Is American Agriculture on the Soviet Road?


At first reading, this appears to be a meaningless question. The Soviet Union disappeared two decades ago and with it went its collective farms. But economic systems can be alike regardless of the ideologies used to justify them. The current trends in global agriculture (America included) are leading to a system very similar to the Soviet model. Thus an analysis of how the system worked (or failed to) is relevant to our future.

Before the 1917 revolution agriculture in the Russian empire was, by our standards, primitive. Yet despite its harsh climate Russia was the breadbasket of Europe, producing enough to feed itself and support large exports as well.

Communist planners believed that consolidating farming into large, highly mechanized, state-controlled agricultural collectives would be far more efficient and productive. Such a system could be run along “scientific” principles, with crops matched to soil and weather conditions, genetic selection of seeds and large-scale use of chemical inputs. Peasants would become “production workers” in this efficient, rational system.

The transition started in 1928 and was completed in the 1930’s. The human cost was huge. Peasant opposition was broken by terror, exile and killings, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Millions more died in the resulting famine. Many of the ablest farmers were victims, with the resulting loss of skills and knowledge.

The system that emerged was modern in appearance, but deeply flawed in practice. What to plant and harvest was centrally planned, with vast regions dedicated to monoculture. The central “tractor stations” providing mechanized power were short of equipment and spare parts. The peasants – now “industrial employees” – were deprived of all initiative and motivation, and productivity declined. The centralized crop scheduling system resulted in “planting” in frozen ground and “harvesting” under snow. The Soviet Union, once a food exporter, suffered from constant food shortages in terms of both quantity and diversity.

Environmental degradation was severe. The signal case was the destruction of the Aral Sea, a 26,000 square mile inland lake once teeming with fish. Diversion of the lake’s tributaries for cotton irrigation resulted in the sea drying up, leaving behind a polluted desert where dust storms now blow a toxic mix of salts and agricultural chemicals.

These effects linger, even though the system was in the main abandoned after the dissolution of the USSR. But even while it lasted the population found ways to compensate for its flaws. Two need to be mentioned, as they illustrate the resourcefulness needed in any agricultural endeavor.

The first was the creation of “private plots”, conceded by the regime to farm workers to feed their families and grow the fresh produce the centralized system failed to provide. The plots were small, one or two acres on the average, and with them went the authorization to “own” a cow, some pigs, and chickens or geese. What the worker did not consume could be sold in independent farmers markets – often the only location where fresh produce could be found.

Statistics are unreliable, but it is estimated that between one quarter and half of the fresh produce (fruit, vegetables, meat, milk and eggs) in the USSR were produced on 2% of the arable land. This was supplemented by whatever urban citizens grew on the land surrounding their “dacha’s” – the second homes or shacks where Russians escaped the collectivist pressure urban housing.

The second element worth mention was the development of new plant varieties by the general public, best illustrated by the “Siberian tomato underground” discovered by Bill McDorman. This vast citizen network dedicated to growing tomatoes in the Siberian climate produced many outstanding strains, now widely available worldwide.

These examples are important because American agriculture is rapidly evolving into something that closely resembles the Soviet model. The similarities are striking:

  • Increased industrialization of farming relying on massive energy and chemical inputs
  • Displacement of independent farmers by large agricultural combines owned by distant corporations, just as Soviet collective farms were “owned” by government agencies in faraway Moscow
  • Reduction of crop diversity to a few strains suited for mass production and distribution
  • Degradation of soils and exhaustion of water resources.

In the Soviet Union agriculture was seen as a tool to increase the power and reach of the state, with the production of food for the population a secondary interest. In our current capitalist world, the provision and quality of food is similarly sacrificed to the growth and reach of mega-corporations, with global agricultural commodity trading in an ever smaller number of hands.  Many of these are international entities no more answerable to the people than was the Soviet Communist Party.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that concentration of power and control in a few elite hands produces the same effect regardless of the official ideology and the claims manufactured to support it. When those effects extend to the food supply, it is time for a change. The biggest issue is when that time comes the skills and people needed to restore what is lost are often gone as well.

This loss can be at least mitigated by the practice of “micro-farming”, the cultivation of a small plot or garden as if it were a farm, focusing on skill, learning and the production of real food, no matter how small the initial quantity. This happened in the USSR and was one of the reasons the people survived the massive errors of the regime.

The Soviet system collapsed far faster than anyone expected. One likely result could have been food shortages or even famine. One of the reasons it did not occur is that farming skills had spread in the general population.

Our web of agricultural cartels and monopolies may crash just as quickly, and for similar reasons. Like the Russians, we need to develop workable substitutes.