Russia has 280,000 new private farms, and their production is steadily accounting for an ever larger share of the country's overall grain output. Last year they produced 5 million tons out of a harvest of 99 million, but this year they will produce at least 10 per cent of a harvest predicted at between 90 and 100 million tons.
Despite the impressive performance of private farms, Russia's overall harvest is not in especially good shape. Most Western agricultural experts think that output will be nearer 90 than 100 million tons and that Russia will have to import more than the 6 million tons of grain that represents Moscow's official estimate.
Russia imported 11 million tons in 1993. Sales to the former Soviet Union used to represent an important source of income to farmers in countries such as the United States, Canada and Argentina, and Russia remains one of the world's largest importers.
As in the Communist period, shortages of combine harvesters, fuel and spare parts have afflicted production this year in Russia's state-controlled agricultural sector. Many farmers could not afford to treat their crops last spring and are grappling now with the worst weeds for 15 to 20 years.
Heavy rains in central Russia and the Urals, and drought in some southern areas, have slowed the progress of the harvest. The average grain yield per hectare is also lower than in 1993. But the main problems are the familiar ones of inadequate farm machinery and poor storage and transport facilities, coupled with too little money to improve the situation. Similar troubles are evident in Ukraine, another big grain-producer. Officials say this year's harvest has been 'exceptionally poor' in southern regions.
The US Agriculture Secretary, Mike Espy, is visiting Russia this week and may discuss grain sales and related export credits. 'We want to maintain Russia as an important market for our wheat and feed grains and pork and other commodities,' he said last week.
Russia is likely to remain a grain importer for some years, not least because it does not produce sufficient high-quality wheat. This year Russia may be forced to swallow its pride and buy grain from Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republic that was turned into a major grain-producing region under Nikita Khrushchev.
Kazakh officials predict their country will produce 18 to 19 million tons of grain this year, enough to create a surplus that can be sold to Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics at world prices. 'Grain prices will be good in December and Kazakhstan will be able to sell it at a good profit to neighbouring countries,' said Kazakhstan's Prime Minister, Sergei Tereshchenko, who, ironically, is an ethnic Russian.