Patterns of Agricultural Production Today

This section describes the current production patterns in Russia (and, where relevant, other FSU nations) of the main agricultural products: grain; sugar and oil; potatoes; tobacco and tea; vegetables and fruits; and meat and poultry.


Before the Bolshevik Revolution, three grain crops were primarily grown in Russia: wheat, rye, and oats. Rye and oats can grow all the way to the Arctic Circle in European Russia; wheat can grow from Moscow to the Crimea. Barley began to be planted after World War II to provide cheap rations for the Soviet Army, and also for making small quantities of beer; it can grow even north of St. Petersburg. Corn and soy were introduced under Nikita Khrushchev in the late 1950s, after he returned from his famous U.S. tour. These warm crops cannot be grown in much of Russia because of the cold climate, and so they are limited to the extreme south of the country. Figure 20.3 illustrates Russia's total grain production.

Russia's grain production

Wheat remains the main grain (just a little under 50% of the total production by volume). Both the spring and summer varieties grow in Russia. Spring wheat has twice the yield of summer wheat, because it can use autumn rain and spring snowmelt, and is the one more widely planted. Overall, Russia harvested 45 million metric tonnes (mmt) of wheat in 2004—about half of China's level, and below that of India or the United States, but ahead of Australia or Canada. Spring wheat is primarily grown in western Russia, where winters are snowy but mild. Summer wheat is more common in the drier parts of the country farther south and east (e.g., in the lower Volga, southern Urals, and central Siberia). The largest wheat producers are the Kuban, Stavropol, and Rostov areas of southern European Russia, and Altaysky Kray in Siberia. Some of the best land near Kuban can produce 4 tonnes of wheat per hectare.

Barley is the second most common grain, grown on 20% of all acreage. It is a hardy grain that can grow far to the north (e.g., in Karelia) and in the dry south (e.g., in Kalmykia). Russia is the biggest producer of barley in the world, harvesting over 17 mmt per year. Canada and Germany harvest about 12 mmt each. Barley production is important for beer making and cheap cereals. Some barley flour is added to bread. Another common northern grain is oats. Russia is again the world's leading producer, harvesting about 5 mmt per year. Oatmeal is a popular cereal, and people in some rural areas still use horses for transportation and feed oats to the horses.

Rye is the oldest crop continuously cultivated in Europe. It can grow under the coldest conditions on poor and acidic soils. Because of these properties, it has been historically grown throughout northern Russia in the forest zone. Rye bread plays a large role in the traditional diet of Eastern Europeans. Some Russians claim that rye grain is the best source of alcohol for vodka. Russia is one of the three largest producers of rye in the world, at about 3 mmt per year, along with Germany and Poland. In comparison, the United States grows only 200,000 tonnes.

Corn (maize) can grow in Russia, but only in a limited area in the extreme south, where the vegetative season is at least 5 months long. Corn generally requires about 2,500 degree-days to develop, as compared to merely 1,000 for rye. Corn is an important source of livestock feed; it also can be processed for flour or syrup, or used directly in cooking. More recently, some regions in Russia have started processing corn for ethanol fuel. Whereas the United States produces almost 268 mmt of corn per year (almost 1 tonne per U.S. resident!), Russia only manages to produce 3.6 mmt, or about 1.5% of the U.S. level. The main corn-producing area of Russia is in the southern European part, in the Kuban and Stavropol areas. Ukraine is better suited for corn production, with about 6.3 mmt harvested in 2006. Corn chips are still uncommon in the FSU, partially because little corn of the right quality is available.

These southern areas are also best suited for soy production. The largest areas of soy production are concentrated in the Primorye region of the Far East, where the wet monsoonal climate helps its growth. Soy originates in China, so it is not surprising that it does so well in the Russian Far East along the Chinese border. Russia produces very little soy (about 0.8 mmt), as compared to the United States (producing 88 mmt per year) or Canada (producing 3.5 mmt). Thus soy must be imported. It is nevertheless one of the potentially lucrative new crops for Russia, and its production is expected to increase in the future. Soy is versatile; biodiesel and dozens of other products can be made from it. It also requires little fertilizer and needs less water than corn.

Rice is produced in a handful of places, mainly along the valleys of the large European rivers in southern Russia and in the Far East. Most rice must be imported, however, because there is simply not enough suitable land or high enough temperatures to grow adequate amounts of this essentially tropical crop.

Another grain that is culturally and economically notable in the FSU is buckwheat. It thrives in the northern forest–steppe zone of the European part. Unlike the other grains (except soy), which are wind-pollinated grasses, buckwheat is not a grass and is pollinated by bees. When bees are present, its yields are much higher. Unfortunately, the areas most suitable for buckwheat growth are also the zones where much of the chemical industry is located (Tula, Nizhniy Novgorod, Ryazan). Air pollution from chemical factories has a strong negative impact on bees; thus buckwheat yields are low in Russia. Russia still produces by far the most buckwheat in the world—about 850,000 tonnes per year of the total 2.2 mmt. The second biggest producer of buckwheat is Ukraine, with 200,000 tonnes.

Oil and Sugar

Oil-producing crops in the FSU include, first of all, sunflowers. Rapeseed (canola), corn, hemp, and a few other plants contribute small amounts of vegetable oil as well, but sunflowers are the traditional oil crop of Eastern Europe, providing over 80% of all vegetable oil. About 4.1 million ha in Russia are planted in sunflowers—mainly the southern part of European Russia along the border with Ukraine. Russia is the top sunflower producer in the world, accounting for nearly one-quarter, with Ukraine in second place. Collectively, the two countries produce about 8 mmt of sunflower seed out of 26 mmt harvested worldwide. Recently there has been an interest in producing biodiesel from all oil-rich plants, and their cultivation is expected to increase.

The main source of sugar in the FSU has traditionally been sugar beets. Most of this production takes place in the steppe and forest–steppe zones of the western European part. Sugar beets require a fair amount of heat (at least 2,000 growth-degree days), about a 5-month growing season, and plenty of moisture. Russia is in 4th place worldwide in sugar beet production, with about 21 mmt produced annually; it trails France, Germany, and the United States, which produce about 28 mmt each. Some additional sugar has to be imported from tropical countries, where it is made out of sugar cane. In the Soviet period, Cuba was the leading supplier of this type of sugar. Unlike the United States, Russia does not use corn syrup as a sweetener. This results in a distinctly different taste of Russian-made processed foods, pop, juices, and candy, as well as in a higher demand for sugar. Although the difference is hard to describe, a person who has tasted both will know the difference.


The all-important food in the region is potatoes. Introduced under Peter the Great, they have become the main Russian dietary staple. Potatoes are consumed boiled, baked, mashed, and fried. French fries and potato chips are becoming increasingly popular as well. Potatoes are an excellent source of starch and can also be processed for ethanol. Because potatoes originated in the Andes, they require a relatively short growing season, about 120 days. They prefer moderately cool summers and little water, so in fact much of European Russia has a perfect climate for them. In the 1970s over 4.4 million ha were planted in Russia with potatoes; today the acreage is smaller, about 3.1 million ha. About 11 tonnes per hectare are commonly produced, as compared to over 40 in the United Kingdom or the United States. About 40% of all Soviet potatoes came from large state farms, but today only 11.4% do. Much of the Soviet large-scale production of potatoes was notoriously wasteful; in the fall, hordes of college freshmen and soldiers would be called into the fields for a few days of intensive harvesting. Well over 80% of all potatoes grown in Russia today are now grown by people on their small private plots. Worldwide, Russia is in second place with respect to potato production (after China), growing 39 mmt per year. Ukraine and Belarus together produce an additional 30 mmt, while the United States produces about 20 mmt.

Tobacco and Tea

Russia grows some of its own tobacco and tea in the northern Caucasus and along the Black Sea coast. Both are of relatively low quality, because these are subtropical crops that require plenty of heat during the growing season. Russia is a country of heavy smokers; 65% of its men smoke, as compared to 35% in France or 22% in the United States. Fewer Russian women smoke (about 10%), but their number is increasing (World Health Organization, 2007). Russia consumes over 250 billion cigarettes per year; it is in fourth place worldwide after China, the United States, and Japan in this regard, and must satisfy much of the demand for tobacco via imports. Russia is also one of the leading tea consumers in the world. It can satisfy less than 5% of this demand from domestic sources and must import the rest, primarily from Sri Lanka and India, where large plantations are leased by Russian companies.

Vegetables and Fruits

Russia grows a lot of vegetables—about 13 mmt per year on about 4.2 million ha. As with potatoes, most of these vegetables are grown on domestic plots. Fewer than 20% of all vegetables are produced on large farms. The main zones of vegetable production are located near big cities— for example, around Lake Nero (Rostov) east of Moscow, in the Oka and the Moscow valleys, and in the floodplains near St. Petersburg. The biggest production of tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, and other crops needing warm weather and a lot of water occurs in the lowest reaches of the Don and Volga, in the Stavropol, Rostov, and Krasnodar areas. Many essential vegetables are additionally imported from the European Union (EU) and other countries, including even dill and cucumbers, which could be produced domestically.

Russia grows a diverse array of fruits on about 1.2 million ha. Before the Revolution, there were over 200 varieties of apples alone. Unfortunately, the Soviet emphasis on mass production resulted in the disappearance of some of the tastiest ones. I. V. Michurin's (1855–1935) experiments resulted in a number of sturdy new Soviet varieties. He worked out a theoretical basis and practical means for hybridizing geographically distant plants, with good results. However, it is now known that in the process of overly zealous selection, he damaged or destroyed some of the good preexisting varieties. The other fruit staples widely grown in the FSU are pears, sweet and sour cherries, plums, black and red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, aronia, and a few others. In the warm valleys of Central Asia and in the northern Caucasus, apricots, peaches, quince, walnuts, and grapes are additionally grown.

Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, literally means “[City] of Apples.” Its legendary Aport apple variety produced fruit the size of a small football, weighing over 1 kg. Tragically, its commercial production collapsed along with the Soviet Union: Some of the best orchards were sold to developers of elite residential cottages, and others became the victims of neglect as their former owners left the country or switched to less demanding forms of agriculture. Overall, the biggest producer of fruits in Central Asia is Uzbekistan, because it has the largest share of the irrigated Fergana Valley. Some parts of central Siberia, especially the Russian Altay, have small areas where the microclimate is good for orchard crop production as well. The Russian Far East likewise has many unique varieties of orchard

Virtually all Russian “viticulture” (cultivation of grapes for wine) is concentrated in the northern Caucasus, on about 72,000 ha. The Gorbachev antialcohol campaign of 1985 destroyed some of the best vineyards, however. Additional pressures came in the 1990s with the transitional period and increased competition from abroad (cheap imports from Australia, Chile, and Argentina, and not-so-cheap ones from France, Italy, and Spain). Besides Russia, notable wine production exists in the Crimea, in Moldova, and of course in Georgia. Although Russians only drink modest quantities of wine (7 L per person per year—about the same as in the United States, as compared to a whopping 55 L in France), its big population ensures it a spot among the top 10 wine-consuming nations worldwide. It produces about 310 million L of wine per year, and imports an additional 560 million L to satisfy domestic demand.

Meat and Poultry

Let us now turn our attention to meat and poultry production. Russia is a Eurasian country, so its citizens are used to consuming a wide variety of meats—including chicken, beef, and pork, but also goat, lamb, horse, rabbit, duck, goose, and other animals in selected locales. An average Russian is accustomed to eating a greater variety of meats than an average American. The production of meat is a more complicated matter than production of grain, because it relies on so many factors—supply chains for feed, water, and vitamins; good shelter; and so on. Animals are thus expensive, and they are also slow to grow. They are the first agricultural products to fall victim to any economic perturbations.

As a result of poor management and lack of production incentives, the meat products of the Soviet period were substandard. The chickens produced by the state farms were notoriously skinny and tough (jokingly called “bluebirds”). The few types of beef, pork, or lamb sometimes available at state stores were mostly bones. One had to stand in long queues and depend on the mercy of the butcher to get a better slice. Prime rib, tenderloin, and other choice cuts were only available in the nomenklatura distribution centers (or for a bribe, if one personally knew a butcher).

Figure 20.6 illustrates the changes in the numbers of livestock and poultry in Russia between 1990 and 2008. During the difficult transition period after the fall of the U.S.S.R., animals were butchered and, for the most part, have not been replaced in adequate quantities ever since. In 2008 46% of all cattle were raised by large agricultural enterprises (the former kolkhozy), and 47.5% by individual villagers. Only 6% were raised by the modern Western-style farms. Most cattle are in the republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in the Volga federal district, Altaysky Kray in Siberia, and Dagestan and Krasnodarsky Kray in southern Russia. Not surprisingly, all these regions have vast rangelands.

Data on livestock (in millions of live animals) and poultry (in tens of millions) in Russia in 1990 and 2008

Feedlots are rare; most cattle are free-ranging and grass-fed. It is interesting to note that in most areas in Russia, mixed dairy and beef production is the norm—unlike in the United States, Argentina, or Australia, where dairy cows are rarely raised in the same geographic areas as the beef cattle. One of the good places to observe Russialike mixed cattle production in the United States is Minnesota, where dairy farms coexist with small-scale beef feedlots. The geography of hog production is similar to that of cattle, but most large farms are located in the South, especially in the Rostov-on-Don region.

Sheep and goats are most common in the republics of the northern Caucasus. Dagestan alone had over 3 million sheep and goats in 2008. Lamb meat and wool play an important role in the traditional Caucasian culture. Both fine-wool and coarse-wool breeds of sheep are raised. Central Russia's sheep specialty is the legendary Romanov breed from the Yaroslavl region, which has provided the best sheep hides for making winter clothing since the 18th century.

Outside Russia, the Central Asian and trans-Caucasus republics depend heavily on sheep and goats. Delicate wool fabrics are a local specialty and a source of great pride in Kyrgyzstan, for example. With about half of the country in high-elevation rangelands, wool production there makes perfect sense. Also, a meal in Central Asia is rarely served without lamb.

Ukraine and Belarus have many cattle and hog farms. Pig lard (salo) is an important component of the traditional Ukrainian diet. Some peoples of Central Asia, most notably in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, prefer horse meat. Other unusual (to Westerners) forms of meat raised in the FSU include yak in Buryatia and Tyva, and elk in the Far East, Altay, and Khakassia. (The elk subspecies raised there is called maral and is famous not only for its meat, but for its antlers as well. Young antlers contain a lot of blood, which is used as an immune system booster in traditional medicine.) Reindeer meat is consumed locally by the peoples of Siberia and the north (the Nenets, Evenks, Evens, and others). About 2.2 million domestic reindeer browsed the Soviet Union tundras in the late 1980s. Today the numbers are lower, but remain high enough to sustain the native populations.

Poultry—chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys—are common in the FSU. Since the 1960s, the national Soviet Ptitseprom program encouraged the creation of huge industrial complexes for breeding, raising, and processing chickens. These provided eggs and poultry meat to the Soviet masses. The top egg-producing region is Leningradskaya Oblast around St. Petersburg, with Krasnodarsky Kray second, and Sverdlovskaya Oblast around Yekaterinburg third. Clearly, egg production is geared toward consumers in the largest cities and must occur within a short distance from them. Moscow is supplied from about a dozen of the Central district's oblasts, with eggs coming from as much as 300–400 km away.

Although turkeys are raised in many places, the Eurasian goose was the traditional bird of choice for big feasts in the Slavic countries. Today only limited flocks of geese are found in peasant households, mainly in Ukraine. Ducks are raised throughout the FSU, but are rarely available in stores.