After Turkmenistan became independent in 1991 there was limited, gradual privatization of state-held arable land, with state control of marketing and inputs. Irrigation, a major expense in support of nearly all agricultural areas, is hampered by inefficient delivery. The major crops are cotton, grains, fodder crops, with wool, meat, and milk from raising of livestock, chiefly sheep. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Turkmenistan is mostly desert yet much much of its population is involved in irrigation farming, predominantly of cotton and wheat. About 48 percent of Turkmenistan’s labor force is in agriculture (compared to 2.5 percent in the U.S.). Some 3.7 percent of the land is classified as arable, and less than 0.2 percent is planted to permanent crops. About 17,500 square kilometers are irrigated, mainly for cotton production.

The Soviet turned Turkmenistan into a virtual colony that produced one crop: cotton. The manufacturing sector was much less developed than in other republics. Much of it was involved in cotton production In the post Soviet era, some land formally used for growing cotton has been shifted to producing grains, vegetables and fruits. Collectives are supposed to be self-maintaining but farmers are still not allowed to own land.

Land use: agricultural and livestock herding land: 72 percent: arable land 4.1 percent; permanent crops 0.1 percent; permanent pasture 67.8 percent; forest: 8.8 percent; other: 19.2 percent (2011 est.). Irrigated land: 19,910 square kilometers (2006). Total renewable water resources: 24.77 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural):total: 27.95 cubic kilometers a year (3 percent/3 percent/94 percent); per capita: 5,752 cubic meters a year (2004). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Farming Sector in Turkmenistan

According to Alternative Turkmenistan News, “Turkmenistan has approximately 19,000 square kilometers of arable land, just under 4 percent of its total area. The government leases land to farmers for 1-5 years, depending on the region, and farms average 2.5 hectares. Under the legislation on private farmers and enterprises, the government dictates use of the land through Farmers Associations. Farmers Associations may take away a farmer’s right to use the land for “irrational and inappropriate use,” under the law. In practice, the Turkmen government orders cotton and wheat production on three quarters of the arable land, and Farmers Associations take away land from farmers for many reasons, including local officials personal views on a farmer concerned. [Source: “Spotlight on Turkmenistan: Widespread State-Orchestrated Forced Labor in Turkmenistan’s 2014 Cotton Harvest” by Alternative Turkmenistan News, July 2015 ^]

“The Turkmen government compels farmers to grow annual quotas of cotton, wheat and rice. Farmers lease land from the government, through state-controlled farmers associations, for 1-5 years. The state owns all land, and state-controlled farmers associations take away land and assign it to other farmers for failure to fulfill state-assigned production quotas or at the associations’ discretion.” ^

In the early 2000s, the contribution of Turkmenistan’s state-run agriculture sector to gross domestic product increased under close state supervision. As during the Soviet era, cotton is the dominant agricultural commodity because it is an export staple. However, in recent years state policy makers have increased the range of crops with the aim of making Turkmenistan self-sufficient in food. In the post-Soviet era, the area planted to grains (mainly wheat) has nearly tripled. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Private farmers grow most of Turkmenistan’s fruits and vegetables (chiefly tomatoes, watermelons, grapes, and onions), but all production phases of the main cash crops—grain and cotton—remain under state control. In 2006 grain crop failures led to steadily increasing bread lines and reinstatement of a ration system in most regions. At the root of those failures was a culture of falsifying output figures together with poor administration of the sector. **

Turkmenistan is highly dependent upon external sources for its agricultural inputs, the price of which has escalated more that those for agricultural products since independence. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Structure of Turkmenistan Agriculture Sector

Turkmenistan inherited the system of state and collective farms from the Soviet Union, with its command structure of production quotas, fixed procurement prices, and soft budget constraints. The state still controls marketing and distribution of agricultural produce through the Ministry of Trade in urban areas and the Cooperative Alliance in rural locales; the Ministry of Agriculture's Commercial Center has a monopoly on cotton exports.[Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Instead of restructuring the agricultural economy, the government's "New Countryside" policy envisions only limited privatization of agricultural enterprises and expansion of grain production to reduce dependence on imports. The development of transportation is critical to agricultural reform in Turkmenistan. *

In 1991 field and orchard crops accounted for 70.4 percent of the value of agricultural sales prices (computed in 1983 prices), while livestock raising accounted for the remaining 29.6 percent. Almost half the cultivated land was under cotton, and 45 percent of the land under grains and fodder crops. Livestock raising centered on sheep, especially for the production of Karakul wool. Whereas production of meat and milk rose substantially in the 1986-91 period (increases of 14,000 and 110,000 tons, respectively), actual production in 1991 of 100,000 tons of meat and 458,000 tons of milk represented a decrease from 1990. Production of meat in 1992 declined 21 percent from that of 1991. Fishing, bee-keeping, and silk-rendering occupy small areas of the agricultural sector.

Irrigation in Turkmenistan

Most agricultural land is of poor quality and requires irrigation. Turkmenistan’s irrigation infrastructure and water-use policies have not responded efficiently to this need. Irrigation now depends mainly on the decrepit Karakum Canal, which carries water across Turkmenistan from the Amu Darya. The Dostluk dam, opened at Serakhs on the Iranian border in 2005, has increased available irrigation water and improved efficiency. Plans call for a similar dam on the Etrek River west of Ashgabat. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Under the prevailing climatic conditions, irrigation is a necessary input for agriculture and has been developed extensively throughout Turkmenistan. Irrigation management is divided between the Ministry of Irrigation, which is responsible for operation and maintenance along the Karakum Canal and for interrepublic water management, and the Irrigation Institute, which designs, evaluates, and builds new projects. State farms and collective farms are responsible for operation and maintenance on their own farms, but they have no other autonomy. Because only 55 percent of the water delivered to the fields actually reaches the crops, an average of twelve cubic meters of water is expended annually per hectare of cotton. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

As a result of the construction of irrigation structures, and especially of the Karakum Canal, the hydrological balance of the republic has changed, with more water in the canals and adjacent areas and less in the rivers and the Aral Sea. The largest of the republic's eleven reservoirs are the Sary Yazy on the Murgap River, which occupies forty-six square kilometers of surface and has a capacity of 239 million cubic meters, and the Hawuz Khan on the Karakum Canal, which occupies ninety square kilometers of surface and has a capacity of 460 million cubic meters. In 1983 Turkmenistan had an irrigated area of 1,054,000 hectares. Its most developed systems are along the middle and lower course of the Amu Darya and in the Murgap Basin. *

Irrigated land: 19,910 square kilometers (2006). Total renewable water resources: 24.77 cubic kilometers (2011). Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural):total: 27.95 cubic kilometers a year (3 percent/3 percent/94 percent); per capita: 5,752 cubic meters a year (2004). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Karakum Canal

Karakum Canal is the world's longest irrigation canal. It stretches 1,350 kilometers (745 miles) from Haun-Khan to Ashkhabad and brings water from the Amu-Darya to the inhabited areas in southern Turkmenistan. Draining the Amu-Darya, it runs most of the length of Turkmenistan and is used to supply water for cotton farms. It has contributed to large cotton harvests and the shrinking of the Aral Sea.

The Karakum Canal, which has a capacity of 500 cubic meters per second, accounts for almost all irrigation in Ahal and Balkan provinces along the northern reaches of the Kopetdag Range. The canal also supplies additional water to the Murgap oasis in southeastern Turkmenistan. The main canal was built in sections between 1959 and 1976, initially providing irrigation for about 500,000 hectares. Plans call for construction to continue until the canal reaches a length of 1,435 kilometers and a carrying capacity of 1,000 cubic meters per second, enabling it to irrigate 1,000,000 hectares. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Karakum Canal leaks a lot of the water it carries and is badly in need of reconstruction. From the air its looks like a thin ribbon fringed by kilometers-wide bands of weeds. The Turkmenistan government admits that 28 percent of the water disappears before it reaches it destination. Scientist think the figure is close to 60 percent. Agricultural run off ends up in Sarykamish Lake or swamps and lakes that have appeared miles from the canal.

Environmental Costs of Irrigation in Turkmenistan

Inefficient irrigation, leakage from canals, and salinization in the cotton-growing regions of the Kara-kum Desert irrigated by waters from the Amu Darya and other rivers, have produced two million acres of salt marshes. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Kara-kum Desert suffers from severe droughts and the environment problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Deep bore wells have salinity levels; 90 percent above what is considered acceptable by the United Nations. The region is a very poor and undeveloped. People complain that there is no work, no money and no food. They suffer from a number of diseases brought about in part by environmental problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

See Environment

Agriculture Officials Fired or Given Cadillacs Based on Grain Harvests

In July 2012, Berdymukhammedov fired his agriculture minister after a disappointing grain harvest. Radio Free Europe reported: “Merdan Bayramov, who served in the post since January 2011, was replaced by his deputy, Rejep Bazarov. Other officials in the agricultural sector were also replaced. The wheat harvest this year fell 25 percent short of the 1.6 million-ton state target. Prices for bread at state-run stores increased threefold on July 6. Staple foodstuffs are heavily subsidized, meaning the cost increase will have little direct impact except for very poor people.” [Source: Radio Free Europe. July 7, 2012]

Earlier it was reported that Berdymukhammedov awarded the entire regional government in Lebap province with a brand new Cadillac Escalade luxury SUV after an above-average grain harvest. According to a BBC story: “"In the era of might and happiness, Lebap's courageous workers put in a big contribution to our country, which is moving ahead with the swiftness of a racehorse," President Berdymukhamedov was quoted by Neutral Turkmenistan as saying. The Cadillac will be used for "work" purposes by the provincial government, the paper reported. Correspondents say that such luxurious cars are not sold in Turkmenistan — where even government officials do not use American cars. In 2010, Berdymukhammedov ordered that Mercedes cars should be given to about 60 regional and district governors. [Source: Radio Free Europe, July 4, 2012, BBC, July 3, 2013]

Crops in Turkmenistan

The major crops in Turkmenistan are cotton, grains such as wheat and corn, fodder crops, with wool, meat, and milk from raising of livestock, chiefly sheep. Turkmenistan also produces grapes, almonds, vegetables, melons, pomegranates, figs, olives and subtropical fruits. Grains are grown primarily for domestic consumption and to feed local livestock. The major crops for export 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.

After Since independence, Turkmenistan's agricultural policy has emphasized grain production in order to increase self-sufficiency in the face of a sharp decline in trade among the former Soviet republics. A 50 percent increase in the grain harvest in 1992 was followed by a rise of 70 percent in 1993, despite unfavorable climatic conditions. Production of vegetables declined in 1992 to 13 percent below the 1991 level, whereas that of potatoes rose by 24 percent. High-quality melons are grown in the lower and middle reaches of the Amu Darya and in the Tejen and Murgap oases. In addition to these crops, subtropical fruits and nuts, especially pomegranates, almonds, figs, and olives, are grown in the Ertek and Sumbar valleys. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Turkmenistan produced one million tons of wheat in 1995. The government announced a record harvest of 1.5 million tons on 2000. Niyazov declared a special holiday to celebrate the bountiful harvest. In fact the true harvest was about what was claimed, There was a severe drought that year.

Livestock, Forestry and Fishing in Turkmenistan

Cattle: 2.2 million; pigs: 30,000; chickens; 15 million; sheep: 13.5 million; goats: 2.8 million. [Source: World Almanac, 2013]

The dromedary camel was the traditional stock animal of the Turkmen. In the 19th century as they became more settled, many Turkmen switched to sheep.

Turkmenistan is famous for Astrakhan wool, Astrakhan wool, named after the Volga port from which it was exported, comes from the soft, curled pelts of the Karakul breed of sheep. The grey black or brown pelts are generally taken from lambs, dyed and used to made Turkmenistan traditional clothes, hats and carpets. Good quality Astrakhan wool comes from lambs slaughtered a few days after birth. The best quality comes lamb fetus that are taken out and skinned after their mothers have been killed.

Turkmen have traditionally produced Persian lamb, the skins from newborns Karakul sheep. Karakul sheep are extremely rugged animals. They can endure the harsh winters and extreme summer heat of Central Asia. They carry reserves of fat in their tails, which are often used up when grass is sparse in the summer. The fatty tails are regarded as a delicacy. Sometimes the tail fat is used like cooking oil.

Turkmenistan has negligible forested land. The only industrial fish crop is Azov Sea sprat, 14,300 metric tons of which were caught in 2003. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007 **]

Caviar, see Russia.

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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