Everywhere the eye reaches, the Siberian steppe stretches, its monotony broken by scattered stands of white birch branching delicately in the empty, frozen light.
In the middle distance, a group of small wooden houses cluster at the feet of drab concrete slab apartment blocks, incongruous in the void of the countryside.
Near at hand, some sloppily mortared buildings provide shelter from the bitter wind.
In one, a sumptuous banquet featuring succulent beef stroganov and mounds of fresh oranges is being readied to charm the visiting foreigners.
Soon, an official of this place will smilingly toast his guests, wish them well and urge them to write of the good thing about his enterprise. He won't talk of the empty grocery store shelves next door. There has already been enough talk of that.
This is the Chik state farm, on the harsh western Siberdian plain not far from Novosibirsk, the unofficial capital of Siberia. It is similar in organization and accomplishment to hundreds of other state-owned agricultural enterprises in the Soviet Union. To come here is to see into the heart of this country's continuing promise - and troubles - as a selfsufficient agricultural nation.
In the fabric of this enterprise's rough extistence are numerous threads: part modern agribusiness of giant machines and attempted scientific management; part hardscrabble sodbusters'settlement from the pages of America's old West; part feudal holding in which the state plays lord to the peasants' peasant; part Potemkin village of deceiving false fronts. Woven together, these threads at once complement, contradict and overlap each other in a manner uniquely Russian and uniquely Soviet.
About 1,100 workers and their families till the 51,000 arable acres of the farm. Together with six other allied state farms, or Soykhozev as they are called in Russian, the enterprise each year raises vast amounts of grain and wheat and farm animals, packages millions of eggs and sends thousands of pounds of milk and dairy products, chickens, pork and beef for sale to the state. It boasts a large grain elevator an enormous chicken factory processing both eggs and fryers, huge feed mixers, herds of dairy cows, swine and cattle in the thousands, and a prize collection of throughbred horses as well cared for as any millionare's Kentucky Derby hopeful.
The community has its own sport teams, its own schools, a reaction center and a small cultural program. Yet life is grim and hard, comprised of spartan living arrangements and remarkable isolation for a place not more than 40 miles from the center of a city of more than a million.
This farm, geographically toward the center of the vast Asian continent and on the 55th degree of north latitude, is subject to a climate of extremes. Winter begins in October and lasts until April. In the short hot summer, when there should be rain to help the vital grain grow, frequently, there is drought. In the brief fall, when the grain must dry out to keep from spoiling, it is often rainy and cold. Instead of piling protectively on the land to save it from bitter cold and further parching, the winter snow is blown away by the wind funneling unchecked across the Taiga from the Arctic Ocean.
"This is the zone of critical agriculture," say the Soviets in an understatement. Crop yields can vary wildly regardless of work. One recent year, the farm harvested about 1,300 pounds of grain per acre. The average is 900 pounds; last fall, the yield dropped to 650 pounds because of a drought, part of the nationwide low harvest that forced the Soviet Union to once again buy millions of tons of grain from the United States, Canada and other nations with perennial surpluses.
The Sovkhoz spreads fertilizer in the spring to improve the yield, but the officials admitted that there is not enough to satisfy their needs. To conserve moisture, birch hedgerows have been planted along the field borders, and snow is plowed in windrows on the fields to keep it from blowing away. There are ambitious plans to irrigate from the Ob Sea, a huge artificial lake created by a hydroelectric dam on the nearby Ob River, one of Siberia's giant, north-running rivers that drain into the Arctic Ocean.
Efficiency has been improved by installation of a radio dispatcher to marshal trucks and tractors and record the repair time for machinery.
"We have shortened the period of idleness of each truck by twofold and the repair time by fourfold," says a pleased manager. The maintenance program includes keeping major machines inside during the winter for protection, he said.Yet a brief tour of one farm area showed many machines sitting outside, including plows, harrows, planters and harvesters.
Farm laborers are paid about $240 a month and mechanics $300. The director earns about $660, including farm pay and a stipend from an agricultural institute where he does research. The pay rates are at least 15 percent higher than comparable rates in European Russia, a bonus to attract people to Siberia.
Higher pay means little, however, where there is little to buy and shortages are common. The figures reluctantly recited by the farm officials after repeated questions paint a picture of rural impoverishment at least as severe as that to be found in any depressed rural areas of America.
Here are some:
There are 700 telephones for the 10,000 families (46,000 persons) of the entire region. It takes eight to 10 years to get a new car. There are about 1,700 cars in the entire region, and about 60 available to the 1,100 Chik farmworkers and their families. About five or six new cars arrive each year at the farm.
There have been chronic shortages of meat, cabbage and chickens and the officials who at first said the seven sovkhozes supply "all" the food needs of Novosibirsk as well as feed themselves later conceded this was not so. Of these and the other shortages, said Alexander Kuznetsov, the chief agronomist. "We have our share of problems in this."
Balanced against these problems are other features common to Soviet life - cheap housing, free public education, free medical care. Rent in a flat or house on the sovkhoz is a few rubles a month. A reporter who visited one dwelling found a small gas range, but only a cold water tap in the kitchen. The comfortable if simple home was heated by a large stove and the couple living there complained that the brick walls brought the cold in faster than did the traditional Siberian log houses. They had a television, as does virtually every household in the region, according to the officials.
Movies or a concert of some sort are scheduled three times a week at a community center. There is a riding school where the children are taught horsemanship on the well-cared-for and high-spirited strains of Russian, Arabian and American thoroughbreds being raised here. The horses are an obvious point of pride for the farm, and the managers delighted in showing off various superbly kept horses, ranging from casual riding horses, to jumpers, flattrack racers, trotters and draft horses.
To attract young workers, the farm guarantees a private apartment or house for army veterans or newly married couples. Nikolai Puzakin, the district chief, conceded that "we have problems with youth. Many go to the cities. Some stay on the farms, but it is a problem." Western demographers have charted a steady depopulation of western Siberia in the postwar era, but officials here say the Chik region's population is stable, an assertion impossible to check. The flight from the hinterland, like that in America and other industrialized nations, is the product of a desire for better job opportunities in the city, and dissatisfaction with the monotony of rural life.
There are ambitious plans for everincreasing production, including an 8 percent yearly increase in meat. The managers were confident that they could meet these goals.
Barely menntioned, but a vital part of the farm economy are the private plots, about one-third acre per family, where fruits and vegetables are raised for private profit. With the farm dormant for winter, no clue is available for comparing the condition and attention given the state fields and the private plots.
But a visit to the large state supermarket, the Univermag in Novosibirsk, and the private farmers' market nearby privides some hints. The state market contained no fresh fish, fresh meat or frozen meat. There were a few sacks of onions, beets and other root crops. Most of the shelves were amply filled, but with packaged or canned foodstuffs. The chilled meat case contained sausage, which few were buying.