13 February 1998

Russias family farm

experiment goes awry

Just over five years ago,

Zhores Medvedev visited

Russia and reported in FW

on the failure of the

countrys farming system

to overcome its

decades-old inefficiencies.

This autumn he went back

again. Had anything

changed, he wondered?

THERE are many things that we in the West take for granted. One of them is the fact that 90% of all food we eat passes through a complex system of food processing and distribution before it goes in our shopping bags.

In the old Soviet Union it was all a bit different. The output of collective and state farms went to food processing factories and then on to the state retail network. But a whole separate food network existed, whereby produce from peasants small private plots and town-dwellers vegetable co-ops was consumed in its natural form.

However, Russias rural population has been in steady decline since the Second World War. In 1940 67% of people lived in the countryside; by 1987 the figure was down to 34%.

Food production from small private plots had shrunk accordingly. By 1987 it was down to just 23% of total food production, compared to the 77% from collective farms, state farms and specialised poultry, pig, milk and greenhouse farms around the towns.

But by 1990, when the break-up of the Soviet Union was in full swing, the whole process had gone into reverse. New land reform laws announced in 1990 and 1991 aimed to break up most of the collective and state farms, distributing the land and machinery to the peasants so they could create small, productive family farms.

The result was that subsistence agriculture accelerated sharply. The number of garden and vegetable cooperatives, in which town residents grew subsistence food products for their families, also rose. By 1996 the proportion of Russian food produced by subsistence farmers was back up to 49%; by 1997 it hit 52%.

The reason for the change is simple. In terms of the income levels of its citizens, Russia has joined the ranks of the poor countries. With money acutely short, subsistence farming saved the country from famine.

Collective and state farms

When the land reforms began in 1990, there were 27,000 collective and state farms in the Russian Federation totalling 218m ha (540m acres) of arable and grassland. Cultivated land, that is land on which various kinds of crops were sown annually, made up 119m ha (300m acres)

Radical land reforms began to be introduced in the Russian Federation in Dec 1990. The law on peasant farming was adopted, permitting peasants to leave collective and state farms with an allocation of former common land.

But creating family farms was an extremely slow process. Because it was taking so long, on Dec 27, 1991, almost immediately after the USSR was dissolved, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the entire stock of land to be divided into family farms.

The people who drafted the first agrarian reforms in 1990-1991 were convinced that the collective and state farms would fall apart as soon as peasants were given the legal right to farm in their own right. That is what happened in China, when agricultural reform resulted in the extremely rapid disappearance of Mao Zedongs agricultural communes.

In Russia the plan was not to return to the past, but to move to farming in the American-Canadian or the west European style. They couldnt return to pre-revolution Russian farming – that had involved the Russian peasantry living in village communes and their small allotments being divided up into numerous separate strips.

However, it was practically impossible to move to Western-style farming for the simple reason that it was a far more technically intensive form of land cultivation than collective or state farming.

On the collective and state farms in the Russian Federation in 1990, for example, there were 10 tractors/1000ha. In the USA, where the average farm size is 200ha (500 acres), there are 27 tractors/1000ha.

Western European farms are smaller and seemed more like the farms which might be possible in Russia. But they use even more machinery. In France there are 87 tractors/1000ha, whereas Germany has 111 tractors/1000ha. The same applies to levels of fertiliser and agrochemical use too.

Almost all the 27,000 collective and state farms in Russia have remained as large agricultural enterprises. Most are now joint-ownership companies but their area of cropped land has dropped by 10%. Prices of farm machinery have risen much more than the price of agricultural produce, so they have not been able to update their equipment and have cut down on the more labour-intensive enterprises like vegetable and livestock production.

Some 95-97% of grain production is still concentrated in large agricultural enterprises, but outputs have fallen due to the shortage of fertiliser. In fact the tonnage/ha applied of both bag and organic fertiliser is a fifth of what it was in Soviet times.

Grain yields have fallen 25-30% compared to the Soviet period and outputs of other food crops and meat products have fallen by a similar amount.

The new family farms

According to the law on family farms adopted in Dec 1990, the shares of land were calculated in a very simple way. The total area of farmland in each region was divided by the number of people who worked directly or indirectly in agriculture. In Russia there were 218m ha (540m acres) of agricultural land and the rural population totalled 38m. So the average area of land granted to each person came to 5.7ha (14 acres).

In the southern steppe regions the area/person could be as much as 10ha (25 acres); in the central region it was as little as 3-4ha (7.5-10 acres)/person. Pensioners, of whom there were more in rural areas than in the towns, tended to give their share to the younger generation, so each family could receive 30-40ha (75-100 acres) of land. Since the land came free of charge, there was no shortage of people who wanted to set up their own farms.

Simple though it might have been in theory, the actual business of dividing of collective and state farm land proved very complex and the process of setting up new farms slow. By spring 1992, almost 112,000 family farms had been registered in Russia. They covered a total area of nearly 4.6m ha (11.4m acres) or 2.5% of the entire agricultural land of Russia. The average size of a family farm was 43ha (106 acres).

The main problem faced by the new farmers was that they had no money to buy equipment and fertiliser, not to mention seed. In the hyperinflationary period of 1992-1993, it was unrealistic to expect banks to offer credit to finance the new farms either. Most of the farms were ruined and went into self-liquidation.

Nevertheless, the number of family farms continued to rise in 1993 and by the end of the year they numbered 182,800. But it was a curious process – for each 100 new farms created, 30 previously registered farms went out of business and disappeared.

In 1995 the number of farms going out of business began to approach the number being newly formed and the whole process of creating farms slowed down considerably. In 1996, for each 100 new farms formed, 96 previously created farms disappeared and a sort of equilibrium was reached.

In effect, the process has now come to a halt, leaving 280,100 family farms covering 12m ha (30m acres) – 6.1% of Russias total agricultural area. In world terms, this is a huge area of land, approaching Britains (or Polands) 18m ha (44m acres) of farmland and dwarfing a country like Japan with its 5m ha (12m acres) of agricultural land.

Despite its relative affluence in land, Russian family farmers were responsible for only 2% of the countrys farm production in the country in 1996. Private farms reared just 1% of Russias cattle and 3% of its pigs, grew 5% of its grain and 0.9% of its potatoes.

In terms of productivity, too, family farms lagged behind large agricultural enterprises. They were unprofitable, primarily because of the high costs of technical equipment. Some 90% of all farmers could not repay the loans they had taken from the banks and went into debt.

Nevertheless, the government has adopted a new programme to develop farms, which aimed to increase the number of family farms to 350,000 by the year 2000. If this happens, the total area of family farm land will reach 16m ha (39m acres). However, without massive financial assistance from the state, the farming sector cannot develop.

Peasants private plots.

At present only the private plots attached to houses in Russian villages can really be considered peasant farming. It is relatively easy to define the difference between the peasantry and farmers in the agricultural economy. Peasants feed themselves from the land; farmers feed themselves from the profits they make on the produce they sell.

The private plots located close to peasants houses and used as allotments have existed since the time of serfdom. After collectivisation they were limited in size to 0.25ha (0.6 acres), but remained in the possession of peasant families. Legally, however, these plots belonged to the state and were transferred to the collective farms rather than to individual peasants.

They were given, free of charge, to the families who worked them only in 1991. At the time it was calculated that there were nearly 18m such plots in the Russian Federation and they covered a total area of 6.2m ha (15.3m acres).

But these 6.2m ha were the most productive in the country. They received the most manure (as well as the ashes from Russian stoves). Wells ensured that vegetable crops were watered and most of the work was done by hand.

The agrarian reforms of recent years have had little affect on the volume of production in this sector. But because of the general decrease in output on collective and state farms (for which the new family farms have not compensated), the relative importance of the private plots has grown noticeably.

This is particularly apparent in relation to animal husbandry. In 1996 private plots provided 51% of the meat, 41% of the milk, and 31% of the eggs in Russia, as well as much of its potatoes and vegetables. In 1996 in the poorest Russian region, Pskov, 92% of vegetables, 94% of potatoes, 53% of meat and 62% of milk came from these mini-farms (average size, 0.5ha/1.2 acres). In the food balance of the country as a whole, the contribution of this sector now amounts to 40%.


Another agricultural boom has been observed in the last 10 years – micro-farms. These vary in size from 0.02-0.1ha (0.05-0.25 acres) and are cultivated by town residents.

Vegetable growing cooperatives appeared as a mass phenomenon in 1942 but at the end of Second World War were often turned into garden cooperatives. A huge increase in garden and vegetable allotments began in Russia in 1991 when the Supreme Soviet passed a law permitting the registration of allotments as private property.

By 1995 more than 30m town dwellers in Russia were part of a vegetable-growing co-operative – virtually one for each family. Even the inhabitants of northern towns like Murmansk and Arkhangelsk have allotments to grow vegetables during the short polar summer.

Other former communist countries

The only comfort for Russian citizens is the fact that, compared to the other former USSR countries, Russia is not in the worst situation. Only the small neighbouring country of Belarus (where farm output has declined by only a few %) manages to feed its population better than Russia.

Some countries are distinctly worse off. In Ukraine and Kazakhstan the average output from the harvests of 1993-1996 was 65% of what it was before the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the Transcaucasian republics its even worse, with farm outputs over the last six years limping along at 50-60% of what they were before the break-up of the USSR.

What of the future? Because of the sharp decline in livestock numbers and food consumption, Russia was able to survive 1997 without the massive grain imports typical of the past. There was actually a modest surplus of grain. If this trend continues the oil-rich, but grain-hungry new states around the Caspian sea could provide Russian agriculture with the financial support it fails to receive from its own government.

Zhores Medvedev is a British biologist who specialises in the study of Russian agriculture.

A combine driver receives his lunch in the field. Grain production in the Russian Federation has dropped from 117m tonnes in 1990 to 80m tonnes in 1997.

Above:Hand-sowing oats in Novgorod region in 1992. Lack

of money (and bank credit) for buying machinery is a serious problem. Left: 41% of milk is produced by private peasants plots.

Grain production in some CIScountries (1000 of tonnes)

90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 (est)

Russian 116,670 89,090 106,900 98,900 78,650 61,680 73,655 80,000


Ukraine 51,000 38,670 35,630 42,720 32,810 32,320 25,150 –

Kazakhstan 28,490 11,990 29,430 21,500 16,402 9,880 13,180 –

Belarus 7,380 6,300 6,340 7,350 5,940 5,330 5,970 –

Decline in livestock numbers (millions)

Cattle Pigs Sheep/goats

90 95 96 90 95 96 90 95 96

Russian 59m 38m 36m 40m 25m 23m 61m 32m 26m


Ukraine 25m 20m 17m 20m 14m 13m 9m 5m 3m

Belarus 7.2m 5.4m 5m 5.1m 4m 3.9m 0.4m 0.25m 0.2m

Who produced what in Russia in 1996

% of total production

Grain Potato Veg Meat Milk

Type of farm Numbers Total area

Former state and

collective farms 27,000 109m ha 95 9 22 47 53

New family farms 285,000 12m ha 5 0.9 1 1.3 1.6

Private peasants

plots 18m 4m ha

Veg co-ops 30m 2m ha 0 90 77 51 45

Urban allotments 4m 1m ha

and dachas

Glasshouse production around St Petersburg (Leningrad) is helped

by access to heat from the

nearby nuclear power station.