In Black Earth Country, Russian Farms Despair Over Heat Wave

MOSCOW

Looking out over his sunflower fields in Russia’s famed black earth country, Alexander Kniazev despaired over the damage done by the worst heat wave in living memory.

Nearly four months without rain and record temperatures have scorched the soil and reduced his crops to dry husks. “It’s a catastrophe,” said Kniazev, whose 8,000 hectares near Khokholsky are in some of the richest agricultural land on earth.

Here in the Voronezh region south of Moscow, Russian farmers have toiled for generations in Russia’s black earth country, millions of hectares of ultra-fertile lands that are the envy of farmers everywhere.

But amid the worst ever heat wave in Russia’s history – a disaster that officials say has ruined a quarter of the country’s crops – none here can remember a worse summer.

“In the 18 years that I’ve been farming, nothing like this has ever happened,” said Kniazev, who launched his farm from nothing after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and expects revenues to drop by more than 40 percent this year to no more than US$6.6 million.

“This is without precedent, even the old folks never saw anything like it,” said one of the farm’s workers, Pavel Cherkasov.

Standing in a field of sunflowers stunted and burnt by the sun, Cherkasov, a tawny-skinned man in his 60s, reeled off the litany of disaster faced by the farm this summer.

“There has been no rain since April 23. For 70 days it has been between 42C and 44C, with the soil temperature reaching 70 degrees during the day. And the nights were hot and dry as well,” he said.

“People can drink, they can hide in the shade, but plants can’t. The soil is dried out a metre-and-a-half deep.”

Holding a sunflower in his hand, no more than 10cm in diameter, Cherkasov broke it up to release the seeds. The result: 20 grams of seeds instead of the usual 200 grams a flower normally produces.

In the fields, threshers tore up the earth in a desperate bid to eke out some seeds from the cracked soil.

“Our sunflower fields used to yield 3.2 tonnes of seeds per hectare. This year there will only be 800 kilos, 25 percent of the normal yield,” Cherkasov said.

“I’m worried. There is no harvest this year and who knows what will happen next year? It will take more rain than normal for the earth to dampen,” he said.

Regional authorities also raised concerned about next year’s harvest.

“The drought has already caused the loss of 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of cultivation,” said Alexander Kvasov, the regional official responsible for agriculture in Voronezh, as he lifted a chunk of the black earth, known in Russian as “chernozyom.”

“Without enough rain, we will have to reduce the winter planting,” he said.

With such a difficult year ahead, the region’s farmers said they welcomed the ban on Russian grain exports ordered by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week. Under the decree Russia, the world’s number three wheat exporter last year, has banned exports until December 31.

The ban is indispensable, Kvasov said. “We must keep the grains in Russia to avoid a jump in prices … and ensure the development of all branches of agriculture.”

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