KRASNODAR, Soviet Union — The squinting, weathered watchman at the Korenovsk Elite-Seed State Farm surveyed the small mountains of grain surrounding him, spilling along the pavement under the beating sun, and shrugged.
"Yes, the bread is good this year," Nikolai Govorushenko said. "But there's nowhere to send it. The elevator won't take it, the storehouses won't take it.
"May God hold back the rain."
Soviet farmers are blessed with one of the best harvests in memory this year--260 million tons of grain, according to preliminary government estimates--but the country's storage and transportation network cannot cope with the unexpected bumper crop.
And despite the summer's bounty, the Soviet Union again faces the prospect of worsening food shortages this winter.
The probable loss of up to one-third of the harvest--the difference between the country being able to feed itself or being forced to turn to expensive imports--has prompted a desperate scramble among local and national leaders to get the crops in as soon as possible.
Boris N. Yeltsin, the radical president of the Russian Republic, issued an anything-goes appeal to citizens to do whatever it takes to bring in the harvest, promising that all those who help will receive special coupons allowing them to buy scarce consumer goods.
In Yaroslavl, 150 miles northeast of Moscow, authorities imposed a local state of emergency and vowed to get the harvest in even if it meant marshaling industrial workers, students and army units.
By government count, only 150,000 urban residents are helping gather the harvest this year, compared to 700,000 in past years.
Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov announced that the country would hold back oil it had planned to export, largely to Eastern Europe, and reallocate it to harvest areas suffering from drastic fuel shortages.
Earlier this month, he said the government planned to send 10% to 15% of all vehicles belonging to the country's enterprises to help with the harvest and to put police, KGB and Defense Ministry personnel on the job as well.
The country must make the harvest a success, Ryzhkov has warned on national television, because it cannot afford to keep importing tens of millions of tons of grain each year.
Last year, the Soviet Union spent sorely needed hard currency to import 44 million tons of grain, but the government has warned that it does not have the cash to buy the same amount this year. Soviet officials have requested $2 billion in credits from the United States to buy American grain.
"If we do not cardinally change the situation," Ryzhkov told a meeting of the government's top advisory councils last month, "the country will be in no condition--and I state this responsibly--to import grain in such quantities."
In Krasnodar, a province in the northern Caucasus Mountains often likened to California for its natural riches and superb climate, railroad workers washed out more than 100 cars meant for carrying concrete, dried them and loaded them with grain instead. At the seed processing center of the Kolos experimental farm a few miles away, a garage was turned into a temporary granary.
"More grain, more problems," said Alla V. Kubakhova, the center's agronomist. "There's just nowhere to put it."
Mostly, though, the tons upon tons of tawny grain lie out in giant mounds until trucks can be found to take them to local elevators and trains can be found to move them out.
"If there's one rain, it will start to rot, and if there are two rains about three days apart, that's it," said Govorushenko, the watchman at the Elite-Seed State Farm.
Two million tons of grain is being lost each day because it is not gathered and stored fast enough, according to the Soviet Council of Ministers.
Russia exported grain before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But since Josef Stalin eliminated private farms in his 1929-1930 collectivization of agriculture and replaced them with large collective and state farms, the country has had to struggle to feed itself.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has introduced a series of increasingly radical agricultural reforms aimed at making farmers work better by giving them the feeling that the land once again belongs to them and they will profit personally from bigger harvests.
But food supplies have dwindled further, discrediting his policies and costing him more popular support than any other aspect of \o7 perestroika, \f7 his reform program.
If the government cannot buy enough grain from the country's farmers and refuses to spend more hard currency on imports, there are dire predictions that there might even be shortages of bread, the staple of the Soviet diet.
But an imminent catastrophe was hard to discern amid the towering sunflowers, flourishing beet greens and straight-standing corn in Krasnodar. With the peak of the grain harvest just past, the picture was one of widespread abundance, and officials here said Gorbachev's reforms were finally starting to work.