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From Moscow, A Search For Meaning (And Money) In Organic Farming

Part of Moscow's new striving urban class has taken its ideas and energy to the farm. A different kind of Russian revolution.

Farmers in Kstovo, western Russia
Farmers in Kstovo, western Russia
Anastasia Karimova

MOSCOW — For Dmitry Klimov, a public relations specialist, the road to becoming a farmer started during the economic crisis. In 2010, he and a couple of colleagues decided to raise guinea fowl in the hopes of building a sideline business. But the market was not prepared for the traditional but relatively unknown bird. “We had 5,000 guinea fowl, and we were spending $10,000 per month on them,” he says. “We were certain that there would be a market. But no! We burned around $300,000.”

Klimov says his experience just proves that the revolution did in fact kill old Russian culinary traditions. He decided to get over the psychological consequences of his failure by going even further. He spent two months in Honduras and when he got home, he decided to try again. Now he and his partner, Andrei Ovchinnikov, rent a piece of land with a slightly run-down house in a village outside of Moscow.

After his experience with the guinea fowl, Klimov decided that his second attempt would be with more common birds. Now he has 600 chickens, and about 100 each of turkeys, ducks and geese. They built a small pond for the geese and ducks. “It cost us $3,000, but at least it’s nice for the birds!” Klimov says proudly. “We are only selling around five guinea fowl per week; on the previous farm we were selling a little bit more. The niche has been filled by the so-called guinea fowl broilers,” he complains.

Klimov doesn’t raise guinea fowl or chicken broilers (which gain weight so quickly that they can’t walk because of their own weight) on principle. The chicken coop is full of colorful birds running around happily.

Klimov’s farm attracts gastronomic tours for people who want both beautiful surroundings and high-quality products, i.e. foodies willing to pay $180 for a tasting menu squeeze into the small farmhouse.

On the windowsill there’s a book called Chickens: 200 Species for Breeding and Exhibition — Full Atlas. Klimov says he has learned everything he knows about farming from books and the Internet. There are workers on the farm, but they don’t know anything about farming. Klimov admonishes one of the workers for not noticing that the chickens had laid 20 eggs.

“It’s not easy with our chickens. You can’t fry a stewing hen, and you can’t make a good soup out of a young, lean chicken. Our buyers didn’t know those details at first, and our chickens got bad reviews. But I contacted the clients and explained what was going on, and offered to bring them a new chicken for free, just to maintain a good relationship with them,” Klimov says.

Now 50% of his orders come from the LavkaLavka farmer’s cooperative, an Internet portal that helps farmers sell online. Klimov sells the rest of his products to an organic store, restaurants and private clients. A young chicken that weighs between 300 and 350 grams costs about $12.

“The best farmers are Muscovites,” Klimov says. That’s because people from the city are more likely to have acquaintances who understand the draw of delicious but expensive food.

Klimov says they built everything with their own hands, since hiring construction workers would have been too expensive. They had to get creative to save money: Instead of a roof on the coops for the birds, they used old advertising banners that ad agencies are more than happy to get rid of. It’s unlikely that a real peasant would have thought of something like that.

Same with the method for financing the poultry houses: Clients were asked to contribute $300 towards the construction, and given a gift certificate for $330 in return. Klimov was able to raise half of the necessary money that way. Now he spends half of his time in Moscow and the other half on the farm. But he is trying to get the farm processes in good enough order that he could control the farm from as far away as Honduras.

The farmer’s friends

The types of resources that are helping farmers reach customers include LavkaLavka, the website which also boasts two brick-and-mortar stores in Moscow. The site’s founder, Boris Akimov, was once the co-editor of Moscow’s culture guide. In 2009, he started traveling to the countryside in search of good, natural products. His friends began to ask him to bring stuff back for them, and Akimov saw an opportunity for the distribution of real farm food. This year Akimov also started a small farm with livestock and produce, but he is not yet selling his own products.

“A large portion of the farmers in the LavkaLavka cooperative are former city slickers who decided to become farmers,” Akimov says. He has his own ideas about why it’s easier for former urban dwellers to use the system than for life-time farmers: People from the city aren’t afraid of the Internet.

All of the products on LavkaLavka have the farmer’s name attached: pastrami from Lilit Bagdasaryan, dairy products from Nina Kozlova, etc. Farmers don’t even need to have a registered company to sell their products on the site. There are about 100 farmers, most of whom fled the city looking for honest work on the land.

Consider, for example, Vladimir and Yulia Krotov. In 2010, Vladimir was the head of sales at a trade company and Yulia was a financial director for a consulting firm. That year, they decided to leave the business world. “For a long time, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to cook good food. I tried experimenting with different spices, but I came to the conclusion that the problem was with the quality of the products,” Yulia says. “That raised the question of what we are eating and breathing in the city. That’s when we started to think about moving to the country, in order to do something about it.” They moved to Tulskoi Oblast and now raise cows on 150 hectares (370 acres) of pasture.

Investor-backed farmers

These former city folks can become “fashionable farmers” even without their own capital. Aleksei Ivanov, a former secretary who now sells 16 tons of vegetables per year on LavkaLavka, met an investor several years ago who was interested in putting money into an agricultural project. That’s when Ivanov became a farmer.

Like the Klimovs, he divides his time between Moscow and the farm. “My idea is to establish a totally self-sustaining system, so that if there is a war we can survive easily,” Ivanov jokes. “It’s still not clear what our speciality is going to be. Our preserves have turned out unexpectedly well, although at the beginning we were just pickling cucumbers for ourselves.”

The farm has three sections of 16 hectares (39 acres), 42 hectares (103) and 80 hectares (197 acres), on which only nine people work. In addition to vegetables, Ivanov raises chickens, ducks and geese.

“Now the farm’s development is running up against infrastructure limits,” Ivanov says. “The energy company gave us an estimate of nearly $1.5 million, so we haven’t developed the electrical system. Gas is only provided to villages with at least 100 residents, and we only have 25 people. Without gas we can’t develop our project of a goat farm with milk products.”

To make farming seem less like Russian roulette, LavkaLavka runs a two-week seminar for beginners every month. It costs $1,500. Right now Akimov and his partners are raising money to start a farmer’s market in Moscow using crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is still unusual for Russia, but Akimov has already seen that it works. And it’s a lot safer than trying to develop the project with a bank loan.

Geese online and sturgeon in the basement

Far from Moscow, even more innovative agricultural ideas are blooming. Konstantin Tereshenko, a businessman in Novosibirsk, decided to help his village of Novonikolaevka 400 kilometers away. “I once did a survey on V Kontacte (Russia’s Facebook equivalent) asking, ‘Would you like to participate in agriculture while living in the city?’ More than 70% of people answered ‘yes,’” Tereshenko says.

Basing his idea on the Internet “farm” games, he decided to set up something similar, only with real live geese. He rented some land in Novonikolaevka and set up a web camera. He allowed people to buy a goose online and then watch it grow up — a bit like pre-ordering the bird. Last year he sold 600 geese for New Year’s, and about 100 of those were pre-purchased on the Internet, where buyers got to watch them being raised. Tereshenko now employs three people on the farm, and the salary for the three of them is a little over $600 per month. In total, Tereshenko says he has invested around $75,000, and he expects to make that money back within two years.

Living the agrarian life — Photo: LavkaLavka

The important thing, he says, is to diversify your risk. In case the geese got sick, he decided also to have a commercial fishing operation in Novonikolaevka. And there is a tourism component too: Tereshenko has a bed and breakfast on the property.

An equally interesting farming project comes from Igor Bobrovksi, the owner of a computer business in the Siberian city of Biysk. He started a sturgeon farm in his office basement. The entrepreneur acknowledges that, at its current size, it isn’t a profit-making endeavor, although it is innovative.

“We planned and carried out a project to raise 2,000 fish, which proved the concept that from available resources and with minimal labor we could use the otherwise empty basements in the city to raise sturgeon,” Bobrovski says. “They can provide city residents with tasty and healthy food that is practically free.”

The young fish weigh three to four grams and grow into half-kilo sturgeons. There were some losses, but not major ones. “We showed the set-up to the city government, and wrote the regional government several times. We suggested running a pilot project in one or two residential buildings, but we didn’t get that far,” Bobrovski says.

Just for yourself

Not everything is meant as a business. Automatic feeders and waterers have allowed city dwellers to raise livestock on land outside of the city without becoming farmers. For example, in the small town of Ivanovskaya near Moscow, nearly all the residents are Muscovites — meaning they have a country house in the town. All of the houses have livestock. They trade knowledge and help each other, which represents a new kind of social organization for Russia.

Tatyana Khokhlova stresses that it’s not necessary to move to the country to get organic products. In the center of her property, an antique wagon sits on the well-groomed lawn. The porch is decorated with authentic items from the agricultural past. Her husband drove to Belarus with a trailer to get them. An old breed of shepherd dog lives with the poultry, and though he’s about the same size as a bear, he is very friendly.

The same can’t be said about the five geese, the property’s real security force, who raise a ruckus as soon as anyone gets near the fence. There are also eight hens, four guinea fowl, a rooster, and a pregnant rabbit. Khokhlova visits the animals on the weekend. “The automatic waterers, feeders and infrared lamps allow the animals to be on automatic pilot for a couple of days,” she says.

She doesn’t keep track of how much she spends on the animals — it depends on the seasons, and who really cares if it’s all for yourself? Her neighbor, Nikolai Ionov, says that in the winter he spends about $25 a month to feed his 16 hens, and a little less than that for his 12 rabbits. He slaughters three rabbits and three chickens per month, which is cheaper than buying the meat in the store. More importantly, the taste is not comparable. Khokhlova's female rabbit is expecting a litter that Nikolai’s rabbit, Boris, fathered: neighborhood cooperation in action.

Just like commercial farmers, these hobbyists have failures too. “Once, we were tricked by an advertisement and we decided to buy Canadian turkey broilers,” Khokhlova remembers. “We were promised that they would weigh 25 kilos. Day-old chicks cost $10, and we had to order a minimum of 10, and you had to order three months in advance. I bought 20 of them. They were delivered with fanfare, in a Mercedes. My neighbor’s turkeys died within two weeks, and only four of mine survived.”

In Khokhlova's poultry run, four bow-legged birds stared back at me. The broilers couldn’t walk. Now she shares her turkey experiences on poultry forums, encouraging readers to choose more appropriate birds.

Khokhlova has learned about agriculture from her neighbors, on the Internet and from books. She shows me a warm composting vegetable bed that looks like a decorative flower bed. Apparently the design limits lost soil. The compost rots and heats up the bed. She got the idea from a gardening book. One of her other neighbors had a similar idea. He was against having vegetable beds in the middle of his lawn, saying it was too “Soviet,” but had nothing against growing produce in mounds of cut grass and other waste.

This Muscovite, far removed from farming, calls it hugelkultur — the technical word for gardening in a mound of composting organic material.

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