“No, no,” I said. “We’re from Tallinn.”
He was trying to get me to buy the run-down buildings that were once a collective farm, near Tartu in central Estonia. We had driven in the driveway not expecting to find anyone and instead encountered him just as he was closing the door of the building where he keeps his sheep. I don’t know who was more surprised, he or us. There was nobody else around, and the place was deserted. We struck up a conversation.
“Did you get any rain yesterday in Tallinn?” he said.
“Yes, it rained hard, and we needed it,” I responded.
“You don’t really need rain in Tallinn. You don’t grow potatoes there.”
I laughed. The attitude of the farmers down south toward the city slickers in Tallinn is all too familiar.
What he wanted me to buy was the remnants of a kolkhoz, from the Russian word for a collective farm. Skeletons of collective farms now litter the Estonian countryside – abandoned and ugly – a testament to a failed experiment.
In 1944, Leninist/Marxist communism in Estonia targeted private farms. In order to drive the farmers off their farms and into the kolkhozes, the state imposed high taxes and restrictions on selling products from privately owned farms. When the farmers still resisted, in 1949 the Russians deported the ones they thought were the biggest troublemakers and sent them to labor camps in Siberia. The other farmers got the message. Survival required moving family and meager belongings to a bare room in a cement block building and participating in cooperative farming.
But something strange happened. As the country became fully collectivized, the farm output declined, steadily decreasing from the high point in 1938, the last year of independence. This made no sense to the central planners in Moscow. The theory said that if farmers are concentrated into larger farms where there is economy of scale (only one tractor that is always busy instead of ten tractors that sit idle 90% of the time), and where there is common child care, common kitchen and common food preparation, the output and efficiency will increase as the costs decrease. The planners recognized that moving farmers to the collectives was traumatic for them, and thus allowed each family to have little garden plots for private crops. The productivity of these small private plots should have been a warning to the policy-makers in Moscow, for these plots, which represented only 4% of the farmed land, produced fully 22% of the farm output. How could this happen?
Much remains to be written about the collectivization experiment, but the reasons for its failure are fairly clear. Taking land from private production and giving it to a commune reduces the incentive of the farmers to work hard. That’s why you need propaganda, and the secret police, and fear, to keep people in line. Put yourself in the place of the farmers. Everyone in the kolkhoz gets paid exactly the same, and that is essentially nothing (the pay for workers in the kolhoz did not change over decades while prices increased many fold, making the workers essentially slaves). But maybe you are enthusiastic and you work hard. Where does it get you? Exactly the same place as the guy next to you who does the absolute minimum. After a while you concentrate on just staying alive and tend your own little plot, and simply do what you can to help your family. You know that there is no future for you, or for your kids, for your children will also be forced to work at the kolkhoz and will not be allowed to leave, just like slaves.
The worst part of the kolkhoz experiment was what it did to the agricultural productivity of the land. If a manager of a kolkhoz needed to meet production quotas, one of the ways to do that (besides lying about it) was to over-fertilize the land. Not only did this over-fertilization produce ground and surface water pollution, but is slowly destroyed the structure of the soil as the phosphates precipitated out. The managers had no reason to worry about the land. It was not theirs. They were just working there.
Today in Estonia the private farm is coming back. As you drive through the countryside you see more and more land under cultivation, and small farm buildings with barns and tractors (that are only used 10% of the time). The country has lost two generations of farmers, and is now trying hard to convince people to go back to the land. Anyone interested in becoming a farmer here will find that land is available. All you have to do is to grow potatoes and hope for rain.