Monday, 8 August 2011

Volgograd voyage- Day 3- Empty Acres

We drove north from Volgograd along a bumpy road, turning in to the yard of a former cooperative farm. This was the farm office, now the local centre for the company ‘Krasnodonsky’ that succeeded its Soviet ancestor. The company has pigs, chickens and arable crops in land parcels spread out across a vast area. Despite being the main office many pig sheds were also located here and the air was rich with the scent of them. The boss of the operation, like the operation itself was typical of many across the former Soviet Union. He wore a suit, had a very high opinion of himself and liked to think that his importance meant he could tell us how to go about our job. When we politely told him what we needed to film, he was initially hostile to any access at all (funny, I thought we’d surmounted that hurdle when we arranged to come all this way) but to his credit he eventually gave in and even let us see something rather unconventional on a Russian farm.

We followed one of his managers out into the open semi-steppe, the sun was bright and the grass and scrub stretched to the horizon and beyond. This is what you think of when you think of Russian agriculture. There were crops here and there, but it hardly seemed as if there was much urgency about planting much of it. Eventually we pulled into a yard next to what looked rather like chicken sheds. But as we got out of the cars a strange sound greeted our ears, a sort of bass thump, as if delivered by one of those beat box musicians who do all the sounds without instruments. There it was again, and again. Ah! I thought, so this is where all those beat boxers come from. They’re training regiments of them in Russia to flood the shopping malls of Europe! Not quite, round the corner of the sheds I saw them, hundreds of emus. The farm housed 460 in total, used mainly for their meat.

Emus, in Russia. Who would have thought?
But he's not wearing a mortar board as emu professor, it's the top of the shed.

We asked their keeper, Nina Markina, what she thought of her wards. “They have a strong temperament,” she said, “at first I hated them because they’re very aggressive, especially when they have young, but after a couple of seasons I learnt their personalities and I can control them more easily now.” The bass thumps are a form of communication, not a form of bird a cappella. The eggs are hatched in incubators and for their first few weeks the young birds are kept in a special pen. But what brought Nina out here to the beautiful but very isolated countryside and kept her here? There were a few wooden houses nearby but that was it. Of course, it was all about money. Her daughter was in university, her son approaching his school leaving exams. And would they come back to help her when they were educated? “No,” she said, “I don’t want them to come back here. There’s no opportunity here.”

Nina Markina had grown used to working with the big birds,
but didn't want her children following her.

That is a refrain I’ve heard much from Russians. They look down on ‘the village’ as they call it. Of course many young Russians still come from the countryside. But few want to go back there from university or their first jobs in a town or city. The countryside, once such an inspiration for Russian musicians, painters and writers is now largely derided. In many places in the world being a farmer is seen as carrying with it a good, wholesome upbringing, even sometimes aristocratic qualities. Not here. Perhaps it was the Soviets’ love of the cities, but all those living in the countryside are, on a stereotypical level, seen as a bit backward. This is proving an increasing problem for Russia as its countryside, and agricultural sector, are being speedily depopulated.

Anastasia Ivanova thought working on a farm wasn't bad,
but there aren't so many like her in Russia.

We arrived next to a chicken farm about an hour’s drive away. It looked and worked much like its European counterparts. Rows of chicken sheds housed thousands of birds at different stages of growth running around on the floors of the specially environmentally controlled spaces. But as well as the modern set up, it was also here that we met some of the young Russians who are bucking the trend of leaving the countryside. Anastasia Ivanova was twenty four. But as she explained, working for Krasnodonsky’s chicken farm seemed a sensible option. “They train us in vetinary science and pay us a reasonable wage,” she said. “I trained as a vet for this kind of work, there would be no use for me in the city.” Anastasia also had her complaints though. She wanted more government support for Russian farm staff. “They could give us some subsidy for rural housing for a start. It’s very difficult to live here otherwise.” President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have often talked about agriculture as one the Russian government’s big priorities. But despite the rhetoric and considerable flows of money, Russia’s agricultural storage facilities and transport networks are falling apart, and there still aren’t the incentives to create enough Anastasias to run the sector in the future.

Our third visit of the day was 150km away. Narrow streams cut gullies into shallow rolling grassland. Only one low line of chalk hillocks stood out and aside from small copses, there were few trees. This terrain ran up to fields, cultivated where the soil wasn't too thin and rocky to prohibit it. We turned off the road onto a dusty dirt track. The small villages of wooden huts we passed seemed abandoned, until locals emerged going about their business. Then looming over the horizon in this very poor and barren landscape we saw them, three huge, state of the art John Deere tractors stood with their planting rigs behind them, filling up with wheat seed for planting. Krasnodonsky was not only a local concern. It was owned by a holding group somewhere in a big city office. The capital they had invested was what enabled them to buy five of these huge tractor and planting rigs. Just as well. They were planting a field 264 hectares in size (a field this size is nearly unheard of in the UK). The five rigs had 30,000 hectares to plant in total and were working 24 hours a day to do it. Now the potential of modern technology, applied to Russia’s vast land mass was plain for me to see.

However once again we were back to old problems. I noticed all of the men driving, loading, controlling and maintaining these machines were old. When I asked why there were no younger men here the answer was depressing. These machines are too valuable, I was told. We wouldn’t trust younger men with them. It’s this kind of attitude that is holding Russian agriculture back. Fair enough the men had a point, but not even a single young apprentice was there learning how to run these machines for the future. As the three tractors drove off down the field, looking like a scene from an old Soviet propaganda reel, I was impressed at how far some of Russia’s agriculture has come. But I was also worried. For when these men grew old, who would there be to man those 30,000 hectares then?

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