Virgin Lands Program

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Nikita Khrushchev promoted two major agricultural programs in his first years as general secretary: the corn program and, as he called it, the virgin and wasteland program. These two programs were interrelated. An important objective of agricultural policy was to increase the production of meat and milk significantly to meet the demands of the population. To produce more meat and milk required more feed. His solution was to expand greatly the production of corn (maize) throughout the Soviet Union. The virgin lands program was created to prevent the reduction of the wheat area as the corn area increased. This aspect of the virgin lands program is often missed, but in a speech on February 14, 1956, Khrushchev highlighted it: "The interests of increasing production of grain required a change in the structure of acreages, for the purposewhile extending the acreage under wheat, groats, and other cropsof sharply increasing acreage under corn." He noted that in 1955 there were 18 million hectares of corn sown, some 13.6 million hectares more than in 1954. Without the virgin lands program, the area of wheat would have been substantially reduced, and a crisis in the bread supply would have occurred. The new lands were located primarily in Khazakstan and Siberia, areas of limited rainfall.

Khrushchev's objective had been to reclaim 28 to 30 million hectares of virgin land and wasteland. The estimated area of virgin and fallow land developed from 1954 to 1956 was 36 million hectares. Prior to institution of the virgin lands program, the sown area of grain in the USSR was approximately 100 million hectares; in 1954 it was 102 million. By 1956 the grain area had increased to 128 million hectares, while the wheat area had increased from 48 million hectares in 1953 to 62 million hectares in 1956, and maize sown for grain from 3.5 to 9.3 million hectares. Thus he achieved his objective of increasing the total cropped area and increasing both wheat-and maize-sown areas.

Not all of the increase in grain area came from plowing up virgin and wasteland. Aradius Kahan concluded that 10 million hectares of the increased sown area could be attributed to the reduction of the area of fallowed landland that was in cultivation but cropped only every other year. In areas of limited rainfall, land is often fallowed as a way of accumulating moisture and nitrogen from one year to the next, which both increases and stabilizes yields. The practice of fallow is to leave land idle for a year, but cultivate it to prevent the growth of weeds that would utilitize the available moisture. The accumulation of moisture and nitrogen through fallow will increase the yields by 50 or more percent, and, with the saving of seed, the increase in net yield is even greater. In this light, more than a quarter of the reported increase in sown area represented a fraud: The land was neither virgin nor waste.

Was the virgin lands program successful by Khrushchev's criteria, namely, increasing the output of wheat and other grains as the corn area expanded? It appears so. In part this was due to good luckthe weather in the virgin land area in the late 1950s was quite favorable. The national yield of grain per hectare, as estimated by the government, was actually higher from 1955 to 1959 than from 1950 to 1954, even though the virgin land area normally had a somewhat lower yield than the national average. One positive feature of the virgin lands program was that annual yields in the area generally were negatively correlated with the yields in the European area of the USSR. This meant that the year-to-year variations in yields tended to be offsetting to a significant degree, thus adding stability to the national average. The average of the official (and exaggerated) estimates of grain production from 1956 to 1960 was 121 million tons, or 41 percent more than in 1954. Not all of this increase was due to the virgin lands program, but much of it was.

The corn program, however, was a dismal failure and was later largely abandoned. Corn requires a relatively long and warm growing season and much more moisture than wheat or most other grains. Most of the farm areas of the USSR were short on all three of these. Hardly any of the corn grown in new areas reached maturityit had to be utilized as green feed or silage.

Overall grain production in the USSR more than doubled between the early 1950s and the late 1980s. Part of this increase was due to the virgin lands program, but most was due to increased yields from seed improvements and increased applications of fertilizer. However, with the demise of the USSR, grain production has fallen by about 40 percent, while fertilizer use declined by much more.

See also: agriculture; economic growth, soviet; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich


Kahan, Arcadius. (1991). Studies and Essays on the Soviet and East European Economies, Vol 1: Published Works on the Soviet Economy. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners.

Laird, Roy D., ed. (1963). Soviet Agriculture and Peasant Affairs. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

D. Gale Johnson

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Virgin Lands Program

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