A FINE rain mists down on Nikolai Khomutov as he watches his herd of cows munch on the late summer grass in the field. It is late in the afternoon, a time when most of the members of the nearby Ugra collective farm are already indoors and dry.
Mr. Khomutov and his brother-in-law, Alexander Nikolayev, are a new breed of Russian on the land - private farmers. They possess 428 acres of land, formerly part of a collective farm, and more than 70 head of cattle.
These men are part of a new movement of independent farmers not seen in this vast land since Stalin starved the best of Russia's farmers on their land or sent them to die in Siberia. Others were forced into collective farms (kolkhoz) or state farms (sovkhoz) modeled on an industrial factory.
The vast bulk of Russian agriculture still lies in collective hands. But private farming is rapidly increasing, though in an uncertain legal environment in which private ownership of land is still not clearly recognized.
About 140,000 Russians are private farmers, up from just 4,500 in the spring of last year and accounting for about 2 percent of the total land area. But these are necessarily hardy souls, ready to take a risk, often in the face of fierce opposition from local authorities. The new private farmers point to two key problems: the lack of a clear, legal right to the land and the shortage of credits and other support for farmers.
Mr. Nikolayev and his brother-in-law were the first in this region, some three years ago, to take advantage of new laws granting them the right to lease land from the collective on which they had lived and worked.
Last year they were granted a life-long lease with the right to pass the land to their descendants, the new phase of land reform brought by the government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Now 21 collective farm members have followed their example, leaving only 87 in the collective, which is one of the least successful in the region.
The farm's commanding founder, Nikolayev proudly points to the results - the yields of barley and oats on their land are more than three times those of the collective farm and he reaps bountiful harvests of sugar beets where the collective farm gets none.
"It's more hard work," he says, curling brown hair framing his strong face. "The main idea is that it's yours. The people on the kolkhoz don't care. They just get a salary. When I go to bed, I know what I'll do in the morning. At the kolkhoz, every day is directed by a different person. The boss says do this one day and another says do that. You are confused. You just spit and go away. That was kolkhoz life. By morning, people are drunk."
Nikolayev angrily adds that the collective farm still tries to stymie him at every step. Their latest move, for example, is to block the promised extension of water pipelines to his farm.
And he says government help is minimal. He did receive a 3 million-ruble loan (about $10,000) at a subsidized interest rate of 10 percent, as well as a 100,000 ruble grant to help build a cowshed. He also benefits from state subsidies on milk and meat prices. But he complains that this is far from enough and that no more money is available from the banks.
But what Nikolayev wants most of all now is private ownership of the land, free from the fear that someday a bureaucrat somewhere can come along and take his land back. "No law works here," the farmer declares. "At the upper level, they say some things, but at the lower level, nothing works."
The current law allows individual possession, in the form of a lease but not full ownership, with the right to sell the land or even to use it as collateral for a loan. Persistent efforts by the Yeltsin government to pass a law on private land ownership have been stymied by conservative former communists in the parliament.
"The main aim is to protect the farmer," especially from arbitrary local officials, says Nikolai Komov, head of the Russian government committee on Land Reform and Land Resources. The proposed new law would ensure "that land becomes capital. When land becomes capital, people take care of it, as in the United States."
Russian policy is to create a mixed structure of collective and private farming, allowing those who wish to remain in a collective while giving legal and economic support to private initiative. The draft law would create a mechanism to distribute land through a land bank from which citizens would receive and register land in exchange for vouchers, a process parallel to the vouchers now being distributed for shares in privatized industry. Owners will be able to sell land after a three- to five-year morato rium, though only for agricultural use.
Currently, members of collective farms have the right to leave with their share of the total property. In practice both government officials and private farmers say that obstacles are great.
In many areas the collective farm officials offer only minor financial compensation, not land, says Yuri Cherbakov, an official of the Land Reform committee. Others give poor land, located in areas that are inaccessible to roads or other infrastructure.
The resistance is often backed up at a higher levels, up to the Ministry of Agriculture. Minister Viktor Khlystun is credited with being a reformer. But the bureaucracy underneath him is the same as existed in the Soviet era. "All those 4,000 people live by ruling 25,000 kolkhozes and sovkhozes," says Konstantin Mezentsev, an official of Akkor, the association of private farmers. "Without them, what would they rule? And they don't know how to do anything but rule someone."
In some areas, such as the Kuban and Stavropol regions of southern Russia, the movement to leave the collectives has gained momentum, Akkor says. Usually these are unprofitable farms with weak leadership. In most places, however, the power of the kolkhoz director remains untouched.
"The kolkhoz or sovkhoz is the only form of social life in the countryside," says Akkor official Mezentsev. "Even pensions are paid by the kolkhoz, not by the state." In an average collective farm of 2,000 people, some 400 are pensioners, 400 are children, and another 400 are administrators, teachers, and so on, he says. The rest are unskilled laborers with the exception of 50 to 80 tractor drivers and other specialists who tend to be the younger, more energetic members of the collective.
"Our farmers are these 50 to 80 people," Mr. Mezentsev says. "When they leave, they are hated by the whole community because everybody knows that when they leave" the livelihood of those that remain is diminished.
Akkor also complains that government credits and subsidized state purchase prices for agricultural products still flow almost entirely to the collective farm system, often to make up for their inefficiency and losses. Out of 34 billion rubles (about $100 million) promised in February to support private farmers with cheap mortgages and other credits, only 10 percent has been actually dispersed, they say.
Most government subsidies have gone to milk and meat producers, an amount that Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar has said is equal to total expenditure on military equipment. Without private property on land, "it is practically impossible to put in motion normal market mechanisms of support of agriculture," Mr. Gaidar said in a recent interview with Russian television.
Ultimately, the future of agriculture in Russia may depend on the will of a few to scout a path through the minefield laid by decades of Soviet rule.
Standing in the unfinished two-story brick house, one of four being built to house the extended family here, Nikolaiyev's mother Katrina, recalls that her son refused to join her when she moved to the city for a time. "He said, `I was born in the village. I'll stay in the village.' He is courageous. When he took this land, people started asking him, `Why are doing this?' But we suceeded because we worked the land well."