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For Soviets to Master the Land, Land Must Be Given to Masters

March 16, 1989|DMITRI N. SHALIN | Dmitri N. Shalin is an associate professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University.

"Who gets up at 3 o'clock in the morning to take care of a sick cow?" For decades, the Soviets assumed that every collective farmer would rise to the occasion, should the need be. Now, it appears, they are ready to think the whole matter over.

In his landmark address last October, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev came up with an idea that was as simple as it was revolutionary: Until the cow has a master, it won't get the proper care. Hence, the package of agricultural reforms designed to overhaul the entrenched collective farming system.

The new thinking, reiterated by Gorbachev Wednesday before a meeting of the Communist Party's policy-setting Central Committee, doesn't imply a sudden ideological conversion as much as it reflects the dire state of Soviet agriculture. Consider:

--Soviet agriculture is four times less productive than that of the United States.

--Annual food subsidies in the mid-1980s topped $70 billion.

--20% of all collective farms are insolvent.

--More than one-third of all crops are left to rot in the fields.

--15% to 20% of foodstuffs stored in warehouses never reach the consumer.

Add to this that 30% of the nation's meat, nearly 40% of its vegetables and more than 70% of its fruits are produced on private plots making up 3% of the nation's arable land, and one can understand the urgent need for reform.

The program that Gorbachev is pushing allows peasants to lease land and assume full operational control over its use. The advantages of the new system are obvious (farmers leasing land are two to three times more productive), but its heralded future as a mainstay of Soviet agriculture is in doubt. Collective farm bosses and the regional party nomenklatura do everything possible to sabotage the reforms. Yegor K. Ligachev, the Politburo minister in charge of agriculture, has been campaigning to maintain the collective system.

As leaseholders have discovered, the land assigned to them by local authorities tends to be marginal. They cannot count on landlords for timely help with machinery, fertilizers, veterinary services, etc. And they are the last to benefit from investments in infrastructure (such as electrification, road building and school development).

The tenure conditions are a mess. At first, the talk was of leases running from 25 years or longer. In practice, few collective and state farms grant contracts exceeding three years. With no automatic renewal clause, leaseholders face the prospect of being reassigned to even less-productive plots. The pricing system presents another stumbling block. In the absence of large-scale private markets, leaseholders depend on state-set prices for both their products and for industrial goods. Early reports indicate that private farmers pay at least 50% more for machinery and services than what the government charges state enterprises. By contrast, wholesale foodstuff prices are low and could be further lowered by the state at any time.

Two more impediments to effective leasehold farming concern credit and insurance. Soviet banks are reluctant to lend money to individual peasants until suitable bankruptcy provisions are put in place. And no arrangements have been made to allow full-time private farmers to obtain accident insurance and retirement benefits comparable to the ones guaranteed to collective and state-farm employees.

Finally, there is the psychological lag. The Chinese have had great success with decollectivizing their agriculture because many peasants could draw on experience with private farming from the days before the 1948 Communist takeover. By contrast, after 60 years of collective farming, Soviet peasants have little wherewithal or appetite for private enterprise.

Are the Soviet agriculture reforms doomed? Not necessarily. What Gorbachev and his aides have to understand is that "returning master to the land" is impossible without "returning land to the master."

This means long-term leases. It also means the establishment of guaranteed wholesale prices, favorable credit terms and equitable insurance policies. Above all, it means wresting control over the reforms from the local authorities with the vested interests in the obsolete farming system.

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