A VISITOR to one of the most important government economic think tanks found its director preoccupied with the potato harvest. The director was worrying about where to store the spuds - not those of the nation, just the potatoes gathered by his staff in fields outside Moscow.
As winter approaches, the campaign to gather in the last loads of potatoes and cabbages has taken on a desperate character. In the elevators of the Moscow city government building and elsewhere in the city, officials wear muddy work boots and talk of plans to go dig potatoes.
The potato crisis is only the latest in a string of harvest mobilizations, starting with the grain harvest earlier in the summer. At each point, the Soviet government has issued dire warnings that a bounteous crop was rotting in the fields for lack of labor, fuel, trucks, and storage space. Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov has gone on television to talk of harsh winters to come, even hints of hunger, if people do not add their hands to the cause.
But as the harvest season closes and the data are collated, it is now clear that, despite problems, the Soviet Union has reaped one of the better crops in its history.
The cereal crop is a record one, by some estimates: 240.6 million tons, compared with the 237 million tons of 1978. Western specialists predict Soviet grain imports will drop to 28 million to 30 million tons this year, down from about 40 million tons last year.
The sugar beet harvest is good, Western experts say, near the average of recent years at 83.8 million tons. Even prospects for the potato harvest, which has suffered from constant rains that muddied fields and made machinery unusable, have improved to 79 million tons with recent dry weather around Moscow, Leningrad, and in Byelorussia.
Western experts wonder why Soviet officials publicly predicted an even larger grain harvest in early July, when talk was of 300 million tons, or 260 million after losses from waste. In part, this may have been necessary to get the labor diversion from schools, factories, and the military, which occurred on a scale that ``harks back to the mid-'60s and -'70s,'' notes a Western diplomat.
But as it turns out, weather may have been an equally fortuitous factor. Sunny skies have provided a long harvest period in Kazakhstan, for example, where the grain harvest has jumped from 23 million tons last year to more than 32 million this year.
Some critics accuse the government of deliberately trying to create an atmosphere of crisis to justify resorting to old administrative controls. Whatever the reason, the Ryzhkov government and the Soviet Communist Party have clearly changed their tune.
Deputy party chief Vladimir Ivashko, addressing last week's party Central Committee plenum, spoke about the panic buying and ``chaos'' among consumers, fed by ``talk about an impending famine.''
``Such talk is groundless,'' Mr. Ivashko said. ``The harvest of basic crops is higher than in previous years.''
Still, Western experts predict periodic shortages, particularly in major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad, where conditions have in some ways become worse than elsewhere in the country.
``It's mostly a distribution problem,'' says an agricultural specialist at a Western embassy here. The collapse of the centralized command structure particularly affects the large cities, he says, which used to be able to order goods brought in.
``You go outside of Moscow and the situation is better,'' the expert says. As one gets closer to the agricultural centers, the food situation dramatically improves, an observation borne out by a city-by-city comparison of food conditions recently published by the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta.
In the Kazakh capital of Alma Ata, the Central Asian breadbasket, shoppers find plentiful and cheap supplies of everything from ducks and mutton to potatoes. The latter cost 30 kopeks a kilogram in state stores (five cents at the tourist exchange rate). In Moscow, only bread and dairy products are readily available at state stores; potatoes in the market cost one to three rubles a kilo.
One factor in the distribution problem is the refusal of collective farms, and sometimes local governments, to sell to the state. Fear of shortage encourages them to hold their grain, for example, as feed for their pigs and cows. Some farms also held back in hopes of higher prices next year.
The Soviet government has been forced to move up the date of new purchase prices and to offer goods for barter to farms. Government purchases of grain as of Sept. 24 were 55 million tons, 65 percent of total state orders, reports the independent Postfactum news agency. Western experts say this is ahead of the pace of purchases of last year, but Postfactum estimates that 75 million to 80 million tons of grain are being withheld.
The shortages are likely to hit hardest in the supply of meat and livestock feed. Imports usually make up the feed-stock shortfall and already contracts have been negotiated for soybean meal to feed chickens.
The key problem for importing food is the lack of cash. The Soviets reportedly are using their huge gold reserves to guarantee credit lines for food imports.