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Aging Farm Machinery Hampers Central Asian Productivity

Kyrgyz farmer Baktybek Kupeshov cobbles together makeshift tractors from bits of old Soviet-era cars.
Kyrgyz farmer Baktybek Kupeshov cobbles together makeshift tractors from bits of old Soviet-era cars.
It's hard to make money today in rural Kyrgyzstan, where most farming is subsistence-level.

But Baktybek Kupeshov, a farmer in the northeastern Issyk-Kul region, has found a way. He cobbles together makeshift tractors from bits of old Soviet-era cars.

"As you see from this tractor, I use the transmission from a Zhiguli, an engine from a Muravei, the hood from a Zaporozhets, and the axles from a Moskvich. The tires are from agricultural machines," he says. "So we take cars that are too old to drive, disassemble them, and reuse the elements."

Over the past several years, Kupeshov has built 14 tractors for his fellow villagers and sold them for $1,500 to $2,000 each -- about one-quarter of the cost of a new Chinese tractor. Even he admits his creations are not beautiful, but in a country where new farm equipment is mostly unaffordable, beauty is not the priority.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, Kyrgyzstan has fewer tractors per hectare than any other country on a comparable economic level. It may also have some of the oldest, with many tractors dating back to the Soviet era.

WATCH: Zamir Akimov, 25, who lives in Kyrgyzstan's southwestern Batken region, always makes the most of spring, when his 40-year-old tractor is much in demand. He earns a living by helping farmers who don't have tractors to plow their fields.

Old Tractor Much In Demand With Kyrgyz Farmers
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From Central Planning To Free-Fall

Collective farms in the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic and the rest of Central Asia were heavily mechanized. Today, the falloff in state investment coupled with the graying of old equipment has left many farmers with no choice but to return to animal and human muscle power to raise and harvest their crops.

In Uzbekistan, almost half of the country's cotton crop was harvested by machines during the Soviet era. Today, according to the London-based Cotton Campaign against child labor, it is almost all harvested by farm families by hand.

In Kazakhstan's northern steppe lands, time has also rolled back. During the Soviet era, vast areas were put into wheat cultivation. But according to the World Bank, the area under cultivation has since shrunk up to 50 percent due to soil fertility loss, lack of fertilizers, and obsolete equipment.

Analysts suggest the Central Asian successor states ceased to regard mechanization as a priority after the collapse of the Soviet system disrupted their trading relationships with the other republics in the 1990s.

"Farm mechanization was very much part of the Soviet concept of central planning. Within the Soviet Union there were parts of the country that were manufacturing hubs and then other parts of the union that were agricultural hubs and between the two of them there was a symbiotic relationship," Deirdre Tynan of the International Crisis Group says.

"That fell apart, so what you see now are small countries that don't have that trading relationship, or managed relationship, between manufacturing and agricultural areas."

Investment Needed

Tynan, based in Bishkek, says that as trading relationships broke down, rural roads and other infrastructure necessary for transporting produce also were allowed to deteriorate. Instead of investing in agriculture, Central Asian governments focused on promoting industrial sectors that they believed offer more profitable export opportunities, from energy to gold to silk weaving.

Today, Tynan notes, Chinese fruit and vegetables are easier to find in supermarkets in Bishkek than are locally grown produce because retailers find importing goods in bulk more cost-effective than collecting them from outlying farms. Kyrgyzstan's countryside may be famous for its dried fruits, nuts, and honey but they barely make it to the capital, much less to neighboring states or to world markets where they might turn a handsome profit.

Almost all of Uzbekistan's cotton crop is harvested by hand now.
Almost all of Uzbekistan's cotton crop is harvested by hand now.

Development experts have long encouraged Central Asian governments to make more credit available to farmers to buy the agricultural and transport equipment they need. But governments have yet to invest more than is needed to simply keep their agricultural sectors afloat, mostly by offering low-interest loans to buy seeds during planting season.

At the same time, development experts have urged governments to open up their agricultural sectors to greater foreign investment that could provide the capital needed to build an agricultural export market. However, in many countries ownership laws continue to make it difficult for foreign entities to buy farmland because it is considered a national resource.

Making Do

In many places, that leaves it to the farmers themselves to cope with what has become an ever-worsening situation.

Artyk Akbarov, a teenager in the southwestern Osh region of Kyrgyzstan, earns money by helping his poorest neighbors plow their fields by hand.

"There are no jobs in the village, so it's good for us that tractors are expensive. We take any free horse or donkey in the village and hitch up the plow and we help people in their fields," Akbarov says.

"For 1,500 soms [$30] a blacksmith can make a horse-drawn plow, and simpler ones are even cheaper. I work together with a friend and on average we make 1,000 soms a day."

Akbarov says it takes a full day to plow a one-hectare field with a horse, compared to 30 minutes with a tractor. But for a farmer to hire someone with a tractor to do the work would cost the farmer eight times more.

That's good news for 16-year-old Akbarov and his friends. But Kyrgyzstan has a long row ahead of it as it tries to reverse the declining productivity of its farms.

The country already regularly imports food from Kazakhstan to fully feed its population -- and muscle power alone may not be enough to improve the situation.

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