All Commentary
Sunday, January 1, 1956

Russias Farmers Pay Us A Visit

John Strohm, agricultural authority, coordinated the trip of Russian farm delegates through the United States. He has traveled in 65 countries around the world and has made an extensive trip through postwar Russia. Besides being editor of the Ford Almanac, he is official consultant to the Secretary of Agriculture and past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association.

On a day of 100°-plus heat last summer, the world’s news spotlight shifted to Dick Alleman’s farm in central Iowa. Reporters, photographers, newsreel and TV men elbowed each other for a closer shot or a better chance to listen as they clustered about each visitor. For the 12 Soviet delegates who had come to the United States when Russia lifted its Iron Curtain for an exchange of farmers this was the first day in America’s farm land.

As Dick Alleman’s neighbors looked on in amazement, the Russians admiringly stroked the silken ears of tall Iowa corn. Straw-hatted Soviet officials in limp linen suits took pictures of fat hogs gorging at a self-feeder. Two Russian engineers with steel tapes swarmed over a one-man hay baler in the adjoining field, while another pored over Dick’s income tax return.

No doubt about it, this was no tourist trip for the Russians. They had come to learn. Heading the delegation was Deputy Minister Vladimir Matskevich (since promoted, on his return to Moscow, to Minister of Agriculture over one sixth of the earth’s surface). Other deputy ministers included Boris Saveleev, in charge of short-range economic planning, and Alexandr Ejhevski, deputy minister for all tractor and agricultural machine building in the Soviet Union. Several Soviet delegates had the triple distinction of being high up the Soviet ladder in agriculture, government and the Party. All the delegates were qualified farm technicians.

These officials, who came to see for themselves the American system at work, traveled 12,000 miles in a dozen states. They studied our seeds, our feeds, our breeds and our high productivity. They shopped in drugstores, Sears Roebuck and Marshall Field’s. They visited with farmers and businessmen, teachers and preachers, and ate fried chicken in American homes. And they went back to Moscow to report to the men who run the Soviet Union what they had seen.

As our plane from New York rolled to a stop at the Des Moines airport, a milling throng of 5,000 waited back of police barricades. The Soviet visitors, mindful of what they’d heard about American warmongers, filed almost apprehensively from the plane. Suddenly the airport gates gave way and hundreds of people surged onto the field to surround the visitors.

A farmer instinctively stuck out his hand. Immediately the Soviet delegates went through the hand-shaking spree of their lives. For it was a warm, friendly crowd with an open-faced hospitality that is the hallmark of grass-roots people the world over. This spontaneous reception told the Russians as words and diplomacy cannot that American people do not hate the people of Russia. Invitations poured in by wire and phone, inviting them down to the yam country, out to the biggest wheat ranch in the world—to see “our town,” “our factory,” “our farm.”

Hostility was encountered only in Minneapolis, Detroit and Chicago, where the delegation was picketed by Ukrainian groups. Nikolai Gureev, deputy premier of the Ukraine, admitted: “The only unfriendly people we’ve met are our own ‘brothers.’”

Throughout the trip the Russians kept a cautious rein on their enthusiasm, but there is no doubt that our high productivity per man impressed them greatly. They saw farmer after farmer producing 6 to 12 times more than their own collective farmers. On that first farm visit in Iowa, they saw that Dick Alleman, singlehandedly cultivates 160 acres, raises 200 hogs, feeds 50 cattle and keeps a flock of chickens. Their questions revealed their surprise: “Where are the laborers? Who hoes the weeds from the corn? Who takes care of the livestock?”

They couldn’t believe Alleman does all the work, with a little help from his father and swap-labor from neighbors during harvest. Nor could they reconcile the efficiency of this family-size farm with their idea that “with bigness comes efficiency.” They worship bigness. Peter Svechnikov is chairman of a collective farm with 35,000 acres and 1,700 workers only 20 acres per person. No wonder he was amazed when he met Jim Golden, who with two sons and a hired man, farms 2,800 acres in South Dakota.

Farm inefficiency has held back Soviet industrialization because more than 50 per cent of their labor is tied up in farming. By contrast, only 12 per cent of our population is engaged in agriculture—and surpluses, not scarcity, is our food problem. (Actually, about 7 per cent of the U.S. population produces 90 per cent of our food and fiber.)

The Russians tended to give the credit for this prodigious productivity to our mechanization of all jobs. They were so fascinated by our manure scoops, one-man pickup balers, self-unloading silos, automatic feeders and pipeline milkers that they tended to miss the other reason for our farm efficiency.

“Was it perhaps the profit motive that stimulated a farmer to run 200 acres without help and reach a net profit of $9,000?” the Russians were asked.

“Our farmers too are interested in profit,” Matskevich replied. But it is doubtful that he understood the point. The Soviets have attempted to stimulate farm production through a fantastic system of incentives. For example, the average woman laborer takes care of 20 sows, and gets a bonus of 50 per cent in wages if her sows wean more than eight pigs apiece and if their weight at weaning is more than 33 pounds. This, to the Russians, is “profit.”

Another puzzler for them was the comparatively minor role government plays in the farmer’s life. When they learned a dairyman sold his milk to a co-op, they asked, “Then the co-op tells you how to run your farm?”

The farmer shot back: “Nobody tells me how to run this farm. I can grow weeds if I want to.”

Later in Washington the Russians asked, “Who’s in charge of livestock for the country?” I doubt that the answer, “Three million livestock farmers,” satisfied them fully.

The visitors indicated that they found in America at least a partial answer to their food problems. Matskevich listed three things which would help them lick their farm problems: hybrid corn, from seed to feed; formula feeds for livestock; mechanization of small jobs around the farm.

The Russians were constantly being asked what they thought of America. (One remarked, “We have everything you have—including the A-bomb and H-bomb.”) But there were certain things which obviously impressed them.

American women: The Russians found them young looking, pretty, attractively dressed and obviously not afraid to speak up in the presence of their husbands. We invited the Russians to supper in our home at Woodstock, Illinois, along with a few neighbors. When Pat—a slim, vivacious gal in her middle 30′s—was introduced as a mother of seven, they gasped audibly. What did they like most about American women? “Their beautiful bosoms, and the fabric of their dresses.” (At least that’s how Sokolov’s answer came out through an interpreter.)

Our automobiles: When I asked Matskevich if he wanted to visit Ford’s River Rouge plant, he exclaimed: “To go to America and not see Ford is like going to Rome without seeing the Pope.” Even an after-dark window-shopping tour in Detroit turned into a curbstone examination of the latest auto models.

Our highways: When an automobile trailer loaded with new cars whizzed by, an interpreter suggested to Ejhevski, “That’s what you need to relieve the strain on your railroads.” Ejhevski shook his head. “We need roads like these first.”

Our food: “What American dish do you like best?” one delegate was asked. His answer: “Steak!” Which explains why one morning when the bus was ready to pull out I found four delegates still unserved at breakfast. When I asked about the delay, the waitress protested, “But they all ordered steak!”

Inside plumbing: Practically all of the farms we visited had bathrooms. The visitors wanted to know how septic tanks worked, whether they have to be emptied, and whether they could get plans to build them. (Herb Pike, Iowa farmer who visited Russia with the American exchange group, suggested that the next U.S.—USSR exchange be between “plumbers.”)

Consumer goods: The Russians went for American products, up to the tune of $1,000 to $1,500 worth of purchases per man. In one store three of the visitors examined razors, tested the creams, smelled perfumes. Finally one of them selected a dozen razors, 200 blades, some lipsticks and sundry other items. When the harassed clerk had all this wrapped up, she turned to the next Soviet customer, who said: “Give me the same.”

One of the delegates explained, “We can make these things, but we just haven’t had time. Our Soviet policy has been to build heavy industry first.” Consumer goods are now increasing slowly in the Soviet Union. Too slowly, admits the Soviet press, and the quality is poor.

Two things sparked the Russian shopping zeal in America: obvious quality plus reasonable price. They recognized a bargain when they saw one: A pair of shoes which cost $15 here would cost $80 in Russia. Nylon hose, $1.65 here, costs $8 in Moscow. No wonder the delegates wanted to buy some gifts for their friends and relatives back home. What they bought revealed their needs—and their interests. Svechnikov bought 11 pairs of overalls and a silk nightgown at Sears Roebuck. Another delegate spent $28 for pin-up pictures of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe. One bought an electric mixer and another bought an electric blanket.

Next to shopping, going to movies was their favorite pastime. They saw everything, from triple-feature Westerns to Cinerama, and were agog when they saw an ad publicizing Rachmaninoff’s music in the movie, Seven Year Itch. But the mixture of the maestro’s concerto and Marilyn Monroe’s charms baffled them. “The music is wonderful. And the Monroe anatomy is all right. But how can you mix them?” they asked. (They obviously don’t know Hollywood.)

The Russians revealed themselves to be able farm technicians, equipped to talk intelligently on all phases of agriculture. They also showed themselves to be friendly men who produced pictures of their families from their wallets, and sang sentimental songs on the bus like a bunch of college boys. One played softball with some kids. Another donned an apron in our kitchen and peeled cucumbers. All of them had a good sense of humor.

The group divided for week-end visits to two Iowa communities. When the question of church came up, Matskevich said he’d go if there was a Russian Orthodox Church in the community. Since there was none, he didn’t attend church. But the other group all went to church. Curious, Matskevich asked if the church they attended was Orthodox.

“Yes, it was Orthodox,” said Shevchenko solemnly. “Presbyterian Orthodox.”

From their casual remarks we learned about changes in Russia. The phrase, “since two years ago,” coinciding with the passing of Stalin, was mentioned frequently. “Our former leader was a theoretician,” said Boris Saveleev. “Our present leaders—men like Nikita Khrushchev—are practical men. They know how the people live, and what they want.”

Several of the Soviets wanted books on table settings, etiquette and flower arrangement. Matskevich kept the president of Iowa State College waiting while he talked with the college’s Dean of Home Economics.

“Until two years ago, our lives were not our own,” Shevchenko explained. “We had no home life. We worked until midnight and often until two or three a.m. Now we go to work in the morning and come home at five. We can build a family life and our families appreciate it.”

Matskevich was asked how he could reconcile all the things Soviet publications had printed about downtrodden American farmers with what he had actually seen. Would he tell the truth when he got back to Moscow? His answer: “I’ll tell the truth as I saw it.”

I believe both countries gained from this Russian farm visit. The Russians got technical information in farming and know where they can get more. The United States gained considerably, too. The Russians must realize now that Americans do not want war. And they must know that we’d be tough to lick, if they started one. And finally, these intelligent officials must realize from what they saw of our prodigious productivity that they have vastly more to gain for themselves, their families and their country—from peaceful exchange than they could ever possibly hope to gain from war. []

See page 11, “Were the Russians Told?”

Loaded Terms

Preventive War. Industralia fears that at some indefinite time in the future Ruritania may begin a war against her. In order to avert possible defeat in a possible future war, Industralia therefore proposes to win an immediate victory by beginning a war immediately. But she conceals this purpose. She declares that she is not planning to fight a real war at all; she has in mind nothing more serious than the waging of a “preventive” war. That is, the best way to avoid future war is to fight now.

If we “unload” the term, “preventive war,” we arrive at the truth, that the nation first to attack is always launching an aggressive war—that every war is likely to generate a new war. There is not and cannot be any such thing in fact as a preventive war.

Eugene H. Lehman,
West Long Branch, New Jersey