For three weeks in late July and early August, Eastern Europe welcomed The Australian Cottongrower–Australian Grain farm study tour with its warmest sequence of summer days ever recorded. On July 30, Moscow recorded its hottest ever temperature of 37.8°C – or just over the ton on the old scale.
And as our touring group found out first hand, the heatwave along with ongoing drought conditions caused severe damage to more than 10 million hectares of the Russian wheat, barley, canola and sunflower crops – or around 30 per cent of all land under cultivation. And the story only got hotter when we entered Ukraine
Winston Churchill said 70 years ago that Russia “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. He was referring at the time to the nature of Russia’s political leanings on the eve of WWII, but it’s also a pretty accurate way to describe agriculture throughout Eastern Europe.
There’s no doubt that the soils of southern Russia, Ukraine and eastern Romania are about as good as it gets for crop production. And the rainfall – apart from this year – is a generally reliable amount to nurture four tonne plus per hectare wheat and barley crops. But these yields don’t happen often and it’s probably because of a variety of reasons adding up to, ironically, a very difficult farming environment within a highly favourable physical landscape
The cost of farm credit, if you can get it, is currently somewhere between 20 and 30 per cent while domestic political whims will often decide the price of your product. While our group was in Eastern Europe, Russia banned exports of wheat to help bolster dwindling stocks while Ukraine, without making it official, were applying similar bans.
Secure land tenure is also a difficult proposition. Farms of any reasonable scale are intricate aggregations of hundreds if not thousands of individual leases ranging in size from five to 25 hectares.
Aging infrastructure also makes the transport, handling and storage of agricultural product very difficult. Our group discovered that farming in Eastern Europe is a complex undertaking very reliant on who you know and who you pay to keep the wheels of business greased – Churchill would not be surprised.