Agriculture is the single largest employer, but between 1990 and 2005 its share of gross domestic product shrank from 35 percent to 6.7 percent. Few agricultural products have export value. The main agricultural products are grain, sugar beets, sunflower seed, fruits and vegetables, beef, and wool. Kazakhstan has agricultural land of good quality, but its continental climate and soil-depleting agricultural practices have limited exploitation. Land privatization has been uneven and inefficient. Landholding law reforms passed in 2003 failed to encourage trading in land, which would improve agricultural efficiency. Aided by good weather and a three-year rural revival program, agricultural output grew by 6.7 percent in 2005 after averaging 1.6 percent growth in the previous four years. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

The climate and soil of most of Kazakhstan are best suited to the light grazing by which the nomadic Kazakhs had traditionally supported themselves, following herds of sheep, cattle, camels, and horses about the open steppe. The primary agricultural regions are the north-central and southern parts of the republic. Grain production is especially important in the north-central region, and cotton and rice predominate in the south Kazakhstan also is a major producer of meat and milk. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 2005 some 8.3 percent of land was rated as arable, a reduction from the 1998 estimate of 11.2 percent. Less than 0.1 percent of that land was under permanent crops. About 4.8 percent is forest and woodland. The remainder is pastureland, meadows, desert, and mountains. In 2003 irrigated land totaled an estimated 35,560 square kilometers. **

Agriculture has traditionally been practiced where conditions are suitable for irrigation: along large rivers and lakes, or foot hills regions were there are a number of streams. Spate irrigation — the use of seasonal floods of rivers, streams, ponds and lakes to fill water storage canals — is used up to a third of all irrigated farmland.

Land use: agricultural land: 77.4 percent; arable land: 8.9 percent; permanent crops: 0 percent; permanent pasture: 68.5 percent; forest: 1.2 percent; other: 21.4 percent (2011 est.). Irrigated land: 20,660 square kilometers (2010); Total renewable water resources: 107.5 cubic kilometers (2011).Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 21.14 cubic kilometers a year (4 percent/30 percent/66 percent); per capita: 1,304 cubic meters a year (2010). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Farmers have suffered from attacks by locusts and grasshoppers. Central Asia periodically experiences locust plagues. A huge plague destroyed 8.5 million hectares in Kazakhstan in 1999.

Soil and Agriculture in Kazakhstan

The soil in Kazakhstan is mostly fertile. In the north chernozem is the dominate soil type. In the south chestnut-colored soils are common. In the deserts there is a mix of red-brown, grey-brown and sandy soils. Chernozem is a fertile black soil rich in humus and with a lighter lime-rich layer beneath, typically occurring in the temperate grasslands of the Russian steppes and North American prairies.

The Central Asian steppe doesn’t receive very much rain. The soil is dry and dusty. For the most part the steppe and desert are not suitable for agriculture unless expensively irrigated. Much of the steppe lies on humus-rich black soul that is ideal for growing grains such as wheat, rye and barley (which are kinds of grass). The poor yellow steppe soil is much less fertile than rich black earth found in southern Russia and Ukraine. When the topsoil is stripped of vegetation it becomes dusty and is easily blown away in the wind.

Chernozem, black earth is common in northernmost parts of the country, and includes Kostanai province, and the northern parts of Akmolinsk, Pavlodar, Aktubinsk, West-Kazakhstan provinces. This area covers 25.5 million hectares, or 9.5 percent of the country. The black earth is divided into three sub-types: 1) lixiviate black earth in the forest-steppe area; 2) normal black earth; and 3) southern black earth that is typical for steppe area. The first sub-type has large amounts humus (6 to 8 percent) and is almost black in color. Southern black earth has a lower percentage of humus (4 to 6 percent). The black earth areas are situated mostly on good watered steppe plains and are the main wheat-growing regions of the country.

Chestnut-coloured soils occupy the big part of central Kazakhstan, the north Caspian lowlands and the plains of East-Kazakhstan province. These soils are found mostly in dry-steppe and semi-desert regions. They occupy 90.6 million hectares, or 34 percent of the country. The chestnut soils in Kazakhstan are divided into 3 sub-zones:1) the black-chestnut-colored soils of the dry steppes; 2) the chestnut-colored soils of dry steppes; 3) the light-chestnut-coloured soils of semi-desert zones.

Soil fertility generally decreases as one travels southward in Kazakhstan. South of the chestnut-colored soil area, in the deserts areas, fulvous and grey-fulvous soils are prevalent. Deserts cover 120 millions hectares, or 44 percent of Kazakhstan, mostly in the southern part of the country. Irrigation is necessary in many agricultural areas. Near the Syrdarya, Ili, and Karatal rivers rice farming is practiced.

The “Black Earth” region in the central and southern parts of Russia and parts of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan is one of the most fertile wheat-growing areas in the world. Chernozem, literally black earth, is a type of rich, black soil. In some places it is two meters deep. In the “Black Earth” regions of the Soviet Union, large scale grain farming was practiced. In the early days horse-drawn equipment was used. Later horses and plows were replaced with tractors and other mechanized equipment. In the Soviet era large collectives and state farms were established here. In the non-Black Earth regions, the farms were smaller, and the emphasis was on root crops such a potatoes and beets, vegetables, dairying and relatively small amounts of grain, primarily rye.

Soviet Era Agriculture in Kazakhstan in the 1990s

Despite the fact that the climate and soil of most of Kazakhstan are best suited to the light grazing, Soviet policy encouraged cultivation, especially in the northern parts of the republic. The major transformation occurred under premier Khrushchev during the Virgin Lands program of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its objectives were to reduce Soviet grain imports to Central Asia and settle the remaining nomadic herdsmen of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Under that program, 60 percent of Kazakhstan's pastureland went under cultivation. An estimated 30 percent of that land was not suitable for cultivation, however, and Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 after a series of crop failures in Kazakhstan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Under Soviet rule, Kazakhstan was transformed from a country of nomadic herders into an agricultural, industrial republic. Before World War II, regulations for nomads and semi-nomads were implemented and live stock raising and agriculture were improved. *

Many non-Kazakhs arrived in the years 1953-65, during the Virgin Lands campaign. Under that program, huge tracts of Kazakh grazing land were put to the plow for the cultivation of wheat and other cereal grains. By 1959, Russians made up 43 percent of the population of Kazakhstan and Kazakhs made up only 29 percent. Still more settlers came in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the government paid handsome bonuses to workers participating in a program to relocate Soviet industry close to the extensive coal, gas, and oil deposits of Central Asia. One consequence of the migration of outsiders was the decimation of the nomadic Kazakh population.

Collectivization and Mass Starvation in the Kazakh Republic

From 1929 to 1934, during the period when Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin was trying to collectivize agriculture, Kazakhstan endured repeated famines because peasants had slaughtered their livestock in protest against Soviet agricultural policy. In that period, at least 1.5 million Kazakhs and 80 percent of the republic's livestock died. Thousands more Kazakhs tried to escape to China, although most starved in the attempt. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Under Stalin’s policy of de-nomadization and collectivization, nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were forced to settle down and turn their animals over to the state. The Kazakhs resisted. Many people chose to slaughter their animals rather than give them to the state. In some cases guerrillas fighting against the Communists killed the animals.

The populations of entire villages perished—hundreds of thousands of families. Many of those that survived left everything behind, their homes, their animals, and fled to Siberia and elsewhere in Central Asia and the Soviet Union. An estimated 1 million people made their way to China, Mongolia, Afghanistan and other places.

Between 1929 and 1932, it is estimated 1.75 million to 2.5 million people died (including 40 to 50 percent of Kazakhs in Kazakhstan) of malnutrition and starvation as a result of the loss of animals. President Nazarbaev told the Washington Post, “It was terrible. My father saw with his own eyes and told me...You’d walk along a path and see corpses everywhere.” Millions of Kazakhs fled to China and Afghanistan to avoid starvation.

Virgin Lands Campaign

In the 1950s and 60s, large numbers Russians arrived in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, as part of the Virgin Lands campaign , whose aim was to boost the Soviet Union's grain supply by bringing vast tracts of Central Asia under cultivation. The 1950s and 60s also ushered in the intensive development of the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya rivers — mostly in Uzbekistan — for irrigation for cotton, which caused the demise of the Aral Sea. See the Aral Sea.

The Virgin Lands program was a largely unsuccessful program to convert the grazing land in the steppe to agricultural land for growing wheat. The aim of campaign was to boost Soviet grain production to a level above that of the United State and provide the Soviet Union with a safety net in case the grain crop in Ukraine failed.

Under dramatic Virgin Lands campaign in the mid-1950s, Khrushchev opened vast tracts of land to farming in the northern part of the Kazak Republic and neighboring areas of the Russian Republic. These new farmlands turned out to be susceptible to droughts, but in some years they produced excellent harvests. Later innovations by Khrushchev, however, proved counterproductive. His plans for growing corn and increasing meat and dairy production failed miserably, and his reorganization of collective farms into larger units produced confusion in the countryside. Future Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev began his political career in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. He made a name for himself by making the Virgin Land campaign look better on paper than it really was.

In the 1950s, some 640,000 migrant workers arrived in Kazakhstan, 1.8 million hectares of steppe—60 percent of Kazakhstan’s newly opened land—was plowed and hundreds of collective farms were established. The program helped Kazakhstan produce 20 percent of the Soviet Union’s grain and helped make Kazakhstan the third largest grain producer in the Soviet Union behind Russia and Ukraine. In 1956, Kazakhstan produces 16.38 million kilograms of bread, more than the 11 preceding years combined.

Problems with the Virgin Lands Campaign

The Virgin Lands program was ultimately a failure due to strange ideas about agriculture that resulted in the fertile topsoil being blown away and destroyed by erosion and loss of pastures land of animal herding, the traditional occupation of many Kazakhs. In the ends there were serious reductions of the number of livestock and wild animals and lakes and rivers dried up. As part of the plan land was irrigated with water from the Syr-Darya and Siberian rivers as far away as the Ob River. There were plans to reverse the course of Siberian rivers and build canals with nuclear bombs but fortunately these plans were dropped.

Formally arid grassland yielded wheat but after a while the top soil was exposed and literally blew away in the wind. The land is some areas under intense irrigation became contaminated by salt and fertilizer chemicals. One participant in the program told National Geographic, “We didn’t have enough machinery. We’d start harvesting in August and quit when the snow came, then try to pick up the rest next spring.” Storage was a problem. Sometimes we just piled the grain on the fields.”

After Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. The campaign lost its biggest supporter and the scheme was largely abandoned and millions of acres of farmland was allowed to become grassland once again.

Russians Who Participated in the Virgin Lands Campaign

Khrushchev's primary domestic concerns were improving agriculture and creating enough housing to meet demand. Great tomes on agriculture were written in his name. The problems of Soviet agriculture had earlier attracted the attention of the collective leadership, which introduced important innovations in this area of the Soviet economy. The state encouraged peasants to grow more on their private plots, increased payments for crops grown on collective farms, and invested more heavily in agriculture. [Source: Library of Congress *]

More people, mostly Russians, arrived in Central Asia, mostly Kazakhstanm in the 1950s as part of the Virgin Lands program. Thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians arrived by train in Kazakhstan to participate in the Virgin Lands program. Asia One Russia woman told the New York Times, “All young, unmarried people were urged to help. They said, ‘Build a new young city. Build Communism,’ and we were all volunteers. We were happy then, in the 60s. Imagine at 22, I was appointed a chief engineer! We had to set up a radio station, and there was nobody old from whom to learn.”

A Russia man told the New York Times, “Its got a voucher to come, which was very prestigious for a young man at the time. We had a lot of romanticism and patriotism in us, but nothing else besides our clothes. We arrived December 15 and I’ll remember that day all my life. It was so cold, and all I wanted was to get back on the train or go anywhere to get warm.

One Russian man told National Geographic, “It seemed that if we only did a little bit more, and a little bit more, we would find ourselves in paradise. We thought we were bringing the future to this country.” He then added, “The system gave us hope, but then the system vanished. And the people say now, ‘Why did you come here? You spoiled our pastures. We had a lot of sheep. Now we have no place to herd them.”

Agriculture in Kazakhstan in the 1990s

The privatization of land and agriculture was slow in Kazakhstan. Laws were changed allowing farmers to lease land for unlimited use and even the right to pass it on to future generations. On collective farms and state farms, leases were made available that allowed anyone to rent a portion of the land to cultivate crops in return for a portion of the harvest and the right to sell the remainder at a market rice.

Many Kazakhs continue to live on collective farms. The number of private farms rose from 300 in 1991 to 42,50 in 1997. Even so they still only occupied 10 percent of the cultivated land. Much of bumper crop of wheat in 1993 was lost due to poor harvesting methods, inadequate storage facilities and lack of transportation. In the 1990s, farmers had a hard time securing loans to buy equipment, seeds and fertilizer. When they could get loans the interest was as high as 120 percent.

In the early 1990s, agriculture was the second largest sector of the economy, contributing about 36 percent of GDP and employing about 18 percent of the workforce in 1993. In 1992 the total area under cultivation was 36.5 million hectares, of which 2.3 million hectares were irrigated. Much of this land is dedicated to large-scale wheat farming, which requires intensive capitalization and does not lend itself to privatization. Even with the emphasis on grain production, about 84 percent of the republic's agricultural land, or about 187 million hectares, remains devoted to pasturage, mainly of cattle and sheep. Continuation of the Soviet system of intensive livestock management, dependent on fodder more than on natural grazing, has left much grazing land unused and has distorted cultivation in favor of fodder production. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1993 only about 1.5 percent of agricultural land was in private hands. Although some privatization had occurred, the bulk of Kazakhstan's agriculture remained organized in 7,000 to 8,000 state and collective farms that averaged 35,000 to 40,000 hectares each. Many of those farms had moved into a transitional stage of joint-stock ownership, private collectives, or farming associations. The state also has maintained control of agricultural inputs and equipment, as well as some processing and marketing policies and operations. In the wake of price liberalization, the mandated state share of agricultural sales has decreased annually from the 1991 level of 70 percent.

Crops and Agriculture Products in Kazakhstan

The main agricultural products are wheat, other grains, rice, peas, cotton, tobacco, sugar beets, sunflower seeds, fruits and vegetables, beef, and wool. In the south, fruit, vegetables, cotton, rice and hemp are grown.

The Kazakhs grow a variety of grains: wheat, millet, some rye, barely and others. Most of the wheat they grow are durum or spring varieties, which are regarded as the best. The main export crop is cotton.

The world's first pears, apples and apricots evolved from wild plants found in Central Asia. Melons are very popular in Central Asia. They are sweet and delicious and are full of water and act as natural canteens. Melons are often served as a dessert or snack with tea. Markets are often filled with huge piles of them. Melons are often given as a gift and a gesture of welcome and farewell.

Cotton is regarded as an industrial crop in Kazakhstan. World’s top cotton producing countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008: 1) China, 11133600, 7500000; 2) India, 5621725, 3787000; 3) United States of America, 4141996, 2790200; 4) Pakistan, 2983804, 2010000; 5) Brazil, 1953551, 1315984; 6) Uzbekistan, 1820269, 1226200; 7) Turkey, 999055, 673000; 8) Greece, 430499, 290000; 9) Turkmenistan, 415654, 280000; 10) Syrian Arab Republic, 362213, 244000; 11) Burkina Faso, 335492, 226000; 12) Nigeria, 247908, 167000; 13) Egypt, 237516, 160000; 14) Argentina, 201889, 136000; 15) Australia, 197138, 132800; 16) Benin, 186005, 125300; 17) Mexico, 185560, 125000; 18) Tajikistan, 172941, 116500; 19) Mozambique, 166606, 112232; 20) Kazakhstan, 155870, 105000. [Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO]

Kazakhstan: the Birthplace of Apples

All trees which produce eating apples are believed to originate from the “Malu sieversii “tree, which grows in the high altitude forests of Kazakhstan. Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, means “father of apples.” Apple tree orchards are found in and around Almaty. “Aport” is a famous variety of apple with links to ancient apples. [Source: Natural History, October 2001]

“Malu sieversii” was first described in 1786 by a German naturalist, P.S. Pallas, who observed the trees in the Caucasus, where they compete for dominance with oaks. In 1911, an American traveler, Frank Meyer, described apple forests he saw in the Tien Shan and was amazed that the trees he saw could grow at elevations of over 3,000 meters in places where temperatures dropped to as low as -40 degrees F.

Scientists believe that “Malu sieversii” was hybridized with crab apples native to Central Asia. Most likely these hybrids not “Malu sieversii “itself became the ancestors of the apples that people eat today. By the 3rd millennium B.C. eating apples were being cultivated over a wide area around the Tien Shan. By the 1st millennium B.C. eating apples were commonplace around the Mediterranean. The Romans spread apple cultivation throughout their empire.

Scientists are now studying” “Malu sieversii” trees with the plan of doing some genetic engineering involving apple trees because “Malu sieversii” shows resistance to diseases such as scab, mildew and brown rot and pests such as coddling moths, aphids and spider mites, all of which ravage apple crops. The main threat to “Malu sieversii” is that the forests where it is found are being deforested. The groves near Almaty are already 90 percent gone.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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