As much as 75 percent of the Soviet Union was unsuitable for agriculture of any kind and only 10 percent was arable. Conditions were best in the black-earth (chernozem) belt reaching from Ukraine through the southern Ural Mountains into western Siberia; it boasted some of the richest soil in the world and had adequate rainfall. Elsewhere, fertile soil, reliable moisture, and an adequate growing season seldom coincided.
Regardless of these impediments, the Russian Empire in the five years before World War I (1914-1918) was the biggest seller of grain on the world market, exporting 11 million metric tons a year. The collapse of Russian imperial rule was followed by the eviction of landlords, the subdivision of land among peasant families, and governmental requisitioning of food during the civil war. Peasants marketed most of their produce at free prices during the NEP, but at the end of the 1920s the regime reversed course again and took all farmland under its control. The collectivization of agriculture forcibly amalgamated all peasant landholdings and grouped peasants into two types of subordinate organizations, collective farms (kolkhozy) and state farms (sovkhozy). In both cases the land was state owned. State farms tended to be larger than the collective farms and raise more livestock.
Workers on state farms received wages and social benefits, while those on collective farms divided the net income of the farm according to individual contribution; in general, incomes were higher on the sovkhozy because of higher labor productivity due to better machinery and fertilizers supplied by the government, as well as the ability to specialize in certain crops. Several years in the wake of collectivization, the regime gave its assent to the peasants’ privately tended garden plots, as a supplement to the government-run system.
The Soviet Union expanded the area under the plow for grains by about 20 percent over the total attained by the Russian Empire, and for other crops by about 90 percent. Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, it made expensive investments in mechanization, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation and drainage.
Nevertheless, it was rarely able to export more than 5 million metric tons of grain per year. In the early 1970s it began regular imports of large stocks of grain. In 1981 it was the world’s largest importer, shipping in 43 million metric tons, or more than one-quarter of domestic consumption. About 60 percent of crop area was planted in grain (principally wheat, barley, oats, and rye), 30 percent in fodder crops, and the rest in vegetables, fruits, and industrial crops (mainly cotton, sugar beets, and sunflower seeds). Beef, lamb, and poultry were the leading meat products; supply of milk and eggs grew substantially in the 1970s and 1980s. The collective farms and the state farms carried out about three-quarters of all production. The hand-cultivated garden plots—occupying 3 percent of the Soviet Union’s farmland and receiving little or no government assistance—produced 18 percent of all crops and 29 percent of livestock products in 1989.
Many attempts were made to restructure Soviet farming. None went to the issues of managerial autonomy and worker incentives and dignity that were the crux of the problem. Poor harvests in the late 1970s and early 1980s sparked mounting anxiety about agriculture. To increase yields in arid areas, some officials proposed diverting water from rivers of the northeastern section of European Russia into the Volga and the Caspian Sea. Others wanted to send Siberian water to irrigate the parched lands in Central Asia. These mammoth projects did not get off the drawing boards, but the obsession with heightening yields bred other irresponsible water programs and also the reckless use of toxic agricultural chemicals, ravaging the ecology of many rural areas. Particularly tragic was the depletion and poisoning of the Aral Sea in Central Asia through diversion of water to cotton fields and the indiscriminate application of pesticides and defoliants. "USSR" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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