Hungary's farmland is shrinking, but farm exports are growing

Soviet shoppers seem to be in for another round of their customary difficulties in finding food this winter. But here in Hungary, although life is not easy, food is not one of the problems.

There are no long lines at food stores. There have not been for some years now. And this year, for all the damage weather did (above all, to corn), Hungary continued to produce food for itself and have a substantial margin for export.

Not so the Soviet Union, which this year faced its fifth disappointing harvest in a row.

In Hungary, for a second year, drought thwarted a good chance for a record harvest of 14 to 15 million tons of grain.

In overall terms, Hungary is producing 21/2 times more grain and meat today than it did in the 1950s. And this is accomplished on a shrinking area of arable land. Only 14 percent of the population lives off the land compared with 50 percent at the end of the war.

A calculated reduction of the crop area contrasts sharply with Soviet policy. President Konstantin Chernenko recently announced a vast expansion of farmland to compensate for setbacks suffered from adverse weather conditions.

Since the early 1970s Hungarian agriculture has, as an integral part of the nation's economic reform, been consistently improved through technology and know-how largely acquired from the leading farming countries of the Western world.

From a pilot project on 15,000 acres in the western part of the country, the Illinois high-yield technology for corn-raising is now operated over some 2 million acres. Hungary stands among the world's top four or five producers of corn.

There have been other innovations. John Deere combines harvest wheat and soybeans. Big Steiger tractors made here under license plow the land. There is a continuous flow of Hungarian specialists to the West to study the latest techniques for growing grain and raising cattle and sheep.

''We are all the time looking at new agricultural production systems,'' says Istvan Almasi, head of the press office at the Ministry of Agriculture.

''We will try out everything new that is proving itself elsewhere and if, after experiment, it proves itself for our conditions, then we will apply it throughout our agriculture.''

''Market competitiveness'' is the current slogan for farming just as it is in an overall drive to mitigate industrial shortcomings and the impact of difficult world conditions on the nation's economy.

Thirty percent of all farm production is consumed by Hungarians. Well over 50 percent is exported.

But the European Community's common agricultural program and its attendant quota restrictions on imports, particularly from the communist states, have seriously affected sale of Hungarian wheat and beef in Western Europe.

So the pragmatic Hungarians are setting their sights on North Africa and the Arab world for trade and assistance in improving meat production. They are also exploring market possibilities in Japan and other Asian countries.

The same attitude is applied to the acre-sized plots owned and tilled by the peasants employed on state farms (13 per-cent of cultivated land) and the largely independent quasi-collective cooperatives (82 percent).

These tiny holdings provide a significant portion of the nation's dairy products and 42 percent of livestock. Ideological restraints on any enlargement of private acreage remain. But there is no limit on the number of animals a peasant may keep.

The plots are too small for more than a few cows. But thousands of peasants run a highly lucrative sideline in pig-keeping through agreements with cooperative managements that sell the piglets, fodder, and expertise to the peasants.

Almasi says some peasants have brought as many as 500 pigs to market in a year, though he says most ventures are on a much smaller scale than that. Small-scale or not, they seem to keep the Budapest butchers' shops filled.

In the Soviet Union, the private plot is tolerated, but it is still viewed with ideological suspicion as a seed of capitalism. The latest Soviet decision on agriculture, announced at last month's Soviet Communist Party Central Committee meeting, once again is to extend the available land rather than work existing land more intensively. The fact remains, however, that inefficiency is often as big a factor as weather fluctuations in Soviet shortcomings.

In Yuri Andropov's brief tenure the Soviet Union began to take heed of Hungary's successful farming. It is trying the corn technology in the Ukraine, and one of this country's big state farms is involved in a chicken broiler plant established in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

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