Minnesota-Backed Farmer Aims to Beat Odds
"Minnesota-Backed Farmer Aims to Beat Odds." Star Tribune, 30 November 1999, R22.
When the government offered free land in 1987, a Moscow music teacher decided to take a chance on farming. As luck would have it, it was "payback time" for an Edina retiree looking to help out.
DMITROV, RUSSIA - Nikolai Moskvin, a music teacher- turned-dairy farmer in the Dmitrov region north of Moscow, says that some of his neighbors think he's crazy and that others are envious. Ralph Hofstad, former CEO of Land O'Lakes now working out of an Edina office to try to help Russian agriculture, hopes Moskvin's neighbors will eventually view him as a role model.
Moskvin's big experiment is to operate a family farm. At the moment, he's thriving, but he's getting so much technical and financial help form Hofstda's Minnesota-based Russian Farm Community Project (RFCP) that it's too soon to say whether he'll make it on his own.
Russian agriculture, based on the collective farm model for decades, is one of the many disaster areas of the Russian economy since 1989. Andrei Danilenko, the Moscow-based director of the RFCP, estimates that one-fourth of the food produced on Russian farms makes it to market. Three-fourths is stolen, rots before it is harvested, or it lost due to antiquated storage practices.
For example, the use of silos to store grain is almost unknown in Russia. Harvested grain is left sitting in a field, exposed to the elements, to rats and others scavengers, and to pilferage. To Western eyes, one element of the problem seems obvious. If anyone owned that grain, they would be a lot less willing to let it become rat food.
In 1987, President Mikhail Gorbachev offered land and state aid to those willing to experiment with private farms, Moskvin said. But most of those who had grown up with collectivized farming found the idea daunting. Moskvin was a music teacher, living in Moscow, but the idea intrigued him. He took a state-paid trip to the Netherlands to see how family farms worked. "Once I saw how it worked there, and we were promised support for going that way, our family decided to try our luck." He started dairy farming in 1989 with 18 cows.
Moskvin got luck a few years later, when he was adopted as a demonstration project of the RFCP.
In 1989, Hofstad retired after 15 years as a Land O'Lakes CEO. He was looking for something constructive to do and was introduced, through a pastor and some visiting Russian parliamentarians, to the problems of Russian agriculture.
"It's payback time for me," Hofstad said. "I'm 75 years old. I've been fortunate. I think I can share some of the things I learned as a cooperative leader." By 1993, he was head of the RFCP. He toured Russian agriculture areas, looking for people who seemed to understand that the goal was self-sufficiency. "As soon as we smelled that they were looking for handouts, we thanked them and moved on," he said. He eventually settled on Dmitrov, considered one of Russia's best potato- and vegetable-growing regions, to demonstrate that Western-style farming can be profitable and sustainable in Russia.
Using private donations and federal grants, the RFCP is working with the management of the biggest collective farm in that region, trying to demonstrate how to make those farms profitable. The RFCP built a trade and distribution center, with big refrigerated chambers, to help farmers market their products. It even started a dental clinic as a goodwill gesture to the local population.
On the Moskvin farm, Hofstad and Danilenko hope to demonstrate the viability of family farming. Moskvin already has a barn that is modern by Russian standards. With RFCP loans and technical assistance, he is building a barn that will employ the state-of-art techniques used by dairy farmers in Wisconsin.
The barn is open at the sides, giving the cows fresher air, and the cows aren't locked into stalls, giving them freedom to move around. Moskvin said his neighbors think the idea is crazy - it's the opposite of everything they've been taught - but Hofstad said he is confident that Moskvin's production per cow will be triple that of his neighbors.
The RFCP dispatched John Vrieze, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who uses a free-stall barn; to Amsterdam to pick out the best dairy cows he could find and ship them to Moskvin's farm. They arrived in September, giving Moskvin 200 cows and a dairy operation - on a family farm with few hired hands - the size of the operation massive nearby collective farm.
Moskvin said he has heard grumbling from his neighbors that he's stealing or has special advantages they don't have. His tractor drivers have made remarks implying that they feel exploited because he is getting rich off their efforts. He shrugs off the resentment. His big worry is whether, after all his effort; he will end up really owning his farm. Private ownership of land was authorized in a presidential decree, but the Russian Parliament has refused to back it up with legislation.
"In America, people have confidence that what they own today, they'll still own tomorrow," he said. "Here, we can't have that confidence."