MARY PROVINCE, Turkmenistan -- For Bagul, a 35-year-old mother of three struggling to make ends meet in one of Turkmenistan's most fertile regions, farming means survival.
Bagul and her husband Agageldi subsist entirely on what they bring in from the hectare of land they rent from the state in the village of Murgap, in eastern Turkmenistan's Mary Province. The family receives about 2,000 manats ($700) per year from the state for their harvest of the country's staple crops, wheat and cotton, which they sow at the government's request.
Two cows and a private family garden produce enough to feed the family and to generate another 700 manats ($245) a year. But this requires Bagul to spend much of her time making the 820-kilometer train trip to the Caspian city of Turkmenbashi to get the best price for their vegetables and homemade cheese.
"Although we mostly rely on our own production, what we earn is not enough to support one family," says Bagul, who spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on condition that her full name not be used. "All of my children are going to school and they always have needs, from clothing to other daily-life expenditures. What can one family do on 225 manats [$80 USD] per month?"
Agriculture is an important part of Turkmenistan's economy, accounting for 22 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank, and employing more than half of its workforce. But as the country tries to make the transition from the Soviet communal farming model to a more privatized one, small farmers like Bagul and her family find themselves caught in the middle.
During the Soviet era, large-scale collective and state farms coexisted in a symbiotic relationship with semi-private household plots. After their day working in the fields with state-supplied equipment was done, workers turned to their gardens.
Caught In The Middle
After Turkmenistan won independence in 1991, the country started to form a new class of "peasant farms" (dayhan hojalyk) with leases for 15 hectares, sized somewhere between household plots and the large farm enterprises. In late 1996-97, former collective and state farms were transformed into "peasant associations" (dayhan birleshik), under which the average lease covers three hectares.
As an incentive for land-lease farmers, former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in the late 1990s offered a decade-long tax exemption. In exchange, farming associations were expected to create their own budgets and eventually become self-sufficient.
Under President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who has led the country since Niyazov's death in December 2006, those incentives have run out.
Bagul says that the reality today shows that the incentives failed to boost productivity, and their expiration left leaseholders to pay the salaries of workers officially paid to work the peasant farms and associations.
"Sowing and cultivation are always late. There are still no improvements,” Bagul says. “However, farmer's income tax from agricultural land was 7 percent before [as of the beginning of 2007], but for the time being it has been increased to 12 percent."
Small farmers face an additional difficulty in that, unlike during the Soviet era when farming equipment was owned collectively, those unable to buy their own machinery must rent it from the state or private owners.
"In order to prepare the land by machine, farmers have to pay 20 manats ($7) per hectare,” Bagul says. “In order to fertilize the land by machine, farmers have to pay 10 manats ($3.50) per hectare, and 10 manats ($3.50) for sowing, 15 manats ($5) for cultivation. If you don’t pay it, you don't get the equipment. However, we do have to pay taxes."
Addressing such concerns during a recent tour of Akhal Province in south-central Turkmenistan, Berdymukhammedov criticized the authorities for failing to ensure "strict control" over the operation of agricultural machinery provided by the government to farmers.
The maintenance equipment, however, is only one example of how the agricultural sector is mismanaged, according to Bagul. She says the state-directed system is not suited to increasing production. "Authorities tell us what to grow, when to irrigate, where to sell the crops, and for what price,” Bagul says. “But as farmers, we know better than officials how to deal with land and crops."
The Turkmen Constitution recognizes the right for private land ownership, but in reality land may not be sold, given as a gift, or exchanged. Local analyst Amanmyrat Bugayev says this reveals another flaw in the government's effort to bridge the transition from collective to privatized farms: no pride of ownership.
"Authorities lease land to the farmers for a one-year period, and farmers do not take care of the land as their own property because there is no guarantee that they will be able to release the land the following year," Bugayev says.
Aksoltan, a farmer from Mary Province who spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service on condition that her last name not be used, suggests other improvements. She says the current system under which the state pays for the crops it has ordered is inadequate, because farmers are unable to predict how much they will receive, and the amounts are meager.
Aksoltan thinks this could be alleviated if the government provided subsidies. "We would like to get monthly subsidies, because when you look at your yearly income it might look like big money, but if you divide it into 12 months, it gives you the feeling that a subsidized system would be much better," Aksoltan says.
Farmers like Aksoltan see their gas-rich country spending lavishly to maintain economic stability in other sectors, or on high-profile building projects. But they wonder why Turkmenistan’s impoverished farmers never see the benefits of the country's wealth of natural gas -- which is exported to Russia, China, and Iran.
Bagul says there are no social and medical services for residents of peasant farms and associations, among other problems. "Roads are in bad condition and natural-gas services are not provided at all," Bagul says. "Why can't the government provide us with natural gas? I don't think it’s more difficult than exporting it to other countries."
Television programs provide residents of rural regions a window into a vibrant life in the capital, Ashgabat. Urban families with even average incomes appear to enjoy the opportunity to have a night out on the town, follow fashion trends, go on holiday, and even buy cars and houses.
"Still, I wouldn’t prefer city life to life in a village," Bagul says. "The sounds of livestock, fresh air, and calm nature are part of my life, and I can’t find them in any city."
"I’m content with my life as a farmer; it’s my life," she concludes. The only thing missing, she says, "is technical and financial support from the state so we can rely on our private resources and [have] freedom in what to grow and where to sell our crops."
Soltan Achilova of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this story from Mary Province