In 1993 agriculture and forestry accounted for almost onequarter of the gross domestic product and almost 6 percent of the total agricultural output of the former Soviet Union (Belarus has 4 percent of the former Soviet labor force). Agriculture employed 20 percent of the labor force.
During the Soviet era, agriculture in Belarus consisted mainly of state and collective farms, with a sprinkling of small plots for private household use. In the early 1990s, the government based its agricultural policies on that legacy. Instead of disrupting the production of food for both domestic consumption and export, the authorities decided to maintain the large-scale farming for which they believed the existing equipment and capital stock were best suited. In 1994 the Ministry of Agriculture planned to transform collective and state farms into joint-stock companies that would be agriculturally efficient and would keep providing most of the social services in rural areas.
In March 1993, Belarus added the Law on the Right to Land Ownership to its Land Lease Law (March 1990). The law on land ownership limited purchases to small parcels for housing and orchards, stated that farming would depend on leased land, and allowed private farmers to lease only up to fifty hectares on long-term leases. This law meant that Belarus would not develop a private farming sector and that farming would stay in the hands of the government, which owned the collective and state farms.
In 1993 private agriculture accounted for 37 percent of all agricultural output, reflecting the increase in the number of private farms from eighty-four in 1990 to 2,730 in 1993. However, the average size of private farms remained small: twenty-one hectares in 1993, compared with 3,114 hectares on average for collective farms and 3,052 hectares for state farms. In addition, private plots on large farms in rural areas and garden plots in urban areas continue to provide a significant amount of food, just as they did in the Soviet era.
Belarus can be divided into three agricultural regions: north (flax, fodder, grasses, and cattle), central (potatoes and pigs), and south (pastureland, hemp, and cattle). Belarus's cool climate and dense soil are well suited to fodder crops, which support herds of cattle and pigs, and temperate-zone crops (wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat, potatoes, flax, and sugar beets). Belarus's soils are generally fertile, especially in the river valleys, except in the southern marshy regions.
Despite the progress made by the agricultural sector in 1993, it suffered a set-back in 1994. A drought during the summer contributed to a decline of 19 percent in the Belarusian crop. Wheat production declined 35 percent from the previous year, while sugar beet production declined 31 percent and potato production declined 29 percent. Animal products declined 11 percent; the number of cows decreased 2 percent, but the number of sheep declined 30 percent.
The greatest changes in agriculture in the first half of the 1990s were a decline in the amount of land under cultivation and a significant shift from livestock to crop production because of the fact that crops had become a great deal more profitable than before. The sales price for crops generally increased more than production costs, while inputs for livestock (such as imported fodder) have increased in price beyond livestock sales prices. Many private farms faced difficulties, caused partly by inflation, which wreaked havoc on preset contract prices, delayed payments, and budget subsidies.
In early 1993, Belarus's government replaced the system of "recommended" agricultural producer prices with "support" prices, which were intended as minimum guaranteed prices and could be adjusted in accord with price increases in agricultural inputs. Meat prices were deregulated in the summer of 1993, and direct budgetary subsidies were no longer provided to the agriculture sector at all.
Basic foods were watched closely, however, and sometimes "reprotected ." For example, prices were reset on rationed sugar in February 1994 in response to a sharp increase in its market price. Another problem was lower food prices in Belarus than in neighboring countries; the government maintained subsidies on food to keep prices low for the people of Belarus. Nonetheless, these subsidies strained the budget while encouraging increased informal exports of food, or "food tourism," from neighboring countries.
Because the agricultural sector is in critical condition, partly the consequence of a drought in the summer of 1994 that reduced agricultural output by nearly 25 percent, the government gave it a special place in the 1995 budget. President Lukashyenka gave collective and state farms credits totaling 520 million rubles to facilitate sowing and to purchase fertilizer. In addition, by implementing sizable price increases for dairy products, pork products, and beef, the government hoped to increase production of these commodities.
Forests cover nearly one-third of Belarus and are the source of raw materials for production of matches, pressboard, plywood, furniture, timbers for coal mines, paper, paperboard, and sections of prefabricated houses. However, during the Soviet era, Belarus's forests were poorly managed and were logged faster than they were replanted. In 1991 the country produced 5.8 million cubic meters of timber.
An ongoing problem facing agriculture is soil depletion, because of a severe fertilizer shortage, and a serious lack of equipment. For many farmers, the answer to the latter, as well as to the cost and shortage of fuel, is a return to horse-drawn ploughs.
The main enduring problem affecting the agricultural and forestry sector is the Chornobyl' disaster of 1986. Belarus absorbed the bulk of the radioactive fallout from the explosion because of weather conditions on the day of the disaster. Longterm radiation affects 18 percent of Belarus's most productive farmland and 20 percent of its forests. Despite the Chornobyl' accident, in 1993 Belarus was still a net exporter of meat, milk, eggs, flour, and potatoes to other former Soviet republics, although its exports were routinely tested for radioactive contamination.
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