Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkmen Farmers Prefer to Pick Cotton by Hand

Although the Turkmen authorities have gone to some lengths to obtain mechanical harvesters for cotton, many farms continue to pick this key cash crop by hand, NBCentralAsia say.

At a cabinet meeting in mid-September, deputy prime minister Myratgeldy Akmamedov said everything had been put in place, including the right machinery, to ensure success in the harvest that began in late August. The government news agency TDH reported that around 600 cotton harvesters would be deployed this autumn.

However, observers in various parts of the country say they not seem the machines out in the fields.

“Cotton harvesters are not being used in the fields on a large scale,” said an observer in the Lebap region of eastern Turkmenistan. “All the cotton is harvested by the time-honoured method, by hand.”

The government has purchased substantial quantities of farm machinery since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991. An official from Turkmenobahyzmat, a group of firms providing maintenance services for agricultural machinery, says the country has acquired 800 John Deere and Case cotton harvesters worth two billion US dollars from the United States in the last 18 years.

Farming experts say much of the machinery was poorly maintained and fell into a state of disrepair, because local service personnel were untrained and spare parts in short supply.

In 2008, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov decided to take farm machinery held in collective pools and hand it out to better-off farmers, in the hope that they would pay the maintenance and running costs.

The move failed to fire many recipients with enthusiasm.

“Nobody asked us whether we needed these expensive cotton harvesters, which then [after the harvest] sit idle,” said a village head in Lebap province. “It’s probably profitable for those who draw up the purchase contracts.”

An media-watcher in the northern Dashoguz region said polls conducted among cotton farmers show they do not believe mechanical harvesters are economically viable.

The state monopoly purchaser pays farmers a gate price for the cotton they deliver. Last year, they got 365 US dollar a ton for medium-fibre cotton and 526 dollars for fine-fibre.

In addition, the government pays a piece-rate wage of 20 tenge (about seven cents) per kilo of cotton picked by hand. Traditionally the work is done by farmers and their families, and an experienced picker can earn seven or eight dollars a day. In the harvest season, public sector workers from urban areas are required to go out and help in the fields, free of charge.

If a farmer rents a harvester, then it is the machine operator who earns a piece-work fee. Since this means farming families lose out on this part of their income, they are disinclined to hire machinery.

“Every leasehold farmer tries to gather his harvest himself so as to earn a little more to augment his total income for cotton he sells to the state,” said the commentator in Dashoguz.

Others point out that farmers are often reluctant to use technology because they are stuck in the past when it comes to agricultural methods.

According to an agriculture expert in the Akhal region of central Turkmenistan, the way the sector is managed is not conducive to innovation. Soviet-style quotas and instructions are still the order of the day, and reforms instituted under Berdymuhammedov’s rule have so far failed to take root.

Finally, as a commentator in the southeastern province of Mary pointed out, land management – or the lack of it – makes it difficult to employ modern technology even when that is available.

Harvesting machines do not work well when cotton plants are stunted in growth or are laid out in untidy and unevenly spaced rows, as is often the case in Turkmenistan.

“Look at our cotton fields,” said the observer in Mary. “They are uneven and so overgrown with grass and weeds that you can’t see the cotton plants.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)