How did Kruschev foul the Soviet agricultural harvest up?

In a russian History class I took, I heard that before he became Premier that he was in charge of the government agricultural Ministry. He got big raves for his “Virgin Lands(???)” program that did so well with the grain. From what I understand, just before his downfall, this very same program went totally bust, and was responsible for vast famines because he forgot to rotate the crops, or to replenish the minerals with fertilizer, or something similar. My question is, how could a Minister of Agriculture have not known something that idiotically simple? More to the point, how could *this * Min of Ag not know that?

Someone with a more detailed knowledge of this subject will doubtless be along soon, but this I do know.

In the Ministry of Agriculture, and probably in other ministries also, the passing of information from top to bottom of the hierarchy and vice versa was fraught with difficulties.

If the ministry set targets for production and these targets were not met, the farm managers had the choice of feeding the correct details back to the top or simply lying about the figures. The former choice may have resulted in a transfer to Siberia (or worse) whereas the latter option at least deferred the day of reckoning.

The Virgin Lands campaign was the Soviet attempt to cultivate the Khazaksteppe. What happened to it was the same thing that happened in the American midwest, leading to the dust bowl. In both cases, you had grasslands with a top layer of sod that held in the moisture. By breaking the sod up, you can get really good harvests. But if you’re not careful, you’ll also make it impossible for the soil to hold on to moisture. When that happens, if there’s a drought, you get soil erosion and previously good farmland is ruined.

The mass famines of the 1930 did not have any single reason. No one person ‘forgot to rotate the crops.’ Instead it was the result of a number of very bad policies.

First off, Stalin needed cash to industrialize. Marx said the Communist state would be an industrial one, so the government stole food from the farmers to buy imported technologies and to support city-dwellers.

Next, and related to the first, was collectivization of farming. Russian have been farming for centuries. Lenin (and then Stalin) decided they knew better and organized the farms into larger and larger organizations in order to take advantage of modern equipment and the economies of scale. The agricultural sector was remodeled to resemble the industrial one, with huge ‘factories.’

This did not work of course. Individual responsibility was destroyed, as were the rewards the market provides to good producers.

The Soviets rejected simple scientific facts (like genetic theory). Marx told them what the truth was, so they could ignore the facts in front of them. The Soviets tried to overrule Nature itself. Rivers were to have their courses reversed. Seas were drained, Virgin Lands brought under the plow.

Of course one can mess with Mother Nature for a while, but soon she takes her revenge.

So a number of factors, all springing from boneheaded politicians led to The Starving Thirties.

Hmmmm… unfortunately I don’t have cites, but from what my professor in my Russian geography class said, farming on the Virgin Lands followed a roughly three year cycle due to precipitation patterns – one year you’d have a tremendous harvest, getting back much more in crops than you’d put in in resources; one year you’d break even; and one year you’d have a horrible harvest and lose everything you put in. So over the long term, you’d never do better than breaking even.

Of course, that’s assuming good farming practices. As Captain Amazing mentioned, they used very poor farming practices, and turned previously good soil into dust. But even if they had done everything right, much like the Great Plains of America, the steppes are just too arid to ever be economically productive farmland over the long term.

Psst… the Virgin Lands project took place in the '50s.

Mass, involuntary relocations of ethnic groups caused peoples to be settled in regions whose climate & soil they were completely unfamiliar with.

Then, Comissars told them to “farm”. Frequently, the people told this had never been farmers. But to object was “counterrevolutionary activity”.

Often, they were told to “farm” with crops they didn’t know anything about, had never even encountered before.

The results were predictable.

Didn’t Lysenko’s retro-Lamarkian evolutionary theories have something to do with it, also?

I knew that, but was warming to the subject and becoming verbose. In any case, the Soviets followed a number of policies that went against the centuries of wisdom the Russian farmer had acquired in the School of Hard Knocks.

Bunch of knowitalls.

No. The forced relocations of people that Bosda is talking about, and the Lysenkoism that jayjay references were both Stalinist and didn’t contribute to the failure of the Virgin Lands Campaign.

Although, there were a lot of Ukranians who moved to Khazakstan due to the project, and their tendency to use the same agricultural methods they used in the Chernozem, didn’t help. But the collectivization, the forced movements, etc. that everybody thinks of when they think of Soviet agriculture were restricted to the Stalinist period. The Virgin Lands failed because they were trying to farm bad farmland in bad ways.

Even though this isn’t the question I want to know-it-all it a bit and say this isn’t quite right.

Kruschev assumed power in 1953 and the Virgin lands Campaign was started by Khruschev as premier (in 1954).

Mainly he rose from obscurity by tying his star to Stalin crony Kaganovich and by doing so, in 1935, he became second in command of the Moscow Communist Party – which for Stalin/in Stalin’s name he eventually purged and controlled. By 1939 he was Stalin’s main man in Moscow and among Stalin’s inner circle. In Moscow, Khrushchev oversaw construction of much of Moscow’s subway system, and in 1939 he became a full member of the Politburo. He had mixed results in the War but landed back ion his feet afterward getting his same job in Moscow. As this link shows he was involved, some, in Agriculture from approximately 48-51ish but it certainly wasn’t how he made his career. What made his career was controlling the Party Apparatus.

Khrushchev moved more and more into agriculture, where he began his schemes for the agrogorod (“farming town”) and larger state farms at the expense of the conventional collectives. His innovations were rejected in 1951, however, when responsibility for agriculture was transferred to Georgy M. Malenkov.

My Soviet History course in college was taught by a professor who had a pretty balanced view of the USSR, and who noted its few successes as well as its many failures. Soviet agriculture was driven far more by ideology and politics than by best agricultural practices, IIRC. Productivity reporting by the big collective farms was notoriously inaccurate, and Moscow tended to hear what it wanted to hear, truth be damned. The problems long predated Khruschev, and continued long after he fell from power.

From Basil Dymytryshyn [“I’d really like to buy a vowel”]'s A History of Russia (1977), pp. 584-585:

Crisis in Agriculture

Along with these modifications of Stalinism came several changes in agricultural policy. Stalin had left agriculture in a deplorable state, and both Malenkov and Khruschev admitted that a crisis existed on the farmlands. Both attributed it to the need to develop heavy industry first, to wartime destruction, to bad planning, to insufficient incentives, and to the government’s failure to encourage the peasant to cultivate his private plot…

…In February, 1954, they announced a plan to bring millions of acres of “virgin and idle lands” in the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia under cultivation. Machinery and people were transported (some voluntarily, some under pressure) to the new regions. The results were mixed. Some success was achieved in 1954; 1955 was a failure because of draught, and 1956 was something of a triumph. But numerous difficulties occured in subsequent years.
To increase the food supply for the rapidly growing population, Khruschev launched a “corn program” in 1955. It called for the cultivation of some 69 million acres of corn, potatoes, and root crops for livestock fodder. He also sent an agricultural delegation to the United States to learn the “secret” of corn growing, and invited American agricultural experts to visit and comment on Soviet collective farms. In accordance with their observations, Soviet authorities gave liberal cash payments to farm workers in 1956, and granted tax exemptions to farms. Further, they abolished the collective farms’ compulsory delivery quota to the state (1957), granted collective farms a nominal voice in the planning of their production, and (in 1958) allowed the collective farms to purchase the equipment of the MTSs [Machine Tractor Stations]. These modifications, however, like those made earlier, failed to increase food production because at the same time party controls over collective farms were tightened, the peasants’ use of private plots was restricted, and those who spent too much time cultivating their plots were penalized. At the December, 1958, meeting of the party’s Central Committee a new plan aimed at sharply increasing the supply of grain, meat, milk, and other farm products by 1965 was sanctioned. But this plan, too, misfired. The dismissal in 1960 and 1961 of many officials responsible for failing to carry it out indicated that agriculture was still the marplot of the Soviet economy.