Russia’s organic farmers look online for customers

This summer, Russia’s
Chief Medical Officer Gennady Onishchenko called on Russian farmers to take
their cucumbers, milk and eggs straight to the markets, avoiding the commercial
middlemen. For your average Russian dacha owner, this could even be a good
source of extra income, but real farmers are still not rushing to the markets
with their goods. Russian organic farmers are instead connecting with buyers
through online grocery stores, which peddle an alluring image of rural bliss on
their pages, with happy enthusiastic farmworkers gathering potato beetles by
hand and feeding curds to baby chicks. But the way in which Russian organic
food growers work needs to be defined on their own terms. Ultimately, the
premise behind organic farming is that people know where their food comes from.


Farming without foot rot


Four years ago, Olga and
Sergei Vankov went fishing in Mozhaisk, in the Moscow Region, and found themselves
captivated by the local scenery. Lying in an unkempt farm meadow (“The grass
here was taller than a jeep!” he remembers), Sergei felt as though he had come
home. The next day he bought a few dozen hectares of hayfields as a present for
his wife and got a cow in the bargain. Now there are four cows on the farm,
plus goats, birds and 144 pigs, and there is also a fishing complex in the
pipeline, where the couple are planning to rear sturgeon and produce black


For local residents,
pork priced at 200-260 rubles per kilogram seems excessively expensive. The
Vankovs sell their produce through the online store “Ferma,” which takes orders
from customers in Moscow. However the farmowners think of the Internet only as
a temporary way of selling their products.  To help boost sales in the
long term, they have decided to turn the farm into an ecotourism center. Today
there is already a lakeside village with eight guesthouses. And at the edge of
the estate amongst young birch trees you can see small log frames: This is
where the village of Berendeevki is being built.   


Sergei describes the new
buildings; “- house-bathhouse, house-bathhouse, every house with a Russian stove.”
The farmer and his surroundings seem like a stereotype of a Russian village of
the past. His fresh white linen shirt is all about modern rural simplicity.


“The road goes through a
small wood, and the houses are going to have roofs grown into the ground.
Behind the houses there is a marsh. My wife isn’t overly keen on this marsh, but
I like it: The smell is so nice there, it’s all wet and earthy. We want to make
a track for 4X4s there. To drive through this place you often need to get out
and push, and this can be quite fun for the men of the species. And next to it
there is a big meadow. But it is better to stay out of this meadow when its
haymaking time – there is so much oxygen and different smells that people fall
off their horses! The guests will have to fill their leisure time – but what
would that entail in this place? Sitting in their rooms, drinking vodka? No, we
have decided to make a craft house, put a workshop in there, so people will be able to
make thread themselves, and felt their own valenki.”


Olga is roasting a loin
of pork in the Italian oven.


“You know how I can afford
all this?” she said. “It’s because I have another business, I’m able to buy the
equipment, to build a barn. I have money, but I don’t want to spend it on
diamonds; I’d prefer to enjoy all this. But making a living from this? A
peasant farmer would never think of doing this: It’s 100 percent unprofitable.
There is no proper way of marketing it, and so in Russia the land lies
abandoned, uncultivated.”  


“I sometimes ask myself
why we need it all,” added Sergei. “I’ve lost count of the number of times people
have suggested we build over the land, break it up into building plots and sell
it. But I don’t have the heart to ruin a place like this!”  


As well as the pork on
the table there is also a plate of homemade lard, fresh green salad, tiny
peppers straight from the bush, steaming pies and currant liquor from a
decanter. Through the window, which is almost twice the height of a person, is an
idyllic landscape straight from a Russian fairy tale: an uncut meadow, a smooth
glassy lake, village huts with dark grey walls. A new red tractor crawls slowly
out from behind a hill like a ladybird, magical swans fly over the lake, the
sun is going down, everything smells of wood and homecooked pies.


The Giant Turnip


“I have a French friend
called Marianna,” began Natalia Ivankevich. “So one day she and I were at the
market. We stop by one of the counters selling salad, she asks: ‘Which do you
like better – iceberg lettuce, Batavia or endives?’ And here I understand that
something had been missing in my life!”


Now she has more than
made up for what was lacking. Greens are this gardener’s specialty. Natalia
sells her rocket and salad burnet through the online grocery store “Lavka.” From
a dozen vegetable beds, Ivankevich harvests between three to five kilograms of greens
a week, which, in the scheme of things, is quite a lot for one dacha owner, but
is clearly not enough for one town: the demand for Ivankevich’s greens far
outstrips the supply.


Natalia, a French-Russian
translator by profession, decided to start selling her produce for practical
reasons – she needs to finally build a house on her property – but her passion
for salad leaves is sincere.   


“I took some aspects of permaculture –
that is when everything grows together, and you never dig the earth over, and
some principles of biodynamic farming,” said Natalia, explaining the principles
she follows when gardening. “Biodynamic farming is the oldest branch of organic
farming; it came about towards the beginning of the 20th century,
around the time of Rudolph Steiner. This involves both plant rotation and
combined planting.

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