Most of Kyrgyzstan’s terrain is too mountainous to grow crops, but higher-elevation pastures support livestock raising. Wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, and tobacco are the most important crops. Cotton and silkworms for silk production also are grown. In 2005 some 6.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s land surface was classified as arable, and 0.3 percent was planted to permanent crops. The remainder is mountains, glaciers, and high- altitude steppe that is used for grazing. More than 85 percent of arable land is irrigated. Kyrgyzstan imports 40 percent of its grain. The main agricultural regions are in the Fergana Valley (Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces), in the northern Chu and Talas valleys, and in the Ysyk-Köl basin in the northeast.

About a third of Kyrgyzstan’s labor force has traditionally been employed in agriculture and livestock raising (compared to 2.5 percent in the U.S.). Agriculture has been partly privatized and many collectives have been broken up. This has resulted in loses of productivity and many people losing their jobs. There has been some discussion about introducing inheritable leases to make people care more about the land and boost productivity.

Agriculture remains a vital part of Kyrgyzstan’s economy and a refuge for workers displaced from industry. Subsistence farming has increased in the early 2000s. After sharp reductions in the early 1990s, by the early 2000s agricultural production was approaching 1991 levels. Grain production in the lower valleys and livestock grazing on upland pastures occupy the largest share of the agricultural workforce. Farmers are shifting to grain and away from cotton and tobacco. Other important products are dairy products, hay, animal feed, potatoes, vegetables, and sugar beets. Agricultural output comes from private household plots (55 percent of the total), private farms (40 percent), and state farms (5 percent). [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

In 2005 some 6.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s land surface was classified as arable, and 0.3 percent was planted to permanent crops. The remainder is mountains, glaciers, and high- altitude steppe that is used for grazing. More than 85 percent of arable land is irrigated. Land use: agricultural land: 55.4 percent: arable land 6.7 percent; permanent crops 0.4 percent; permanent pasture 48.3 percent; forest: 5.1 percent; other: 39.5 percent (2011 est.). Irrigated land: 10,210 square kilometers (2005). Total renewable water resources: 23.62 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 8.01 cubic kilometers a year (3 percent/4 percent/93 percent); per capita: 1,558 cubic kilometers a year (2006) [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

Only 4 percent of Kyrgyzstan is classified as forested. All of that area is state-owned, and none is classified as available for wood supply. The main commercial product of the forests is walnuts. Kyrgyzstan does not have a significant fishing industry. In 2002 aquaculture contributed 66 percent of the country’s total output of 142 metric tons of fish, but in 2003 the aquaculture industry collapsed, producing only 12 of the country’s total of 26 metric tons.

Agriculture Policy in Kyrgyzstan

The condition of agriculture in Kyrgyzstan is determined by the state's continuing control of production, marketing, and prices, as well as by the republic-wide specialization mandated by the former Soviet Union to promote interdependence among the republics. In the 1990s, most agricultural production continued to occur in the state farm and collective farm systems, which were slowly being privatized. In the early post-Soviet years, government policy encouraged self-sufficiency in cereal grains to provide food security. Maintaining such self-sufficiency, however, has entailed continued government regulation such as compulsory marketing, which in turn has discouraged the development of diversified farm enterprise. In the early 1990s, income declined steadily in both state-run and privatized agricultural enterprises. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Further expansion of the agricultural sector depends on banking reform to increase investment, and on market reform to streamline the distribution of inputs. Land reform, a controversial issue in Kyrgyzstan, has proceeded very slowly since initial legislation in 1998. The irrigation infrastructure is in poor condition. [Source: Library of Congress, January 2007 **]

Production ceased to increase at about the time of the collapse of the Soviet system, an event that initiated the loss of markets and trading partners, the loss of transfer payments from Moscow, and a condition of general monetary instability. The national government did not address these problems effectively in the first years of independence; in fact, government marketing quotas, price controls, and trade restrictions exacerbated the decline. By restricting farmers' marketing and pricing practices, the government in effect levied a tax on agriculture that redistributed income to other sectors of society. National reforms in land tenure, farm organization, and the financial system, together with privatization of services, were eroded by the continued authority of local officials to interfere in administration of those reforms.

In 1994 a continuing controversy over granting central bank credits to support farmers during the growing season again made financial support a dubious proposition. Without such support, planting and fertilization would be severely limited because farmers in many rural areas lack financial resources to buy seed and fertilizer. On the other hand, such credits have always been a threat to the government's overall economic program. For several reasons, including the state's failure to pay farmers on time for their crops, the agricultural sector's bank debts increased rapidly in the early 1990s. This situation was the basis of arguments that the government could not afford to pay agricultural credits. *

Agricultural Land in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has about 1.4 million hectares of arable land, which is only about 7 percent of the nation's total area. More than 70 percent of the arable area depends on irrigation for its productivity. In the Soviet period, only about 4 percent of agricultural land was owned privately, although private plots contributed a much higher percentage of overall output, especially in fruits and vegetables. In 1994 only an additional 6 percent of agricultural land had passed to some form of private ownership. The privatization of land was a difficult issue that was contested between President Akayev and more conservative government officials. The latter reflected the Soviet-era view that land should be common property protected and disposed of only by the state. More immediately, these officials represented the interests of state farm administrators, whose enterprises suffered greatly from post-Soviet economic shocks and redistribution of resources. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1992 and 1993, the land redistribution program also was hindered by poor cooperation between the national and local governments and by lack of clarity in the program outline. Nevertheless, by early 1993 some 165 of the 470 existing state and collective farms had been reorganized or privatized into about 17,000 peasant enterprises, cooperatives, or peasant associations. However, the state retained control over vital agricultural inputs and market distribution channels, meaning that private land users often lacked material support and that price controls limited the profitability of private farms. The privatization program was halted in early 1993, and a more comprehensive reform program was developed. In early 1995, the government offered debt relief to state and collective farms that expedited the availability of land to private farmers. *

According to privatization law, state agricultural assets are distributed according to a share system in which all citizens have the right to a garden plot, but only individuals in the rural population have the right to occupy land and other agricultural assets formerly owned by state and collective farms. Recipients of shares can maintain the property as part of the collective, transfer it to a cooperative, or establish an individual farm. In the early 1990s, the former alternative was much more popular because of the perception that larger units offered greater security in a time of financial uncertainty. Private ownership of land remained illegal in 1995, but use rights are guaranteed for forty-nine years, and use rights can be bought, sold, and used as collateral for loans. In 1994 a new decree on land reform expanded and clarified the legal basis for the use and exchange of land and improved the administration of land privatization, which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. *

Agricultural Trends and Problems

The early 1990s saw many farmers turn from commercial production to subsistence crops, a trend that hurt the country's export activities (roughly half of its exports were agricultural in 1990) as well as the availability of foods within Kyrgyzstan. Experts believe that Kyrgyzstan's main agricultural problems are inappropriate and slow-moving reforms (especially land redistribution), intrusive bureaucratic regulations, poor availability of credit, and delayed payments to farmers for their crops. More immediately, both water and fertilizers have been in short supply since the end of the Soviet Union. In addition, Kyrgyzstan's agriculture uses an average of less than 50 percent of the amount of pesticides used by agriculture in the Western nations. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In 1994 the agriculture sector was in the fourth and most difficult year of a major decline that included reduced output, isolation from commercial markets, decreased earnings, and a deteriorating natural resource base. In 1994 total agricultural output dropped by 17 percent, and the decline in marketed and processed output was substantially greater because of the trend toward subsistence farming. *

A key agricultural resource, pastureland, was degraded severely by the Soviet-era practice of mandating livestock populations too large for available pasturage on state farms and by post-Soviet transfer of livestock from inefficient collective and state farms to private ownership without limiting grazing rights on common pastures. By 1994 over-grazing had led to serious erosion of much pasture land.*

Crops and Agricultural Production in Kyrgyzstan

Major crops: tobacco, cotton, wheat, grains, fruit, vegetables, walnuts, maize, grapes, sugar beets, poppies, hemp, potatoes, fruit, nuts and silk. Wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, and tobacco are the most important crops. Cotton and silkworms for silk production also are grown.

The main crops for domestic consumption: are potatoes, onions and cabbage. Other goods such as wheat flour, rice, tea, salt and sugar are bought or traded for. In the Soviet era, Kyrgyz tobacco was so highly regarded that Stalin used to send Churchill Kyrgyz tobacco and Armenian cognac. There are 600,000 hectares of walnut groves.

In the post-Soviet years, Kyrgyzstan has continued to emphasize production of raw materials for industrial processing, a role assigned to the republic in the Soviet system. In the 1990s, an estimated 62 percent of the population was rural. The chief crops were fodder crops, wheat, barley, and cotton. Other agricultural products included sugar beets, tobacco, fruit, vegetables, and silk. In 1994 the largest crop harvests were of wheat (611,000 tons), barley (300,000 tons), potatoes (288,000 tons), and tomatoes (160,000 tons). [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

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.

Sheep and Livestock in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz nomadic pastoralists have traditionally raised mostly sheep but also horses, goats, Bactrian camels and yaks. In some places pigs were kept desp. Today, there are about 1.3 million cattle; 4.4 million chickens, 933,000 goats, 3.9 million sheep, 61,000 pigs and goats in Kyrgyzstan. [Source: World Alamanac 2013]

There are roughly the same number of sheep as people in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan produces lots wool. Animals sometimes kept in corals and allowed to roam around the mountain and valley grazing areas. Fires are made with animal dung.

The Selfless Nomad wrote in his blog: “Sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell. In Kyrgyzstan the sheep is a way of life. A culture whose favorite meat is mutton, almost any large gathering will have boiled sheep, handicrafts are made from wool along with their yurts, they also have children’s game played with the knees from sheep chuko. In the village wealth is measured in the amount of sheep or other livestock you own, at the animal bazar you choose a sheep by the amount of fat it has in it’s butt. People go to the lush mountain valleys in summer to graze their sheep and other livestock. Sheep play a huge role in Kyrgyz life and culture. [Source: /theselflessnomad ; May 11, 2014 \=/]

Livestock and Pasture Land in Kyrgyzstan

The chief agricultural use of land is pasturage for livestock, mainly sheep, goats, and cattle, the tending of which is the traditional vocation of the Kyrgyz people. An estimated 83 percent of land in agricultural use is mountainous pastureland. In the 1980s, livestock production accounted for about 60 percent of the value of the country's agricultural output; such production included mutton, beef, eggs, milk, wool, and thoroughbred horses. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kyrgyzstan is famous for it jailoos, high pastures used for grazing in summer. Unlike the Kazakhs and Mongols, who primarily migrated with their animals long distance from summer pastures in the steppes to winter pastures in the semideserts, the Kyrgyz have traditionally migrated vertically between summer pastures in the mountains and winter grazing areas or settled farms in the valleys or lowlands.

In 1987, when herds reached their largest numbers, about twice as much grain was used for animal feed as for human consumption. However, the prices of and demand for livestock products dropped significantly in the 1990s relative to those of crops. For this reason and because Soviet-era herds had been supported largely by cheap imported grain, in 1994 livestock contributed less than half the total value of Kyrgyzstan's agricultural earnings. In 1994 the most important livestock products were cow's milk (750,000 tons), beef and veal (70,000 tons), mutton and lamb (50,000 tons), eggs (30,600 tons), wool (56,300 tons), pork products (30,000 tons), and poultry meat (25,000 tons). All of those figures were below the totals for the previous two years. *

Kyrgyz and Horses

Horses are like wings for people of the steppe. Children learn to ride around the same time they begin to walk. Kyrgyz people are no exception. When Kyrgyz children are 7 or 8 years old, they must take horses as their partners and grasp all skills of riding and training them. Kyrgyz people regard horses as holy animals. They ride them, but they generally do not make them pull cart or do farm work or other tough jobs. They treat their precious horses as own family members. In addition to regularly feeding them and providing them with drink, Kyrgyz adorn them with lavish care. Saddles and stirrups are made of the best materials by superior craftsmen. Sometimes their saddles were worth more that their horses. In the old days, Kyrgyz men gave presents of gems and gold to their horses as well as their wives. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, ~]

Horses are prized as means of transportation, sources of food, investments and displays of wealth. People use them primarily to get around and herd sheep. They are bred and sold, milked and occasionally eaten. They are prized as sources of koumiss. Homemade horse sausages— said to be made from “the best part of the horse”— sells for about $3.25 a kilo. Even Kyrgyz who live in cities are expected to be excellent horsemen and have a horse and saddle back in their home villages. Manhood is often judged by horsemanship.

Making a Kyrgyz style saddle involves fixing leather to a wooden frame with tiny nails arranged in the pattern of a sheep's horn. Horse harnesses, particularly terdik, are greatly valued by Kyrgyz people. Craftsmen — including metal workers and jewelry makers — take great care and use all their knowledge and skill to create the best possible terdiks. Terdik-making is a complicated art integrating numerous functions that have been carefully developed over many centuries. In the horse harness, one can find harmonious amalgamation of different types of applied arts for which a variety of craftsmen are needed. Jewelers, blacksmiths, felt makers, needle women and weavers are equally important for the creation of the horse harness.

In addition to saddles, Kyrgyz people adorn their horses with various kinds of ornaments and clothes. Sometimes these cost more than its owner’s entire wardrobe. A horse’s appearance is regarded as a measure of status, economic level and skill of a housewife. Kyrgyz people think of horses as their close mates and confidants. When young men marry their wives, they must present their best horses to the wives' families; at the same time, brides must take their best horses to their new homes. Horses are viewed as precious gifts to present a good friend or seal a deal. ~

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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