RANCHING MAY OFFER SOVIET ‘GHOST FARMS’ OF KAZAKHSTAN NEW LIFE
Story and Photographs by Ryan T. Bell
An abandoned 250,000-acre collective farm holds clues for understanding why 34.6 million acres of agricultural land—an area the size of Wisconsin—sit fallow in Kazakhstan. It might also hold the secret for how Kazakhstan can put at least some of it back into production.
On the steppes of northern Kazakhstan, a collective farm town called Chilinka Sovkhoz crumbles, abandoned. The 250,000-acre farm was once home to over 60,000 livestock (mostly sheep, but also cattle and horses), and an embodiment of the USSR’s plan to feed the Soviet people with food grown on the Kazakh steppes. Today, Chilinka is one of many former collective farms that litter the countryside.
To an outsider like me, Chilinka looks like a dream turned nightmare. But for 42-year-old Rahimzhanov Zhumabai, who was born and raised there, he can look past the rubble and see Chilinka’s former grandeur—a point of view that in this moment, entails looking past a large tree growing in the middle of his childhood home.
At the base, the tree trunk is about 10-inches wide. If Zhumabai cut it down and counted the rings, it would date to 1999—the year his family was among the last to leave Chilinka.
At some point since then, looters tore off the roof, doors, windows—anything that could be sold on the black market. We climb through a hole in the wall that used to be the kitchen window and continue Zhumabai’s stroll down memory lane.
This building, he says, was a House of Culture, where he danced as a teen. That was the banya, where he took steam baths on weekends. Over the ravine, across a bridge that is no longer there, was the farm’s administrative center. And stretching to the horizon in every direction was Chilinka’s pastureland.
I’m reminded of the ghost towns of the American West: Bodie, California; Bannock, Montana; St. Elmo, Colorado. Yet, there is one big difference between them and Chilinka: they were mining boomtowns that went bust when the gold ran out. In Chilinka, it wasn’t like the steppes ran out of water or grass. The story of how a 250,000-acre farm became abandoned holds clues for understanding why 34.6 million acres of agricultural land—an area the size of Wisconsin—sit fallow in Kazakhstan. It might also hold the secret for how Kazakhstan can put at least some of it back into production.