Strate­gic Crop

The flax pro­duc­tion pro­gram of the Union State is de­signed to re­vive the fame of “the north­ern silk” of Be­larus and Rus­sia

Economy of Belarus - - UNION STATE -

Since an­cient times flax has been one of the most im­por­tant crops in Be­larus and Rus­sia. The fas­tid­i­ous plant was ir­re­place­able: flax was used to make cloth­ing, medicines and food. Even now, it is the num­ber one raw ma­te­rial for mak­ing eco-friendly and or­ganic prod­ucts. New tech­nolo­gies made flax pro­cess­ing waste-free and cost-ef­fec­tive and con­sid­er­ably ex­panded the use of this crop. To­day it is used in the tex­tile in­dus­try, me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, in the de­fense sec­tor, by pa­per mills and com­pa­nies man­u­fac­tur­ing health­care prod­ucts and food­stuffs. This is the rea­son why Be­larus and Rus­sia have de­cided to re­vive flax pro­duc­tion and up­grade the flax pro­cess­ing in­dus­try. Both coun­tries are go­ing to unite their ef­forts to re­gain the sta­tus of the lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers of “the north­ern silk”.

Scale of the Prob­lem

How­ever, this will be quite a chal­lenge. To get a clear pic­ture of the sit­u­a­tion in the flax in­dus­try in Be­larus and Rus­sia, let us have a look at the re­cent his­tory of flax pro­duc­tion. In the first half of the 20th cen­tury flax was among the most im­por­tant crops in the Rus­sian Em­pire and later in the Soviet Union. Back in the 1940-1960s, some 80-90% of the world’s flax pro­duc­tion was con­cen­trated in the Soviet Union.

How­ever, later came a dra­matic re­duc­tion of flax pro­duc­tion. There were 418,000 hectares un­der this crop in Rus­sia in 1990. How­ever by 2012 flax farm­ing shrank 7.3 times. Only 78 out of 301 pro­cess­ing com­pa­nies re­mained afloat, while the num­ber of tex­tile pro­duc­ers dropped 8.3 times. In 1975 there were 67 seed breed­ing sta­tions, while in 2012 their num­ber went down to 17. Sev­eral re­gions, like Arkhangelsk Oblast, Vladimir Oblast, Moscow Oblast, Kaluga Oblast, Tyu­men Oblast and Perm Krai, stopped pro­duc­ing flax al­to­gether.

Sev­eral fac­tors are to blame for this sit­u­a­tion, said Vladimir Kono- valov, the head of the Agency for Pro­duc­tion and Pri­mary Treat­ment of Flax and Hemp at the Agri­cul­ture Min­istry of Rus­sia. The big­gest prob­lem is poor phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture of com­pa­nies in­volved in flax pro­duc­tion and pro­cess­ing.

In the early 2000s Rus­sian re­gions made sev­eral at­tempts to re­verse the sit­u­a­tion by sub­si­diz­ing the flax in­dus­try as part of re­gional pro­grams. The pro­gram Flax was among the key ini­tia­tives in this field. The pro­gram was put for­ward by the Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee of the Be­larus-Rus­sia Union State. “Al­though only 27% of the planned in­vest­ments was raised, the pro­gram gen­er­ated an ap­pre­cia­ble ef­fect. The sup­port for the in­dus­try at the re­gional level al­lowed halt­ing the re­duc­tion in flax farm­ing,” Vladimir Kono­valov said.

Tough com­pe­ti­tion prompted tex­tile com­pa­nies to em­bark on pro­duc­tion up­grade. Those who man­aged to catch up with the chang­ing mar­ket needs re­mained afloat. How­ever, the tech­ni­cal up­grade failed to re­solve sev­eral is­sues. In fact, the new equip­ment was de­signed to process long-fi­bred flax, but flax pro­duc­ers failed to pro­vide this type of flax. Flax process- ing com­pa­nies in Western Europe ex­tract up to 70% of long flax fiber from rot­ted straw, while do­mes­tic com­pa­nies set­tled for about 40-50%. The ef­fi­ciency of flax pro­duc­tion in Western coun­tries is 5 to 6 times higher than in Rus­sia. This sit­u­a­tion forced do­mes­tic tex­tile pro­duc­ers to buy the lack­ing raw ma­te­ri­als in Europe, which fur­ther loos­ened in­ter-in­dus­try ties in Rus­sia.

Ev­ery­thing Counts

“Nev­er­the­less, it is quite pos­si­ble to turn the sit­u­a­tion around and make the flax in­dus­try self­suf­fi­cient,” said Mikhail Ko­va­lyov, Di­rec­tor of the All-Rus­sia Re­search and De­sign In­sti­tute of Flax Cul­ti­va­tion Mech­a­niza­tion of the Rus­sian Acad­emy of Agri­cul­tural Sciences. “To be­gin with, Rus­sia and Be­larus have amassed con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence in flax grow­ing and pro­cess­ing and have de­vel­oped tight col­lab­o­ra­tion in mech­a­niza­tion of flax pro­duc­tion and seed breed­ing. Our coun­tries have ev­ery­thing they need to work in a closed pro­duc­tion cy­cle: from seeds and soil treat­ment tech­nolo­gies to mar­ket­ing and sales. How­ever, some parts of this chain are in dire straits in Rus­sia, which dis­rupts the en­tire chain. The pro­grams that were adopted ear­lier failed to pro­duce a de­sired ef­fect be­cause of poor fi­nanc­ing,” the ex­pert said. In his view, good re­sults hinge on state sup­port for the in­dus­try and closer struc­tural ties therein.

An­other im­por­tant thing is the con­ti­nu­ity of gen­er­a­tions of flax grow­ers. With some crops the pro­duc­tion cy­cle is short (plant­ing­har­vest­ing). Flax, on the con­trary,

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