In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan's agricultural sector required substantial restructuring if it was to realize its vast potential. Prices for agricultural products did not rise as fast as the cost of inputs; the Soviet-era collective farm system discouraged private initiative; equipment in general and the irrigation system in particular were outdated; modern technology had not been introduced widely; and administration of agricultural programs was ineffective.
Most of Azerbaijan's cultivated lands, which total over 1 million hectares, are irrigated by more than 40,000 kilometers of canals and pipelines. The varied climate allows cultivation of a wide variety of crops, ranging from peaches to almonds and from rice to cotton. In the early 1990s, agricultural production contributed about 30 to 40 percent of Azerbaijan's net material product, while directly employing about one third of the labor force and providing a livelihood to about half the country's population. In the early postwar decades, Azerbaijan's major cash crops were cotton and tobacco, but in the 1970s grapes became the most productive crop. An anti-alcohol campaign by Moscow in the mid-1980s contributed to a sharp decline in grape production in the late 1980s. In 1991 grapes accounted for over 20 percent of agricultural production, followed closely by cotton.
Production of virtually all crops declined in the early 1990s. In 1990 work stoppages and anti-Soviet demonstrations contributed to declines in agricultural production. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the site of about one-third of Azerbaijan's croplands, substantially reduced agricultural production beginning in 1989. In 1992 agriculture's contribution to NMP declined by 22 percent. This drop was attributed mainly to cool weather, which reduced cotton and grape harvests, and to the continuation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conflict induced blockade of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic also disrupted agriculture there.
An estimated 1,200 state and cooperative farms are in operation in Azerbaijan, with little actual difference between the rights and privileges of state and cooperative holdings. Small private garden plots, constituting only a fraction of total cultivated land, contribute as much as 20 percent of agricultural production and more than half of livestock production. Private landholders do not have equal access, however, to the inputs, services, and financing that would maximize their output.
The Ministry of Agriculture of Azerbaijan runs procurement centers dispersed throughout the country for government purchase of most of the tobacco, cotton, tea, silk, and grapes that are produced. The Ministry of Grain and Bread Products runs similar operations that buy a major portion of grain production. Remaining crops are sold in the private sector.