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Tales of agriculture from a foreign land

Posted 10 September 2013

By Harper Adams University student and SU Press Officer, Gracey Munro Henworth

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity this summer to travel to a mesmerising country of which I knew very little - Kazakhstan.

The world’s largest landlocked country is hugely vast and varied, not only in its landscape - from mountain ranges to vast plains, but also in its agriculture. As well as the familiar sights of arable, dairy and sheep farms, there are more unusual enterprises of camel, horse dairy and ostrich farms.

My trip was most definitely eye-opening and made me realise how fortunate we are to receive an education that continually encourages us to be forward-thinking and not afraid of tackling problems.

As I found, many of the difficulties that are facing Kazakh farmers arise from a lack of such an education and the inheritance of earlier farming practices.

With more than 80% of the land classified as agricultural, the country has huge potential within the international agricultural sector that few other countries have.

But, although there have been significant developments in recent years, a lot of investment is still required, to further improve the country’s agricultural sector to enable it to become more stable, profitable and productive, as well as helping to prevent the increasingly apparent world food crisis.

Only 10% of the total agricultural land is used for arable crops, of which 6% is irrigated in some form. Kazakhstan is one of the world’s major wheat exporters, with other exports including large amounts of cotton, leather and wool. The main grain crop is milling wheat and, in 2011, the country netted a record yield of around 27 million tonnes.

Even so, the arable region is subject to frequent drought and is considered a zone of risky agriculture. It is due to drought that, in 2012, exports of wheat dropped to 12 million tonnes. Limited crop rotations also add to the instability of the sector, with a Kazakh farmer’s typical rotation featuring two consecutive years of wheat followed by one or two years of spring barley or oats and one year of ‘clean fallow’.

This dependence on a limited range of crop species is often blamed by local people on the methods and culture inherited from Soviet times. It was only in 2003, for example, that oil seed rape was first formally grown within Kazakhstan.

And, athough Kazakhstan has had recent economic success, due to exploiting its enormous oil, natural gas and mineral wealth, the benefits have been concentrated in urban areas leaving wide-spread rural poverty.

Farms tend to consist of hundreds of thousands of hectares, managed cooperatively and receiving significant government subsidies, but even within these establishments modern machinery and methods are a rare sight.

At the other end of the spectrum I also witnessed the nomadic routes of the country, spending three days with a family who farm Camels in Tastubek . Very few people live in this once thriving area since the Aral Sea retreated, resulting in the consequential destruction of the fishing community.

This left them relying on 17 camels for both meat and milk, using the limited excess products to bring in extra finance.

I shall leave you with the words that were shared with me by this nomadic family when they spoke of the need for progress: “It is your generation who have the words to change a nation but you are biting your tongue.”

Perhaps education can address this issue, particularly in agriculture, so that younger people will gain the confidence to bring production in this amazing country on to a more stable footing.

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