Although the Soviet Union had the world's largest soil resources, climatic and hydrological conditions made farming a high-risk venture, even within the most favorable zone, the so-called fertile triangle. This tract has the general shape of an isosceles triangle, the base of which is a line between the Baltic and Black seas and the apex of which is some 5,000 kilometers to the east near Krasnoyarsk. To the north of this triangle, the climate is generally too cold, and to the south it is too dry for farming. Because of the Soviet Union's northern latitude (most of the country lies north of 50 north latitude; all of the United States except Alaska lies south of this latitude) and the limited moderating influence of adjacent bodies of water on the climate of much of the country, growing conditions can dramatically vary from year to year. As a consequence, crop yields fluctuate greatly. Only about 27 percent of the Soviet Union is considered agricultural land, of which roughly 10 percent was arable. About 15 percent of Soviet territory is too arid, 20 percent too cold, 30 percent too rugged, and 8.5 percent too marshy to permit farming. And in areas where the growing season is long enough, rainfall is frequently inadequate; only 1.1 percent of the arable land receives the optimal precipitation of at least 700 millimeters per year (compared with 60 percent of arable land in the United States and 80 percent in Canada).
North of the fertile triangle lie the treeless Arctic tundra, covering 9.3 percent of the country's territory, and an immense coniferous forest, the taiga, which occupies 31 percent of the territory. The tundra is an inhospitable region of permafrost and swampy terrain, agriculturally suitable only for reindeer herding. In the taiga zone, the climate becomes increasingly continental from the northwestern reaches of the country eastward into Siberia. East of the Yenisey River, permafrost is pervasive, and throughout the taiga vast swampy tracts and infertile podzol preclude all agricultural activity except for reindeer herding and limited cultivation of hay, rye, oats, barley, flax, potatoes, and livestock along the southern frontier of the zone. Of far greater economic importance are the forestry and fur industries of the taiga.
Along its southwestern periphery, the taiga merges with a mixed hardwood and conifer forest, which accounts for another 8.2 percent of the country's total area. This zone is shaped like a triangle with its base in the west formed by the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belorussian, and northwestern Ukrainian republics and its apex in the east at a point beyond the Kama River. With heavy application of fertilizers, the gray-brown soils of the region can be relatively productive. Much of the land is highly marshy and requires costly drainage measures. The mixed-forest zone supports meat and milk production and the widespread cultivation of hay, oats, rye, buckwheat, sugar beets, potatoes, and flax. Wheat is also grown in the area, but with only limited success because of the shortness of the season.
A transitional forest-steppe zone stretches in a belt 250 to 500 kilometers wide from the western Ukrainian Republic to the Urals, occupying approximately 7.7 percent of Soviet territory. This area has the best agricultural land in the Soviet Union because of the richness of its chernozem soil, the abundance of precipitation, and the temperateness of the climate. A wide variety of grains, sugar beets, and livestock are raised here. The most serious problem confronting agriculture in the zone is severe water and wind erosion, which has resulted from the removal of much of the forest cover.
Farther south are the vast open steppes, which extend from the Moldavian Republic in a northeasterly direction across the northern part of the Kazakh Republic as far as Krasnoyarsk, covering roughly 15 percent of the Soviet Union. It is a region of relatively low precipitation, where periodic droughts have calamitous effects on agriculture. Because the lighter soils of this region are nearly as fertile as the chernozem of the forest-steppe and because the growing season is longer, when moisture is adequate, crop yields can be large. Irrigation is widely practiced throughout the steppe, particularly in the middle and lower Volga River Valley and in the southern Ukrainian and Kazakh republics. The primary crop of the region is wheat, although barley is also widely sown. Corn is an important crop in the Donets-Dnepr region, and millet is sown along the Volga and on the Ural steppes. Sugar beets, sunflowers, fruits, and vegetables are also cultivated on a large scale.
Immediately south of the steppes is a zone of semidesert and desert that includes the northeastern edge of the Caucasus region, the Caspian Lowland and lower Volga River Valley, the central and southern Kazakh Republic, and all of Soviet Central Asia. Irrigation projects of epic proportions make agriculture in this arid region possible. Among the most noteworthy of these projects in the 1980s were the Karakum Canal, over 1,100 kilometers of which had been completed by 1988, designed to provide irrigation water for 1.5 million hectares in the Turkmen Republic; the Fergana Valley in the Uzbek Republic, with over 1 million hectares under irrigation; the Golodnaya Steppe, west of the Fergana Valley, where over 500,000 hectares were irrigated; and numerous other projects exploiting the limited water resources of the Vakhsh, Amu Darya, Chu, Syr Darya, Zeravshan, Kashka Darya, and other Central Asian rivers. The region specialized in such crops as cotton, alfalfa, and fruits and vegetables; the raising of sheep, goats, and cattle was widespread.
In the Caucasus region, two small subtropical areas along the Black and Caspian seas specialize in exotic crops such as citrus fruit, tea, and tobacco, as well as grapes, other fruits, early vegetables, and cotton. The mountains provide pasturage for sheep and goats.
Agriculture is a productive enterprise on the southern rim of eastern Siberia and the Soviet Far East, primarily in the Amur, Bureya, and Zeya river valleys; Olekminskly Raion in the central Yakut Autonomous Republic; and Primorskiy Krai on the Sea of Japan. The area is well suited for livestock, especially beef and dairy cattle, wheat, rice, sugar beets, and other crops.
Throughout the Soviet era, massive projects have been undertaken to expand the area of arable land. Drainage efforts have been concentrated in the northwest, i.e., the Belorussian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and northwestern Russian republics. The great expense of drainage is justified by the proximity of these areas to major urban centers, where demand for farm products is highest. Between 1956 and 1986, the area of the nation's drained farmland more than doubled from 8.4 million to 19.5 million hectares. The area under irrigation increased from 10.1 million hectares in 1950 to 20.4 million hectares in 1986. Of this total, Soviet Central Asia accounted for 8.5 million, the Russian Republic for 6.1 million, and the Ukrainian Republic for 2.4 million hectares. In 1984 Gorbachev claimed that irrigated land yielded all the country's cotton and rice, three-quarters of its vegetables, half of its fruit and wine grapes, and a quarter of its feed crops. In 1986 drained or irrigated farmland accounted for almost a third of total national crop production.
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