Poor Prospects for Soviet Harvest

Political confusion, drought, flooding, and severe shortages may leave crops to rot

ABOUT 15 miles from the Kremlin, on the outskirts of the capital, rows of glistening greenhouses at the Moskovsky state farm produce everything from plump peppers to monstrous mushrooms.Vladimir Taranov, the farm's assistant director, says this year's vegetable crop of 29,000 tons is projected to be 4.6 percent higher than last year. Given the crisis currently gripping Soviet agriculture, the success of the Moskovsky farm, which covers 375 acres and employs 3,500 workers, seems astounding. But in reality Moskovsky is a model farm set up to serve the Soviet elite. The government invested 200 million rubles (about $111 million at the official exchange rate) to import Dutch equipment to launch the farm 21 years ago, says Mr. Taranov. "For us, the situation is more or less normal," the 50-year-old Taranov says. "But our farm isn't typical. "If the government invested as much in every farm as it did in ours," he continues, "then we'd have Communism in the country by now."

Economic chaos blamed But the government, of course, hasn't invested equally, and increasing chaos pervades all sectors of Soviet society as the country finds itself caught in the no-man's land between communism and capitalism. The agricultural sector has been particularly hard-hit, and with the harvest season in full-swing, officials are sounding the alarm. "The situation is such that today the country faces a real threat of famine," said Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shcherbakov during a recent television interview. "Everything has to be done to bring the harvest in." Last year, the Soviet Union was hard-pressed to bring in a near-record grain harvest of 238 million tons. Projections this year are much lower - about 195 million tons. Severe drought in eastern Siberia and Kazakhstan, as well as recent flooding in the Ukraine, are largely responsible for the lower crop levels. To make matters worse, there is a greater risk this year than ever before that crops will rot in the fields because of severe shortages of other goods, particularly fuel and spare parts, officials say. "Many harvesting machines will remain idle," says Taranov. "This coming harvest will be the worst in 30 to 40 years." So far this year, more than 48 million tons of grain have been harvested, according to the State Committee for Statistics. Of that total, however, only 19 million tons have been sold to the state - a signal of scarcities to come this winter. Many collective and state farms are withholding crops because they are needed as barter for badly needed supplies, officials say.

Food running out Already food shortages are being reported all across the nation, particularly in the Far East region. In a sign of growing desperation, armed gangs of black marketeers in the Far East have taken to raiding collective farms, causing crop losses of up to 30 percent, according to the official Tass news agency. Agriculture Minister Vyacheslav Chernoivanov at a news conference last week said emergency measures were being taken to deal with the crisis. "All human and technical reserves are being mobilized," Chernoivanov said in an earlier interview published in the weekly Argumenti i Fakti. "Without industrial workers, ... without students, it will be impossible to gather the whole harvest - especially potatoes and vegetables," he added. Indeed, among the parade of alarmist news reports airing nightly on the television news program Vremya are pictures of teenage students picking cabbages and soldiers behind the wheels of combines. To give farm workers incentive, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issued a decree ordering an increase in consumer goods to be made available to collective and state farms. However, the Gorbachev decree will have little effect on boosting harvest totals, Taranov says, adding that he doubts the decree will be implemented. He has good reason to be suspicious. Rising from behind his cluttered desk, he walked over to a safe, grabbed special "Harvest-90" coupons and flipped them like used lottery tickets on a table. "I received these special checks last year in the amount of 1,900 rubles (about four months' wages) for bringing in a good harvest. But there are no goods in stores to spend them on, and they expire on Oct. 1," he says.

Crime on Moskovsky farm On the surface it appears incentives aren't needed on the Moskovsky state farm. Inside the greenhouses the atmosphere is tranquil with the glass plates blocking out the everyday tumult of Moscow. Everything on the farm is automated from irrigation to the winter heating system. Laughter can be heard from two women yanking weeds from the neat rows of tomatoes. But Taranov says the greenhouses can't completely shelter his state farm from the problems plaguing agriculture. Theft is a constant problem. Workers take the crops, to sell them in city markets or on street corners, and make vast profits, Taranov says. "Every day we find broken glass - some people are caught red-handed at checkpoints," he says. Three years ago the Moskovsky farm imposed stiff fines for stealing. A worker caught with two cucumbers faces a fine of 1,000 rubles, or about two months pay. "But even this doesn't stop people because our money means nothing anymore," Taranov says. More troublesome for farm managers is the political power struggle that has paralyzed the vast Soviet bureaucracy, Taranov says. "The war of laws between Gorbachev and [Russian Federation President Boris] Yeltsin is a causing a lot of problems," he says. "Five years ago I knew what the policy was and how to achieve my targets. Now, no one knows who to obey."

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