Russia's Farm Comeback

At last one of the most tragic chapters of Joseph Stalin's collective coercion is closing.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced recently that for the first time in 50 years his once great grain-producing nation would again export wheat to the outer world.

During those 50 years, on average, 20 million metric tons of wheat were imported annually from the US and Canada - a chronic reminder of the failure of communism. They were also a mournful reminder of the ruthless way in which Stalin and his ideological enforcers corralled, murdered, and starved Soviet farmers into collectives. The contrast between incentive-driven North American agriculture and regimented Soviet state farms was clear. Import statistics kept score.

Grain specialists say this first year of exporting will be a modest one. Mr. Yeltsin forecast a total harvest of 80 million metric tons, and said he expected 10 million of that to be sold abroad. Commodity traders expect less. Further, they say Russia will likely have to import some of the higher quality wheat used for bread, while shipping out lower quality wheat and barley used for livestock feed.

Nevertheless, this marks a striking comeback. As recently as two years ago total tonnage was 20 percent lower, and there was pessimism about privatization reforms taking hold in agriculture as they had in manufacturing. Yeltsin argues that this year's big jump in production shows that reforms are starting to work in farming. He reiterated his faith in private farming, saying that individual farmers should not only be free to buy fertilizer and equipment from the most competitive suppliers, but also be able to buy and sell land.

Good weather may be partly responsible for this year's increased harvest. But there can be little doubt that free farmers with a stake in improving their soil, methods, and yield are the main reason for reversing 50 deficit harvest years. That's good news for Russia. And good news for world food supplies.

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