The battle for the Siberian harvest

Sov Agriculture Propagnda .jpg

President Putin’s special envoy to the Urals, recently praised the region’s farmers for their heroic efforts to save the harvest. But it won’t save them.


Georgy Borodyansky
28 November 2014

President Putin’s special envoy to the Urals, recently praised the region’s farmers for their heroic efforts to save their doomed harvest. On his return from a visit to farms in the Urals, Igor Kholmanskikh told a press conference that the early arrival of wintry weather had put farmers in a difficult position, but that in many places the harvest was in full flow. ‘I saw it for myself in the Tyumen region,’ said Kholmanskikh, a former foreman at one of Russia’s largest defence contractors who shot to fame after offering to help the president break up protests on Bolotnaya Square in 2012. ‘I was amazed the machinery was working! They were harvesting the grain from under the snow!’

Kholmanskikh was telling the truth. Farmers in neighbouring regions such as Novosibirsk have been working flat out. ‘Yes, they are harvesting’, says Pavel Beryozin, editor-in-chief of Predsedatel, an independent publication popular with local growers, ‘they are threshing water and snow, trying to harvest what grain they can, to sell it for kopecks. But it’s nothing to be happy about — it’s sheer desperation.’

Farmers are threshing water and snow to harvest grain, only to sell it for kopecks

Beryozin notices a certain tendency towards Soviet hyperbole creeping into official statements of late. Back then, sowing and reaping were invariably described as ‘the battle for the harvest,’ a pompous turn of phrase, which frequently masked administrative incompetence. And the bombast of today’s Kremlin slogans (such as ‘Russia is rising from her knees’ and ‘Crimea is Ours’) are equally out of touch with the state of Russian agriculture. ‘Perhaps things are different in some other agricultural areas. But in Siberia we’re staring into a black hole,’ Beryozin tells me. At least a fifth of the harvest in the Novosibirsk Region has been lost and, according to Beryozin, nearly a third of large commercial farms and 80% of small farmers are behind in their loan repayments. ‘They are just waiting to find out whether the banks will foreclose on them or give them a bit more time.’

In some areas the situation is even worse: in the Kurgan Region, for example, where 40% of the grain to be harvested is lying under snow, a state of emergency has been declared.

Bad weather, worse equipment

Siberia and the Trans-Ural area have fared very badly with weather conditions this year. A dry spring was followed by a cold summer, which delayed ripening. Then the harvest began with twice the average rainfall for the season; and the rain was followed suddenly by snow. According to the regional meteorological office, the weather has not been this unpredictable since 1979. The forecasters themselves were taken by surprise: they had forecast a favourable autumn for the farmers, which many of them were relying on.

As Omsk farmer Sergei Detkov told journalists, the meteorological office had assured farm managers in person that, come harvest time, the weather would be the best for several years. Instead it turned out to be the worst.

Pavel Beryozin believes it is time for growers to stop trusting the meteorological office; experienced farmers do not rely on its forecasts. At the same time, Beryozin believes people should not put all their woes down to natural disasters. Agricultural science, for example, could mitigate the consequences. But in Siberia, scientists are silent on the subject. ‘A prominent member of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Science recently confessed that researchers in Siberia would be happy to help farmers select the most appropriate plant varieties and technology, but they don’t have the resources to travel around rural areas.’

Large commercial farms, says Beryozin, took advantage of a five or six day window in the relentless meteorological gloom to bring in their crops — because they have the necessary equipment. ‘But you can count the number of outfits of that size on your fingers here,’ Beryozin told me. 'Most farms don’t have the machinery, or it’s on its last legs: they go out to harvest with clapped-out horses. And they have to tramp through the mud, trying to replace horsepower with heroism.'

Most farms don’t have the machinery, or it’s on its last legs

‘It’s very hard and distressing,’ the Novosibirsk regional deputy governor Vasily Pronkin told the Sibkrai website. ‘In some areas there is just not enough equipment available. You might have one combine harvester to cover 10 square kilometres.’

Russian farmers in Novosibirsk work to cover their grain harvest from the rain.

Russian farmers in Novosibirsk work to cover their grain harvest from the rain. (c) RIA Novosti/Aleksandr Kryazhev.

In the Omsk Region, the situation is not quite so acute. But Ivan Nazarov, who sits on United Russia’s regional agricultural policy committee, believes the lack of equipment is still outrageous. ‘When did we ever have to harvest six square kilometres with one machine? Or six-and-a-half, like in Russko-Polyansky.’ Nazarov knows what he is talking about; he used to direct the renowned Soviet-era Sibiryak state farm.

‘Heroic harvests’

The Omsk farmers managed to save most of their crops from the unexpected winter weather. Only 5% remained under snow, and in total they harvested 3.2m tonnes of grain. ‘It took an enormous effort on the part of the grain growers,’ said Omsk Agriculture Minister Vitaly Erlikh. ‘In the old days many of them would have been made “Heroes of Socialist Labour.” The combine drivers literally lived in their machines. With the weather as it was, they couldn’t thresh during the day. Instead, they worked through the night. Farm managers drove out to distant parts of their land with mobile canteens and bathhouses.’

Kholmanskikh, Putin's envoy, no doubt would have enjoyed the heroic spectacle. But one of Omsk’s oldest farmers, Pyotr Shumakov, sees this heroism as destructive. ‘They are ruining people and equipment. What’s the point of harvesting grain from under the snow? To make it usable, they’ll have to run the grain through a dryer three or four times. And that costs money. And where do you find a dryer anyway?’ Indeed, the region is short of dryers and other equipment. Vitaly Erlikh admits that it’s not even a question of individual farms. For instance, there is not a single dryer in the whole of the Kolosovsky district, which covers an area of almost 5,000 square kilometres. ‘And if the grain is damp, the silos reduce their price per tonne by 1,000 roubles (£13). So you end up burning a lot more diesel. Who needs this “heroic harvest”?’

Pyotr Shumakov was still to begin harvesting his 18 hectares (45 acres) on 3 November. Waiting for the snow to melt and the fields to dry out, Shumakov had been measuring the moisture content of his grain on a daily basis. And all the other farmers he knew were doing the same. For them, it’s not a question of heroism: ‘We don’t need all this showing off. We need to survive.’

The main problem for farmers is that ‘the government has no use for them.’

What matters to small farmers like Shumakov is the state of their bank balance, and most of them are in the red. As Nazarov remarked at a recent press conference, ‘small farmers are up to their necks in debt.’ After this year’s catastrophe, the majority of them ‘may or may not fold, but they’ll certainly be shaky.’ And there are not many small farmers left. Compared to the 1990s, there are now 15 times fewer farmers in the Omsk region. The main problem for farmers, says Shumakov, is that ‘the government has no use for them.’

Import bans are no help

Pavel Beryozin believes that small and medium-sized agricultural business is being ‘quietly killed off’ in Russia. ‘For example, no one pays any attention to the law on agricultural insurance, which might otherwise help. There is no hope of compensation for a failed harvest.’ According to Beryozin, only 10% of land under cultivation in the Novgorod region (indeed across the whole of Russia) is insured. Most large farms depend on government handouts, apart from those with ‘close ties’ to officials. According to Beryozin, ‘in a detailed report by the regional Ministry of Agriculture, the terribly clever investigators from the audit office concluded that the Ministry’s allocation of agricultural subsidies “is of a subjective character and shows signs of a propensity for corruption.”’

Most large farms depend on government handouts

Beryozin’s own conclusions are gloomy. The governance of the agricultural sector gets worse with every passing year. ‘The small farmer is left to face nature alone. Without equipment, technology, silos, roads, money or prospects.’ Both Beryozin and the farmers I have spoken to regard any talk about the Russian government’s ban on food imports ‘giving Russian producers the chance to improve themselves’ as so much hot air. So far, import bans have only led to a rise in food prices; and this rise is likely to be the sole result. Unless they are extended, the import bans will be in force for just one year, but it will take at least three years for investment in Russian food production to turn a profit. ‘We’ll take out more credit, and then what will we do with the extra production?' asks Beryozin. 'With the increase in the bank lending rate, credit has also become more expensive. And our Novosibirsk farmers already collectively owe the banks more than five billion roubles.’

The battle for the Siberian harvest has been won! But the farmers are not celebrating.

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