Reform Efforts Put Russian Cows on Strike

Privatization is clashing with old collective farm practices, and strapped farms caught in the middle turn to ingenuity to survive

THE good news is that farmers at the Gorky Collective Farm are getting more money for their milk. The bad news is that their cows are producing less milk for their money.

Farm boss Vasily Mamrov, who has resisted all efforts to privatize the 7,400-acre farm, earlier this year bought pasteurization equipment to enable the vast kolkhoz to sell processed milk, which fetches a much higher price on the Moscow market.

But the farm's medium-sized herd of 2,500 cows, which during the Soviet era enjoyed a steady diet of various grains from former Soviet republics, now eat only what the farm can produce itself. As a result of their monotonous diet, milk yield has considerably declined.

``Because of all the changes in the country, our cows have gone on strike, just like the people,'' jokes Mr. Mamrov from his office in this quiet village just outside Moscow, where tractors carrying cabbages compete for space on the dusty roads with imported cars and herds of goats.

The Gorky Farm, with its odd mixture of losses and gains, is typical of Russian state-run farms struggling to adapt under new market conditions.

Although the farm can pay its bills on time - unlike many such enterprises - machinery is antiquated or obsolete, and elderly women are still hired to do heavy lifting. A growing number of young people are choosing to leave the farm for city life. All the same, the farm employs far more people than it really needs - more than 1,000.

The government is trying to reform the agricultural sector, historically the most-troubled area of the economy, by breaking up the mammoth, collective-farm system started by dictator Joseph Stalin, and encouraging private farming.

But in reality, soaring inflation, low government credits, and a trend toward outdated collective-farm traditions have resulted in the lowest agricultural productivity in years.

To cope, many Russians in metropolitan areas buy foreign foods, which are often cheaper than locally produced food because of low import taxes.

Many farmers are still owed large amounts from the government. As a result, they have no money to combat dire fuel shortages or purchase spare parts for existing equipment and new machines to replace worn-out ones.

Seed money

Fertilizers and pesticides are beyond the reach of many farmers, and the price of seeds - many grown in other former Soviet republics - are now equal to world prices.

``We don't have hard currency to buy more grain [from other republics], and it reflects on the quality of the animal,'' says Mamrov, a lean, ruddy-faced man in a gray suit. His cows annually produced about 1,560 gallons of milk each five years ago, but these days they produce about 260 gallons less.

Government officials predict that Russia will harvest 90 million to 95 million tons of grain in 1994, down from 99 million tons the previous year. This is a significant drop, but it is small enough to allow the state to cope without grain imports, the government says, although private traders continue to import.

Privately, however, these same officials say the actual 1994 harvest could be a mere 70 million tons - significantly lower than official forecasts. They add that last year's figure is bloated, as it is a combined statistic for all grain, including that from previous harvests still in storage.

Although the compulsory sale of grain to the state - a key plank of the Communist regime - has been abolished, the state-controlled joint stock company that buys grain for federal and regional reserves still exists.

The state continues to set the price for many grains, so many farmers hoard their crops - often in shoddy storage facilities - while they wait for prices to rise. In some regions, farmers are still hoarding grain from last year's harvest.

To help alleviate the situation, the government allocated 18.1 trillion rubles ($6 million) from the budget to the farm sector this year, a 12 trillion ruble increase over 1993. But by Oct. 1, farmers had received slightly more than half of planned budget spending for the first three quarters.

Last month, Alexander Zaveryukha, the deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture policy who represents the conservative farm lobby, called for tighter agrarian fiscal policies and bankruptcy laws against insolvent farms. But there are no mechanisms to enact them.

One solution could be private farming. While 94 percent of the agrarian sector has officially gone private, many collective and state farms have simply been renamed ``joint stock companies,'' and are being run in largely the same manner as their predecessors.

``Let's say I have 80 tractors and 1,000 workers. How would I divide them up?'' asks Mamrov, who has never taken a government credit. ``And if a peasant has only one cow, what is he going to do with it?''

``I wouldn't want my own farm. I'm too old,'' says retired factory worker Alexei Sharikov, who now works on the collective to supplement his pension. ``What would I do with a cow? Anyway, I like it here.''

The state looms

Russia boasts that it has more than 280,000 private farms. But many are so small they depend primarily on rudimentary barter. Equipment for them is scarce, as existing machinery is only appropriate for the huge state and collective farms.

``Private farming is relatively insignificant here. They say they are private farms, but when you talk to the management, you learn that the state actually owns it all,'' says Henry Briggs, Moscow director of the US Monsanto agricultural firm.

Mamrov, who also raises hothouse flowers and vegetables, which are protected against potential thieves by guards armed with billy clubs, is proud that his farm has retained its collective-farm traditions yet stayed afloat - thanks mainly to his own ingenuity.

After he turned down an offer to buy Israeli pasteurization equipment for $75,000, he scoured former Soviet defense plants for the myriad components required to build his own processing plant - and came up with what he needed for the ruble equivalent of $50,000 less.

In fact, his management has even attracted the likes of Monsanto, which leases some of his land for demonstration purposes in return for providing free pesticides.

Because of Russian farms' limited access to cash, many Western firms provide local entrepreneurs with chemicals, seeds, and machinery - and take their payment in crops.

``There is an absolutely unbelievable market potential here,'' says Mr. Briggs. He adds that ``survival of the fittest'' will determine which farms make it in the long run.

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