German production. In 1979, it was 32 percent below the West German figure.

Yields per hectare are much lower than in the West (and lower than East German planning calls for). The 1980 potato harvest was only 9,000 metric tons, down from 12,000 in 1979 and 1972. The sugar-beet harvest was 7,000 metric tons, less than the 1977 production.

East German officials have been highlighting agricultural shortcomings and are trying to remedy them. Unlike the Hungarians, they are trying to do so without much recourse to private farming and livestock husbandry.

There is a certain vacillation here. The trend of the past 15 years has been toward the giant collectives and away from small-plot farming.

In 1977 members' rights to cultivate privately some small plots of land were curtailed, as were their rights to vote for their own farm-management boards.

But as production lags have become more apparent in the last few years, officials have encouraged private production in general terms. Beyond the raising of a few chickens, which is permitted, it remains unclear just what kind of private food production is intended.

Certainly the thrust of the cautious current readjustments has been in the direction of modest inducements to individual initiative within the framework of a fully orthodox collective-farm system.

In this vein one regional party secretary at last fall's Central Committee meeting said collectives are being instructed to reassign fields ''within eyesight'' of the homes of the peasants who work them. The aim is to restore the personal relationship to the soil that has been lost in the giant LPGs and that has led to neglect, erosion, and loss of fertility.

There has been no indication that the size of farms will be reduced, however. The 15,000 collectives that existed in l965 were consolidated into 10,000 in 1970. There are only 4,000 today.

Second thoughts about the radical specialization of East German collective farms are indicated in the draft law on agriculture that is to replace the one left over from 1959, the year collectivization ended. This draft stresses the need for ''cooperation,'' especially between livestock and grain collectives.

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