New land

[b]It’s difficult for us to imagine Belarusian farming without reclaimed lands; agrarians receive a third of their produce from former marshland: almost 3 million hectares. Their transformation cost over $7bn in the second half of the last century (by conservative estimates), and is responsible for Belarus meeting domestic needs for food, as well as creating profits from exports[/b]
It’s difficult for us to imagine Belarusian farming without reclaimed lands; agrarians receive a third of their produce from former marshland: almost 3 million hectares. Their transformation cost over $7bn in the second half of the last century (by conservative estimates), and is responsible for Belarus meeting domestic needs for food, as well as creating profits from exports
Reclaimed lands are deservedly viewed as national wealth, created by many generations of Belarusians. However, like any other ‘artificial’ project, they require constant attention. Without this, fields would return to marshland, and we’d lose our crop yields. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, 420,000 hectares of reclaimed land currently needs restoration. Moreover, existing reclamation work on 34,000 hectares needs to continue, for later farming use. Reclamation is the most important state project within our current five year programme.

Time brings alterations
Around 60 percent of reclaimed lands are located in Polesie; around 700,000 hectares of peatlands have been reclaimed there, changing life enormously. Before reclamation, Polesie residents felt obliged to leave en mass, lacking employment and comfortable living conditions. It was impossible to farm there. In Gantsevichi, Luninets and Pinsk districts, waterlogged land accounted for up to 80 percent of the territory. Meanwhile, the fields were so small that machinery couldn’t turn. High volume farming was impossible.
Today, it’s difficult to believe but, in 1961, the gross grain harvest in Belarus was slightly over 2m tonnes: crop yield stood at less than 9 dt/ha. Reclamation brought more intensive farming, providing people with jobs, and Polesie gained prospects. By the late 1980s, the best farms in Brest and Gomel regions generated 60 dt/ha of grain.
However, time is pitiless towards humanity’s creations. Many reclamation systems have become worn out, requiring repair, and restoration is expensive. Of course, the return is worth it, since crop yields would otherwise drop to nothing. Clearly, the economic development of the region, as well as the welfare of local residents, depends on reclaimed lands.
In 2010, when the Preservation and Use of Reclaimed Land for 2011-2015 state programme was developed, work was estimated to cost around Br5 trillion. However, in 2011, we were obliged to review the plan. The devaluation of the rouble resulted in prices of material resources rising — leading to the revision of the programme. The initial sum is now doubled explains Anatoly Bulyn, of the Department for Melioration and Water Economy. Sadly, a further trillion Belarusian roubles is needed to fulfil this year’s tasks alone.
Irrigators need to restore around 80,000 reclaimed fields and meadows this year, while new lands are planned to be brought into use in Stolin District. The greatest problem for residents in Olshany village is their lack of farming land. Local farmers (and the advanced Novaya Pripyat Co-operative) are ready to grow top quality vegetables and fruit, having a warm climate and fertile soil. The only thing they lack is sufficient land.
At the same time, around 15,000 hectares of low lying shrubland could be converted to farming use. Their reclamation was conducted earlier, but amelioration wasn’t performed. This year, irrigators plan to turn these territories into fertile fields, with similar work organised in Vitebsk Region — where work began in Soviet times but wasn’t completed. The introduction of new territories into economic circulation is being considered carefully, since reclamation only makes sense where lands are highly productive and will be used efficiently. It costs twice as much to conduct reclamation as to prepare existing fields: Br25m against just Br12m.
According to Nikolay Vakhonin, the Director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Land Reclamation, new reclamation systems aren’t a priority at present. “During the current five year programme, restoration of reclamation systems should finish completely. We’ll then move to a system which is far cheaper than capital repair,” he underlines.
The Institute’s work is allowing us to save 5-7 percent of funding allocated for the programme. Works in Pripyat River Polesie and in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park are also on the agenda, as Mr. Vakhonin notes. He explains that irrigators are using the same hydraulic equipment regardless of the requirements of the land. Belarusian farms are, at last, realising the true market situation, calculating how best to turn a profit — unlike in Soviet times. Then, reclamation aimed to achieve maximum field volume; now our goal is to become efficient.

Sensible compromise
In short, reclaimed lands require constant maintenance and financial injections, so must bring a worthy return. Economic principles can’t be ignored in this respect. Reclamation in Polesie was organised via open channels but such an approach is already a thing of the past. Powerful machinery is required to constantly turn in the small fields, which is inefficient.
As a result, costs are high, while efficiency leaves much to be desired. Drainage and closed channels are more progressive methods. They are also preferable due to the thinning of peatlands in Polesie; open channels have become shallow and, if we continue deepening them, the low level of ground water will drop even further. Although drainage is more expensive, it enables us to reclaim lands even with shallow channels, benefitting the economy and environment.
The only problem is technical equipment, as drainage machinery is needed desperately, which isn’t manufactured in the CIS: their price on the world market is extremely high. The hopes of Belarusian irrigators are now pinned on their own technology. For example, bulldozers are being assembled from Chinese components in Logoisk and drainage machines are being built at Kochanovo Excavator Plant, in Tolochin District. Meanwhile, a more productive machine is being built jointly with British Mastenbroek: a contract has been signed to set up joint manufacture of drainage machines at the excavator plant.
It’s planned that up to 60 percent of spare parts will be domestically produced, reducing prices considerably. According to Mr. Bulyn, in future, alongside the domestic market, the enterprise will be able to supply Russia and Ukraine, who are likely to begin reclamation themselves. Farming is an essential form of production and reclamation allows us to regain new land. The Netherlands is perhaps the best example, having ‘reclaimed’ a third of its farmland from the sea.

From reclamation to irrigation
Belarus lacks stable water provision. In spring and autumn, there’s too much water while summer brings the opposite. Therefore, Belarus is called a country of marginal agriculture; farmers can never forecast their harvests accurately. Meanwhile, food is a major component of Belarusian exports. By 2015, sales of food products on the foreign market should exceed $7bn. So, the next task of irrigators is to create systems of land irrigation, especially in the south of the country.

By Lilia Ogorodnikova
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