Drought Hits Russian Crops

Dispute with farmers over grain-price policy also threatens efforts to bring in harvest

STANDING under a blazing sun on the Gorshikha State Farm, chief agronomist Nikolai Gorbunov says a severe drought has sown doubts in his mind about prospects for a good harvest.

"Usually we've already begun harvesting by now. But this year we're several weeks late. Because of the dry weather, the crops aren't ready yet," Mr. Gorbunov says. The agronomist says harvesting may not begin for another week or so, adding that the longer farmers wait to bring in the crop the greater the chances for problems.

"In September the bad weather usually begins and this means more crops could spoil," Gorbunov says.

In addition to delaying the harvest, the drought also threatens to reduce greatly the amount of fodder, especially hay, for the farm's 1,000 dairy cows.

The plight of the 7,500-acre Gorshikha farm outside Yaroslavl, a city of 800,000 about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, is common. And the drought, which many say is the worst in more than a decade, is increasing the difficulties for Russia's agricultural sector, traditionally weak in transporting and storing the harvest.

Also threatening food supplies this year is a quarrel over the state price for grain. The Russian government is offering to pay 10,000 rubles (about $64) per ton of grain, a price many farmers say is too low. The result is that only about 4 percent of planned grain purchases have been made by the government, says Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, who heads a government committee in charge of reforming Russian agriculture.

"The situation in the agro-industrial sector is exceedingly tense," Mr. Rutskoi said during a meeting of agricultural experts last week.

The drought and other problems have already caused crop estimates for the 1992 season to be revised downward several times. The latest government projection puts the grain harvest this year at about 90 million tons. That would be about on par with the 89 million tons brought in last year, widely considered one of the worst harvests in recent memory.

A bad harvest could harm the embattled Russian government of acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, struggling to press on with radical economic reforms. Opposition to the crash reform program is rising as many complain the changes have caused too drastic a drop in living standards. A bad harvest could give government opponents added ammunition with which to take aim at Mr. Gaidar and others.

Government leaders have moved several times to bolster the agricultural sector and reap a good harvest to help maintain social stability during what promises to be a difficult winter. On Aug. 1, for example, President Boris Yeltsin ordered Russian oil companies to make 40 percent of their output available to state farms. A shortage of fuel and spare parts is threatening farmers' ability to bring in the crop, as well as to transport it to storage facilities.

Despite such moves, the agricultural sector is struggling. Rutskoi said last week that only 70 percent of farm machinery was operational in early August, normally the busiest harvesting period.

"Inactivity and irresponsibility" on the part of several government ministries is the chief problem, Rutskoi added, vowing to hold accountable those responsible for the problems.

During the weekend, Rutskoi also criticized the government's stance on grain purchases, hinting that the state should offer more than 10,000 rubles a ton. Mr. Gorbunov and others on the Gorshikha farm say a fair price would be 20,000 rubles ($128) per ton, citing the effects of rampant inflation.

"We need at least 20,000 in order to pay for all of our expenditures," says Alexander Berezin, the farm's chief accountant. "The government is making a big mistake. It should do more to motivate people to work."

Farmers held small demonstrations in several cities last week, protesting the government's grain price policy. Many also were upset with pay levels, saying salaries for agricultural laborers should be raised to match those of urban industrial workers. Gorbunov says the average monthly salary on the Gorshikha farm is about 3,000 rubles (about $19), which is considered below the poverty level.

The government does not, however, seem willing to budge on its positions. Economics Minister Andrei Nechayev, speaking at a news conference Thursday, claimed it would be cheaper for the government to import grain than to pay Russian farmers 20,000 rubles per ton.

"Ten thousand rubles is quite a reasonable price to provide the necessary financing and equipment," he said.

The steadfast government stance has those on the Gorshikha farm vowing to withhold from state purchases its estimated grain crop of 2,000 tons. Following the lead of many other farms, the Gorshikha leadership says it will seek private buyers who offer a "fair price."

In spite of the dispute over grain prices and the effects of the drought, Mr. Gorbunov, as well as regional government officials in Yaroslavl, insists there will be enough food for the winter.

"Any talk of hunger is ridiculous," says Anatoly Lisitsin, chief executive of the Yaroslavsky region.

But continuing stringent government agricultural policies could cause a crisis next year, including widespread bankruptcies, warns Mr. Berezin, the Gorshikha farm's chief accountant. Inflation, he adds, has gobbled up all the farm's funds.

"We're able to make due this year, but we face a monetary crisis next year," he says. "We won't be able to afford new equipment or to buy seeds for the next harvest."

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