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Pools Make Soviet Farm Different, But Agriculture Still In Crisis

May 24, 1988

KANEVSKAYA, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ With two swimming pools in its sports complex and a fleet of buses that take workers to the fields, the Victory Collective Farm might look strange to most U.S. farmers.

While their American counterparts live in lone homesteads surrounded by barns and acres of land, Soviet farm workers inhabit small wood or brick houses clustered along paved streets in a central town. Private vegetable gardens take up practically every inch of spare ground.

The farm’s managers like to impress visitors with statistics: the collective has 277 tractors, 22 dining rooms, two kindergartens, a stadium and a sports complex with a small swimmming pool for beginners and a larger pool for adults. A total of 4,678 people live on the farm.

It is a showcase of Soviet collective agriculture set on 20,000 hectares (47,000 acres) of southern Russia’s best farm land. Due in part to innovative techniques for improving productivity, the farm’s production figures far outstrip national averages.

But despite the operation of 50,000 such collective and state farms employing 25 million workers, Soviet agriculture is in a state of crisis. The Soviet Union still must import grain to feed its own people. Last year, agricultural output fell 3 percent, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Zhores A. Medvedev, a Soviet geneticist with years of training in agriculture, notes in his 1988 book, ″Soviet Agriculture,″ that farming takes 35 percent of the Soviet investment budget, depriving industry and consumers of funds, goods and services they need. The system doesn’t produce enough equipment to plow or harvest.

″All parts of the food program are moving, except for the production of food,″ he says.

Soviet agriculture has been plagued for decades by central planners who tell farms what and how much to plant, lack of incentives for farmers to work the state-owned land, inefficient production and poor storage and transportation facilities.

Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a peasant’s son who directed agricultural policy before taking charge of the Communist Party three years ago, wants to increase incentives for farm workers to improve performance. But he has stopped short of challenging the state’s monopoly on land ownership.

The inefficiency of the collective-farm system is demonstrated by the extraordinary productivity of the small private plots farm workers are permitted to till for their personal use. According to Western statistics, private plots occupy only 3 percent of the land but provide about a third of the nation’s meat, 40 percent of the eggs and 60 percent of the potatoes.

Victory farm officials say they have been using financial bonuses and other incentives for 20 years to encourage farmers to work harder and take care of state-owned machinery. And they say their efforts have paid off in higher production figures.

Farm facilities such as the canning factory, feed mill, storage facilities, and greenhouses lush with cucumbers and tomatoes are expected to pay for themselves. If they do, everyone profits.

″The better everyone works, the more money they will make,″ said greenhouse manager Viktor Solovyev, showing off wooden crates packed with cucumbers being shipped north. ″We understand the economics very well.″

With a year-end, 100-percent bonus for meeting production targets, greenhouse workers can make 5,000 rubles ($8,000) a year, Solovyev said. That’s about twice the average industrial wage. But money alone isn’t enough to make people work harder; there must also be consumer services and goods worth buying.

That is one of the primary goals of Gorbachev’s ″perestroika,″ or restructuring of the economy and society.

Gorbachev told collective farmers at a March conference in Moscow he believes the bureaucratic system prevents most of them from being as successful as they should be.

″Give people the right conditions, and they’ll find a way to increase production,″ he said.

The Soviet leader has consolidated agriculture under a single ministry, preached self-reliance and encouraged smaller work teams to increase efficiency and higher pay for those who work harder.

Farm-village complexes are traditional in some areas of the Soviet Union, having grown out of a feudal system of land management that operated for centuries before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Private farms prospered briefly under the New Economic Policy of the 1920s, the period following the Communists’ breakup of large estates, severe repression and grain requisitioning during the Russian Civil War that came on the heels of the revolution.

But in the 1930s, dictator Josef V. Stalin violently imposed collectivization of agriculture, executing or exiling those who opposed his efforts to control all land and production.

The Kuban area, where the Victory farm is located in a relatively warm climate not far from the Black Sea, is among the regions that suffered most from the famine that swept the country during collectivization and the hardships of Nazi occupation during World War II.

This year, the International Wheat Council estimates the Soviet Union will import 34 million tons of grain but says improved technology offers ″every possibility″ for better harvests.

Still, vast quantities of food spoil in storage or shipment. During half the year, it is nearly impossible to find vegetables other than potatoes, onions, carrots or cabbage in Moscow. When other produce can be found, it is in the markets where farmers sell what they produce on their private plots.

The Victory farm’s basic work is done from clearings set amid the rich, flat fields of wheat, sugar beets and sunflowers that spread for 17 kilometers (10 miles) in each direction from a central landing strip for crop dusters.

A fleet of 35 buses provides free transportation every morning to far-flung areas where workers tend fields and orchards, raise pigs and milk cows, mix insecticides and prepare cattle feed.

Just after 5 p.m. on a recent spring day, buses filled the streets in a sort of village rush hour as they dropped farmers off at the end of the work day. Hours are longer when the work demands and shorter during slack periods.

Most of the farm’s crop work is done by brigades, groups of 100 or so farmers who work from clearings where machinery is stored. Each brigade has a dining room where the workers can eat three meals a day for less than a ruble ($1.60).

But pursuing the smaller-is-better idea Gorbachev has pushed, regional officials in Krasnodar are trying smaller brigades of three to 10 people, which they say seem to be most efficient. And they are studying plans to set up a bank account for each team to emphasize the need for profitability.

Gorbachev has made clear that the state will continue to rely on private gardens.

Under new legislation, city dwellers may be allotted up to 600 square meters (yards) of land outside their cities to plant gardens. They are eligible for loans of up to 5,000 rubles ($8,000) to build a small hut on the plot.

Sergei Zhilin, administrator of the Krasnodar region’s program for private plots, said there are about 70,000 of them in the area and more than 1 million throughout the country.

Gorbachev’s efforts to decentralize decision-making would give more farm managers the leeway that Victory Collective Farm officials have had to try new ideas and adapt to local conditions that central planners in the Moscow bureaucracy can’t anticipate.

Bureaucrats, Gorbachev said, ″coerce, command and continue issuing orders about when and how things should be done: when to sow, plow and so on. They just cannot reorganize. This is what I would describe as the critical line of perestroika.″

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