Since 1991, Turkmenistan has attempted to restructure the agricultural sector to reduce its dependency upon other former Soviet republics. Agricultural policy has focused upon grain production, which has resulted in significant increases in non-cotton production, but the new crops are unlikely to thrive unless changes are also made to the procurement and transportation sectors. Due to the distance between farms and processing plants, less than 10 percent of fruits, vegetables, and cereals are processed in the country. Livestock raising remains an important part of Turkmenistan's agricultural sector, primarily in meat products such as beef, mutton, and chicken. In 1997 agricultural exports, chiefly cotton, amounted to US$364.5 million, whereas the value of agricultural imports was US$271.7 million.
To understand Turkmenistan's agriculture, it is necessary to understand Soviet practices and collectivization schemes. Roughly 50 percent of arable land is planted in cotton. Due to Soviet planning and economic specialization, Turkmenistan has few textile factories and manufactures less than 1 percent of the cotton grown. It must continue to import cotton fabrics and clothing from Russia and other states in the region. Turkmenistan has made little progress in restructuring the agricultural economy, with only limited privatization and expanded diversification of crop production. Moreover, Turkmenistan is heavily dependent upon irrigation for agriculture. Dilapidated canals and inefficient water management, however, result in only half of the water being delivered to the fields.
The Soviets practiced surface level irrigation, in which water is provided along furrows rather than direct application. Consequently, watering sometimes took days instead of hours, even with around-the-clock irrigation. In addition, the Soviets abandoned nighttime irrigation in favor of daytime irrigation, increasing water usage substantially. Almost no mechanism was in place to determine optimal application, or if there was adequate monitoring equipment, it was in disrepair. The result was endemic over-watering and a casual disregard for resource management.
Management and maintenance of the country's irrigation network is expensive. The budget allocated for maintaining the existing irrigation canals has fallen from US$3.2 million to only US$20,000. In addition, the government has failed to reduce sediment in the canal, due to failing equipment and insufficient financial resources, cutting annual clearance requirements by more than 50 percent. Staffing for the irrigation network has also become a critical problem for Turkmenistan, falling from 1,700 personnel in 1987 to only 640 in 1999. Relatively few young people are employed in irrigation and water management, so Turkmenistan could be facing a severe crisis unless newly-skilled replacement personnel are found.