Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Global farmland grab and the shadow of the Soviet kolkhozes

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Peasant girl with rake, 1930s, Simon Fridland

Peasant girl with rake, 1930s, Simon Fridland

The World Bank has just released an interesting document called ‘Rising Global Interest in Farmland: Can it Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?’. It is presented as a response to the global farmland grab, reviews global trends of land expansion as well as empirical evidence on land acquisitions in 14 countries between 2004 and 2009: Brazil, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Liberia, Lao PDR, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Peru, Sudan, Ukraine, and Zambia. (I’ll post more on the study as soon as I can read it fully.)

The inclusion of Ukraine is interesting, primarily because of the country’s long history (as a Soviet republic) of collective farming, and also because of the horrific famine that engulfed Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and the lower Volga River area almost 80 years ago, in 1932-1933, was the result of Joseph Stalin’s policy of collectivisation. This is also part of the region which suffered in the July 2010 fires that traumatised Russia.

The Bank’s study contains a few paras about the Soviet farming system which are worth reading closely, for they help explain the current wheat shortage in Russia and the responses of both Russia and Ukraine to the continuing wheat crisis.

Woman Collective Farmer, 1932, Simon Fridland

Woman Collective Farmer, 1932, Simon Fridland

Eastern European countries have undergone major transitions from the former Soviet system of collective and state farms to new agrarian structures (says the Bank’s section on Russia). These transitions have unfolded in many ways depending on countries’ factor endowment, the share of agriculture in the overall labour force, infrastructure, and the way the reforms were implemented. In areas of low population density, where collectives were divided into small plots allocated to members, the plots were quickly rented back by companies with access to finance and machinery.

These companies were often created from former collective farms whose managers could more easily consolidate land parcels and shares. Services, institutions, and logistics were geared to large-scale production, so smallholder grain production was never viable option. Where farms were land- and capital-intensive, corporate farming was the dominant organisational structure. On the other hand, many countries where land was split up into smallholder farms also performed well. The diversity is illustrated by the share of area under corporate farms 10 years after the transition, ranging from 90 percent in Slovakia, 60 percent in Kazakhstan, 45 percent in Russia, to less than 10 percent in Albania, Latvia. and Slovenia.

In Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, the transition was associated with a 30 M ha decline in area sown, with most of that area returning to pastures or fallow. Large farms were better able to deal with the prevailing financing, infrastructure and technology constraints. Aided by the phasing out of an inefficient meat industry and the associated demand for grain as feed, the region turned from a grain deficit of 34 mt in the late 1980s to exports of more than 50 mt of grain and 7 mt of oilseeds and derivatives. In light of the scope for transfer of available technology, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the region’s three land-abundant countries, have an opportunity to establish themselves as major players in global grain markets, especially if ways to effectively deal with volatility are found.

Farmer's first Spring. The Soviet region of Nizhnegorodsk's District, 1929, Arkadi Shishkin

Farmer's first Spring. The Soviet region of Nizhnegorodsk's District, 1929, Arkadi Shishkin

Given the slow development of markets, mergers to integrate vertically to help acquire inputs and market outputs led to the emergence of some very large companies. For example, in Russia, the 30 largest holdings farm 6.7 million ha, and in Ukraine, the largest 40 control 4 to 4.5 million ha. Many of the agricultural companies are home grown, though often with significant investment from abroad. Several have issued IPOs.

Some Western European companies have also invested directly in large-scale farming in the region. For example, Black Earth, a Swedish company, farms more than 300,000 ha in Russia. With greater demand and better logistics, there remains substantial potential for intensification and in some cases for area expansion. Cereal yields increased 38 percent from 1998-2000 to 2006-2008 but are still far below potential. For example, Ukraine’s cereal yields are 2.7 t/ha, some 40 percent of the Western European average. The potential to transfer technology and relatively cheap land has been one of the major motivations for foreign direct investment in the region.

In Russia land is either leased or owned, and in Ukraine. where private land sales are not allowed, all land is leased. usually for 5-25 years. But throughout the region, land rents are still very low relative to land of comparable quality in other parts of Europe. Competitive markets for land shares have yet to emerge. and in many situations imperfections in financial and output markets preclude own-cultivation as a viable option. So the bargaining power of landowners is often weak, suggesting that rental rates are low and that owners receive few of the benefits from large-scale cultivation.

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