Introduction climate and agriculture in Russia

When analyzing the development of Soviet agriculture it should be borne in mind that Russia is comparatively poorly endowed in terms of agricultural land and climate and that, under any system of farming, agricultural productivity would be appreciably lower than, for example, that of the United States or Western Europe. Russian farming is characterized by its extreme northerly location. The center of Russia lies at roughly the same latitude as Hudson Bay, and St. Petersburg is actually at the same latitude as southern Alaska. Western European countries, although at the same latitude as some parts of Russia, have an unusually temperate climate for their latitude due to the influence of the Gulf Stream.

According to the Koppen (Parker, 1972) climate classification system, the most typical climate in the USSR is "humid continental," marked by at least some (but sometimes not much) precipitation all year round but with cool summers and cold winters. This type of climate is characteristic for 31 percent of the USSR. By way of comparison, this same type of climate can be found only in small parts of Alaska in the USA. The most typical climate in the USA is "humid temperate," characterized by rain all year round with hot summers and mild winters. This type of climate is characteristic for 34 percent of the land area in the USA, but is found in only 0.5 percent of the USSR in an area along the Black Sea coast (Parker, 1972).

Thermal and moisture regimes determine the potential of the country for agriculture. The thermal condition of the USSR is unfavorable from this point of view. Eighty percent of Soviet cropland falls within the "least productive thermal zone," the respective proportion for the United States being just 19 percent. On the other hand, the United States has 32 percent of its cropland in the most favorable thermal zone, while the Soviet Union has only 4 percent. The USSR is also unfavorably placed in regard to agricultural moisture. Its continental position means a low rainfall generally and a more restricted water supply. It has no extensive humid areas corresponding to the American east, southeast and northwest regions, into which moist oceanic air is drawn without impediment. As a result, the average annual precipitation over the United States (782 mm) is much higher than that for the Soviet Union (490 mm) (Field, 1968). Also, according to Gatrell (1986), only 1.4 percent of the land suitable for cereal cultivation was located in an area of optimum combination of temperature and moisture in the USSR. In the United States, the same optimum climate condition was found for 56 percent of its cropland. In Russia, about four-fifths of cropland lay in a zone of risky agriculture, while for the United States only one-fifth of cropland could be regarded as located in that zone.

Climatic conditions determine agriculture in relation to crop composition, productivity, and fluctuations in yields. In terms of crop composition there is a big difference between the USSR and Western countries. Most of the territory of the USSR is so cold that only hardy, early-maturing crops can be grown. The country is also characterized by great variability in terms of the first and last occurrence of frost (White, 1987). Frost limits the length of the growing season, and the lack of days over 20 degrees centigrade restricts the range of crops. The growing season, essentially the period free from killing frost, is only 130 to 160 days long in the Black Earth region, famous for its rich soils. In the central regions of European Russia, the growing season only lasts between 110 and 130 days. Further to the north, the growing season could be shorter than 110 days (Arkhangelsk oblast). The south of European Russia, which is the major agricultural region (the North Caucasus and Volga basin), is characterized by a growing period of 165 to 200 days. In the steppe regions of Western Siberia, the growing season decreases to between 115 and 130 days (Khomyakov et al., 2001). The growing season everywhere in the Russian Federation is considerably shorter than in Western Europe (260 to 300 days).

In the USSR, the most important food crop was wheat, which was planted on more than 50 percent of the cereal-crop area in the 1960s and 1970s. In comparison with most cereals of the moderate zone, wheat is very vulnerable to cool weather and soil acidity. Both of these factors limited the geographical distribution of the wheat crop to the wooded steppe and steppe zones. Winter wheat crops were cultivated mainly in the Ukraine, the Northern Caucasus and the Black Earth regions, where conditions for crop overwintering were most favorable.

Figure 1.1. Ratio of grain production to demand in the regions of the Russian Federation, 1990

Figure 1.1. Ratio of grain production to demand in the regions of the Russian Federation, 1990

0.26-0.5 | 0.76-1.00 Q Non agricultural regions

0.26-0.5 | 0.76-1.00 Q Non agricultural regions

The climatic regime to the east (in the south of Western Siberia and northern Kazakhstan), with late but hot summers, dry autumns, and frequently a light snow cover in a severe winter, ruled out winter wheat. In these regions spring wheat was planted, although its average yield was half that of winter wheat (Kruchkov and Rakovskaya, 1990). The climate also favors the hard red grain as against the soft wheat, the former characterized by a shorter growing season and a lower yield (White, 1987).

The localization of the wheat crop in the steppe and wooded steppe zones of Russia resulted in a strong division of the country into two groups of regions—"consumption" and "productive." These were officially distinguished for administrative purposes in Russia from the late nineteenth century. Thus this division in general reflects the natural features of the country and exists to this day. Northern and central "forest" regions traditionally have to import wheat and other agricultural products from southern "steppe" regions of the country (Figure 1.1.).

Rye was another important food crop in Russia. In the seventeenth century rye was the main crop in Russia, reaching 50 percent of the total crop area (Milov, 2001). In the first half of the twentieth century the rye crop still occupied up to 20 percent of the cereal-crop area and only later did its area decline to less than 10 percent. In Russia, a preference for rye again indicates the limitations of Russia's physical environment. Winter rye can withstand colder temperatures than wheat and requires less precipitation, particularly during the growing season. Rye also tended to do better in the gray podzolic soils of the forest zone. The hardier root system of rye penetrated the compacted soils more easily and therefore required less deep ploughing. Rye also competed better with weeds (White, 1987) and was cultivated mainly in the forest zone, the central and northern parts of the country.

In the USSR, the major animal feed cereal was barley. Again, the main advantage of barley is that the crop can withstand early frost and a deficit of moisture. Barley produces adequate harvests when planted in clay soils, although it tends to prefer well-drained loam. These peculiarities of the crop determine the wide geographical distribution of barley in Russia, that is, its cultivation in cooler northern regions as well as in the arid warmer regions of the country. From 1940 to the 1980s, the area devoted to barley crops increased threefold due to a growing domestic demand for feed grain. Oats, another grain grown for fodder, differ from barley with respect to their greater vulnerability to heat and moisture. Oat crops were more affected by drought. On the other hand, oats can withstand the acid regime of poor podzolic soils, which is why the crop was cultivated mainly in the forest zone (Kruchkov and Rakovskaya, 1990).

While the most important feed grain, maize, is the dominant crop in the United States, it is ruled out in Russia by the short growing season and insufficient precipitation. Maize crops are very vulnerable to even slight frost. The optimum growing season for maize is 150 to 180 days. For full maturation the crop requires a thermal level of 200 degree-months and a moisture level of 80 percent, a combination found only in a small part of the USSR (western Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus) but in 35 percent of American cropland (White, 1987). The most favorable combination of degree-days (mean monthly temperatures above freezing) and moisture (ratio of actual to potential evapotranspiration) is 200 degree-days and 8 percent moisture. The same problems are observed in the cultivation of grains such as sorghum, as well as soya beans and peas. Their vulnerability to heat, early frost in autumn, and acid soils made Russian farmers reluctant to cultivate these crops. Thus one of the problems associated with adverse climate conditions in Russia is the limited cultivation of feed grain crops rich in protein.

Because of the severe climate conditions, average crop productivity in the USSR has always been lower than in Western European countries and the United States. In the first half of the last century, average yields for cereal crops in Russia were 0.6 to 0.8 tons per hectare as compared with 1.0 tons per hectare in the United States and 1.4 to 1.6 in European countries. Even after the modernization of Soviet agriculture between 1965 and 1975, the productivity of its cropland remained considerably lower than average yields in the USA and Western Europe. In general, the gap was the result of the different climate conditions in these countries, but there were other factors involved. Parker (1972) made an interesting observation when comparing yields in the USSR and the USA. He found that in the drier lands they are comparable, but as one moves into areas with a positive moisture balance, yields increased much faster in the United States than in the Soviet Union. For example, in the needle-leaf forest belt (coniferous forests), average yields of oats are four times higher in the American regions than in the comparable Russian regions. The reason for this probably lies in the fact that in cooler, moister parts of the United States there has been a flight from the land, leaving only the best and most productive lands in cultivation. In Russia, however, although some land has gone out of cultivation in the taiga forest and northern mixed forest zone, a much larger proportion of the cultivated land is poor and marginal, which reduces average yields.

The most remarkable feature of Russian agriculture determined by climate was the great fluctuations in yields. These were much greater than in any other major grain-producing country of the world. White (1987) refers to data published in the late 1930s, which show that the average coefficient of variability of wheat yield, measured over a 50- to 70-year period was, in most of Russia, almost double that of the USA. In the Ukraine, which includes wooded prairies, the coefficient of variation was greater than 24. In core America the coefficient was nearer ten. The core area difference was undoubtedly very much greater, since in Russia it was unsuitable for wheat production, and winter die-off more than made up for lower aridity. The choice of rye as a main crop compensated for lower yields by having less variability, and is itself indirect evidence of the problem.

Kruchkov and Rakovetskaya (1990) found that in the forest zone of Russia, variability of grain production (for the period 1966-1980) reached less than 15 percent in the western part of the country (the Baltic republics and Belarus) and 15 to 20 percent in the central region made up of forest zone and wooded steppes (the Black Earth region) as well as the western part of the Northern Caucasus. Some regions of Western Siberia, located in the southern taiga, are characterized by a variability in grain production of 20 to 25 percent. The variability of grain production increases up to 25 to 35 percent in the wooded steppe of the Urals and the Middle Volga. According to these authors, the highest variability of cereal production—from 35 to 50 percent—was observed in the steppe zone of the Low Volga, the very southern parts of Western Siberia, and northern Kazakhstan. Thus the main grain-producing regions of the USSR were characterized by extreme variability in yields, reaching, on average, 25 percent.

If crop composition and average yields in the USSR were mainly determined by short growing seasons and heat deficits, then the high fluctuations in total cereal production were undoubtedly the result of irregular precipitation. Historical evidence found in KGB reports1 shows that drought was the major climatic phenomenon most frequently affecting Russian farming. Figure 1.2. shows the frequency of reports of different types of such weather anomalies. Forty-eight percent of all reports mentioned drought as the main cause of crop failure in the regions. The second place is occupied by heavy rains that caused deterioration in the condition of crops mostly in the autumn, in central as well as northern parts of Russia. Hail is in third position. In the USSR hail was regarded as a serious factor and measures were adopted to help reduce the frequency of hail damage by two-thirds in the 1970s (Parker, 1972). It may seem surprising to find frost in the last place, although spring and autumn frosts are traditionally regarded as important unfavorable factors in Russian agriculture.

Drought is an inevitable feature of the atmospheric circulation over the main agricultural zone of Russia. Drought occurs when a mass of dry arctic air invades European Russia and forms an anticyclone. The anticyclone, being quasi stationary somewhere in the southeast of the region, causes the air mass to become drier. Dry, hot air spreads along the southern and southwestern periphery of the anticyclone. An especially strong drought occurs when an anticyclone is fed by an air mass from an Azores anticyclone moving in from the west. Moving across

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