THE wheat was coming along nicely, cherry trees were weighted with a bumper crop, and the tomatoes and cucumbers were ripening. But despite appearances of abundance, Albanian agriculture faces difficulties. The 4,500 men and women working at Gjergi Dimitrov, a state farm outside the capital, earn a basic monthly wage which, in a good year, can go up by 50 percent. But manager Evan Rroco admits there have only been two ``good years'' in the last 10.
He blames weather setbacks through the 1980s. These would have challenged well-equiped farmers in any country. But for a year, Albanian leader Ramiz Alia has called attention to overcentralization, obsolescent machines, the loss of arable land, and the hostility of the ``old guard'' toward reform.
All this, President Alia candidly admits, is part of a ``politically'' harmful downturn in agriculture. From the mid-1970s, Albania produced 85 percent of all basic food requirements. But this year, after the driest winter in 40 years, food imports will cost $70 million, twice last year's figure. During the 1980s arable farmland declined by 18 percent per capita, to half of the average European level.
Mr. Alia describes agriculture as the ``key to progress'' for his country. He chides officials who dislike his moves to reduce new industrial investment and direct resources toward light industry and food production to meet mounting consumer needs.
Consumer standards here still lag far behind those in Czechoslovakia, which industrialized before World War II, and Hungary and Yugoslavia, whose economies received a boost from Western trade. Life here lacks luxury, but there are none of the soaring prices or the chronic shortages suffered by other East Europeans.
But new links to the West, like Italian television for example, have raised consumer aspirations.
Albania's new agricultural priorities include reclamation of large tracts of saline coastal land and a 10 percent increase by 1995 in the irrigated area.
In addition, most of the farm machinery - much of which is obsolete - is beginning to be updated. A year ago chain-driven tractors looking more like tanks far outnumbered tired-wheel types.
The results of moves to upgrade machinery is already apparent in some of the main farming regions. Under a two-year program, Albania will import more than 1,000 wheeled tractors, many from West Germany.
The President does not like to be called a reformer, in the sense popularized by Poland and Hungary. The preferred term here is ``realist.''
But Albania is making no concessions to reforms like a free market or opening a door even to the smallest private enterprise. Peasant homes on collective farms often include cottage plots overflowing with vegetables and fruit. A family may keep chickens, a few sheep or goats, sometimes a cow. But production is for family need. A surplus may be sold to neighbors but not on the open market, where the state's low fixed prices keep necessities available to all.
In other areas, however, Alia's criticisms of the old rigid centralization, his condemnation of managements (farm and industrial) who wait on instructions ``from above,'' his emphasis not only on modernization but also on changing the wages system to ``reward good workers'' are reformist in the context of Albanian politics.
The cooperatives may already be responding to calls for reform. One cooperative near Shkodra in the north has 11,000 acres and 5,000 worker members coming from the farm's 11 villages. Each of those elects representatives to an ``assembly of the cooperative.''
``The state,'' the farm's chief agronomist says, ``does not tell us precisely that we must produce this or that and how much. We know our land and our capabilities as well as what the general state plan needs. And the assembly votes our own plan on that basis.
``We meet our local needs and the state requirement. If there is still a surplus, our members benefit,'' he says.