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Moldovan Farmers Reap Little From Radical Land Reforms

By Stefan Korshak     Jun 19, 2001 in Technology
CHISINAU (dpa) - They made farmer Valery Vrabi sole owner of some of the richest land in the world, but they couldn't make him wealthy.
"We actually had pretty good weather these last few years," told Vrabi, 35. "But there's just no way you can make money farming."
Vrabi operates a 50-hectare private farm near the Dniestr River, in the middle of the black earth belt extending from south Russia to the Danube.
Around 75 per cent of little Moldova is covered by fertile loam, the world's highest percentage. Warmed by the Black Sea, Moldova has a growing climate similar to central France's.
Neighbouring Ukraine, blessed with the same valuable dirt, is nevertheless an agricultural failure. Politicians and farmers, themselves worried about losing the land to speculators, have kept farm land there state-owned.
The average Ukrainian farmer still works at a collective farm, and is as poor as the land he tills is rich.
In Moldova, on the other hand, thousands of farmers received land as their own private property a half decade ago, the Vrabi family included. But today they are no better off than the Ukrainians.
"It worked out that giving land to the farmers wasn't enough," said Nicolae Negru, agricultural analyst.
The Vrabis, three generations in all, live in a plaster two-storey home roofed with old tiles. They keep two draught horses, a cow, two nanny goats, and from one to three pigs depending on the time of year. The courtyard is tidy.
When the weather is nice - which it generally is in Moldova from April through September - the Vrabis have their meals in the garden under the shade of vine trellises. The black grapes, naturally, become home-pressed wine.
"No Moldovan farmer starves today, our earth is too rich for that," Vrabi explained, raising a glass. "But growth is impossible."
That wasn't supposed to have happened.
Moldova's record on land reform is the best in the region. Today more than half of all the country's farm land can be bought, sold, or used as collateral.
When Moldovan land reforms began in 1995, the government argued - as did U.S. and European advisors - that given time and the free market Moldovan farmers owning black earth would turn big profits.
Valery Vrabi has tried to make that theory work for five years. Even though by Moldovan standards he is a wealthy farmer, he now wants out.
Trained as an articulated truck driver, Vrabi was working in west Siberia when Moldovan land reforms began. Since his family lived in a village, in 1995 Vrabi received 10 hectares as his own property when the local collective farm was broken up.
That's all he has got. The collective farm's machinery was either broken or stolen. Vrabi thought about using his land as collateral to buy a tractor on credit, but since banks were making far more money financing trade deals, farm loans cost too much.
Fortunately Vrabi had savings from Siberia, so he rented a tractor and planted wheat. His business has now survived hyper-inflation, three fuel crises, and foreign customs barriers making most Moldovan farm goods uncompetitive in the Russian and Ukrainian markets.
"And I can't sell my wheat at all to Europe, because of the European Union," Vrabi complained.
Using the remainder of his savings, two years ago Vrabi bribed a local official to rent cheaply 40 more hectares of government land. Mild economies of scale kicked in: it costs Vrabi the same day rate to rent a tractor or a harvester, but now he can produce five times the wheat.
In 1997 the United States gave around 100 John Deere harvesters to Moldova as foreign aid. Moldovan middleman companies controlled by government officials rent the combine harvesters to farmers.
Vrabi says the project, costing U.S. taxpayers nearly half a million dollars per vehicle, helps him work his fields faster, but all in all he would rather have an old Soviet tractor and the U.S. cash.
His dark hair already turning a little grey, Vrabi says there's no way he can generate enough income to increase the size of his farm, never mind convince a "decent" woman to marry him.
Poor Moldovan farmers often live without electricity, access to health care, or cash. The Vrabis are, by comparison, well off.
This autumn, Vrabi goes back to truck driving.
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