In black earth country, Russian farms despair over heatwave

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Looking out over his sunflower fields in Russia's famed black earth country, Alexander Kniazev despaired over the damage done by the worst heatwave in living memory.

Nearly four months without rain and record temperatures have scorched the soil and reduced his crops to dry husks. "It's a catastrophe," said Kniazev, whose 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) are in some of the richest agricultural land on earth.

Here in the Voronezh region south of Moscow, Russian farmers e,p4,rema.ana.paw.maxhave toiled for generations in Russia's black earth country, millions of hectares (acres) of ultra-fertile lands that are the envy of farmers everywhere.

But amid the worst ever heatwave in Russia's history -- a disaster that officials say has ruined one quarter of the country's crops -- none here can remember a worse summer.

"In the 18 years that I've been farming, nothing like this has ever happened," said Kniazev, who launched his farm from nothing after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and expects revenues to drop by more than 40 percent this year to no more than 200 million rubles (6.6 million dollars/5 million euros).

"This is without precedent, even the old folks never saw anything like it," said one of the farm's workers, Pavel Cherkasov.

Standing in a field of sunflowers stunted and burnt by the sun, Cherkasov, a tawny-skinned man in his 60s, reeled off the litany of disaster faced by the farm this summer.

"There has been no rain since April 23. For 70 days it has been between 42 and 44 degrees Celsius, with the soil temperature reaching 70 degrees during the day. And the nights were hot and dry as well," he said.

"People can drink, hide in the shade, but not plants. The soil is dried out a metre-and-a-half (five-feet) deep."

Holding a sunflower in his hand, no more than 10 centimetres (four inches) in diametre, Cherkasov broke it up to release the seeds. The result: 20 grams (0.7 ounces) of seeds, instead of the usual 200 grams (seven ounces) a flower produces.

In the fields, threshers tore up the earth in a desperate bid to eke out some seeds from the cracked soil.

"Our sunflower fields used to yield 3.2 tonnes of seeds per hectare. This year there will only be 800 kilos, 25 percent of the normal yield," Cherkasov said.

"I'm worried. There is no harvest this year and who knows what will happen next year? It will take more rain than normal for the earth to dampen," he said.

Regional authorities also raised concerned about next year's harvest.

"The drought has already caused the loss of 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) of cultivation," said Alexander Kvasov, the regional official responsible for agriculture in Voronezh, as he lifted a chunk of the black earth, known in Russian as "chernozyom".

"Without enough rain, we will have to reduce the winter planting," he said.

With such a difficult year ahead, the region's farmers said they welcomed the ban on Russian grain exports ordered by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week. Under the decree Russia, the world's number three wheat exporter last year, has banned exports until December 31.

The ban is "indispensable," Kvasov said. "We must keep the grains in Russia to avoid a jump in prices... and ensure the development of all branches of agriculture."

© 2010 AFP

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