10 April 1998

Belarus takes a crash

course in management

Agricultural development in

the former countries of the

Soviet Union continues to

be patchy. David Addis

reports from Ukraine and

Fabian Acker describes Tim

Robertss work in Belarus

THE well-maintained ring road that skirts the southern edge of Minsk was built in 1980 to allow athletes and supporters from western Europe quick access to Moscow for the Olympic Games. Symbolically it bypasses Belarus; foreign experts, heading for the Baltic States or Russia and the other CIS territories, tend to do the same.

But farm management specialist Tim Roberts was fortunate to get off the motorway. He was heading to Gastello collective farms six miles south of Minsk to provide technical advice. He was there thanks to British Executive Service Overseas (BESO)*, a charity that sends volunteer British experts abroad to provide know-how.

Gastello consists of four farms covering 3500ha (8600 acres) set in pleasant undulating open countryside broken by clumps of forest. Total dairy herd numbers are 2900 head, and three-quarters of the land is cultivable.

Of the 435 workers there are 377 farmers or farmworkers (90% of whom are permanent), 28 managers and 23 specialists. Even with such a large labour input the farms are highly mechanised.

The arable cropping comprises mainly winter wheat, spring barley, triticale, winter rye, spring rapeseed and potatoes with small areas of peas, maize and fodder beet. A large part of the crop output is used for animal feed.

The usual rotation is to plough the grassland in July, plant wheat in September followed by a root crop and then two spring crops of cereals. A grass/clover mixture is undersown in the last cereal crop; it will remain established for two to four years depending on pasture quality. A profitable sideline is the production of high quality clover seed.

Lack of capital and restricted cash flow are two situations familiar to farmers in the UK. But in Belarus these problems are compounded by limited experience of farm planning techniques and the workings of free markets.

Pains of transition

Gastello farms were exceptionally well run under the old regime but are now suffering the pains of transition. Thus the request for the visit, which was to find ways of raising milk production levels, already at a reasonable 4500 litres a cow, was perhaps less important than for the farms to analyse profitability at current production levels.

Of course, there are other factors involved. Produce supplied to the state is not always paid for promptly; 500t of potatoes from the previous season had still not been paid for almost a year later.

Prices for farm produce are low and the taxation system shows no mercy to producers (farms are liable to 22 different taxes). In 1996 Gastellos dairy enterprise appeared to operate at a loss and the overall return for the farms was around 8%. It all sounds reasonable enough until you check the figures more closely.

Coca-Cola factory

What does illustrate Gastellos financial plight is the fact that 15% of its income last year came from the sale of 25ha (60 acres) of land for a new Coca-Cola factory.

Much of the machinery, especially forage harvesters and wagons, is old and inefficient, breaks down a lot and is difficult to find spares for. Credit isnt easily available and interest rates are high.

"In the old days," the farm manager told Roberts, "if we wanted a new combine harvester, we just picked up the phone and asked for one, and very soon it would appear. Now we have to find the money first."

Another problem in Belarus familiar to UK farmers is the drain of skills from the countryside to the city. This is mainly because of the poor wages – an average farmworker is paid about £100 a month, much less than he or she can get in Minsk. Workers are also now free to move around and offer themselves to the highest bidder.

The proximity of Minsk has also brought its own problems. Theft is a real threat to farm income, though not surprising when you consider the poor wages. Maize, for example, is often removed from the fields by motor bikes, cars and even trucks. Tight security is essential for fertiliser, chemical and crop stores.

Despite these difficulties, there are benefits from living close to a large urban population. There is, for example, potential to diversify into related activities such as value-added products and farm retail outlets. Some of these are already being realised but others (which would almost certainly occur to anyone visiting from a more open economy) are not.

According to Mr Roberts the farm collects an impressive amount of information (the 104-page booklet for the farm plan required by the state is an example). But while the accounts are meticulously maintained and computerised, the "tecnicos" are not using the information for farm management purposes as they would in the UK.

State requirement

Good dairy records are kept of completed lactations, inseminations per pregnancy etc, but this appeared to be more to satisfy state requirements rather than to improve management.

Progress on developing value-added products is well in hand, especially for milk products.

The transition from a planned economy into a more or less free market is no doubt painful, but Gastello, with some assistance can make it successfully. Activities still proceed remarkably efficiently considering the difficulties, largely due to continuing good staff morale. Care of the workers, a central element of the former regime, has been maintained. Each milkshed has shower facilities, telephones and other comforts. Meals are prepared and sent to workers in the field.

Other central facilities include a 200-seat theatre where Roberts attended the annual awards ceremony to reward the best workers (televisions and radios were presented), an excellent nursery school, a gymnasium and recreation area, shops and, of course, a bar. If morale can be maintained and the right support made available then the future for Gastello is bright, but time for help is running out.

*For information about BESO, contact K Latham on 0171-630 0644.

Left: Combines setting off in the morning. Many are kept working by cannibalising other machines.

Left: Young stock being fed on a feed-lot style system. With the use of Dutch, German and British genetics over the years the quality of the herds is good. Surprisingly on each herd (of about 250 cows) only a couple of sires were used in the AI programme. However, with such a good local genetic base there did not appear to be any selection of bull calves from the top cows for a progeny test programme.

Below: A group on pasture under the control of a cow-herd within an electric fence, which is moved daily.

Gastello harvest records 1997


Ha Total (t) Yield (t/ha)

Wheat 260 1479 5.69

Barley 515 2511 4.87

Beans 30 122 4.08

Rye 130 703 5.41

Triticale 70 259 3.79

Clover 10 3.37

Arable

(for cultivation) 2796

Grass (for grazing) 251

Grass (for hay) 22

Trees 134

Lakes (dammed) 23

Buildings & roads 277

Above: Maize being cut for cattle feed. Despite guards being posted, the cobs were being pilfered and taken away in cars.

Below: Cultivation by five-furrow plough and big tractor. The area of this field was about 200ha (500 acres).

Economics 1996

(millions of roubles)*

Whole Dairy Farm Cows

Total Revenue 22,200 8657

Total expenditure 20,600 8849

Gross profit 1600 (190)

*50,000 roubles = £1 (September 97)