Kazakhstan has substantial untapped agricultural potential, yet its agricultural sector is underdeveloped and under-financed. The country's capital, Astana (previously known as Tselinograd), was the epicenter of a major Soviet agricultural expansion program—the "Virgin Lands" program—of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, tens of thousands of households moved to central Kazakhstan to assist in the expansion of agriculture. Currently agriculture is the country's major employer. Yet it comes in a distant second to the industrial sector in attracting government attention for investment and support.
Kazakhstan produced about 8 million tons of wheat in the 2000-01 growing season, down from 11.2 million tons produced the previous year. Total grain production was about 10.5 million tons, down from over 14 million the year before. Area under cultivation increased approximately 4 percent in 2000 from the previous year, to 9.0 million hectares of wheat and 11.4 million total hectares of grain. Conditions were generally favorable for wheat in Kazakhstan's key north-central oblasts since the beginning of the growing season, with adequate precipitation in the form of frequent light-to-moderate showers. Vegetation indices from late July indicate that crop conditions in Kazakhstan in 2000 were not as good as in 1999, when near-ideal conditions prevailed, but they were better than during the drought of 1998 when wheat output dropped to 4.7 million tons.
One constraint that some economists see on Kazakhstan's agricultural development is the failure of the country to develop firm private property rights for agriculture. Economists maintain that private property rights play a critical role in providing the incentives necessary for investment and careful use of resources. During the Soviet period, large-scale agriculture was carried out on state farms (Sovkhozes) and collective farms (kolkhozes). With the end of the Soviet period, these farms were reorganized into large agricultural cooperatives with the understanding that they would eventually become private farms. However, the Kazakhstan government has postponed the adoption of true private property in agricultural land for cultural and political reasons. The lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament decided in June 2000 to postpone debate on a proposed law on land ownership. The Kazakhstan government originally submitted the draft bill to the parliament for passage in 1999, but the law was withdrawn after widespread public protests against land privatization. An amended version was resubmitted for debate in 2000. The year 2000 version stipulated that only land adjacent to rural dwellings, but not all the country's agricultural land, could be privately-owned. The amended draft also triggered public protests, including a hunger strike by opposition members of the Alash party organization. Members of the Alash fear that if agricultural land is privatized there will be little public support for defending the interests of small farmers against the interests of large farm owners. Kazakhstan, they fear, will witness the develop- ment of large plantation-style farms that derive profits for multinational companies while small farmers are increasingly pushed into subsistence-level farming.