The New York Times
by Neil MacFarquhar
Source: Geir Halvorsen
MOSCOW — Boris Akimov’s cellphone, which quacks like a duck, started to sound like a whole flock soon after President Vladimir V. Putin imposed sweeping food sanctions barring many Western imports last August.
Major Russian grocery chains, desperate to find new suppliers, tracked down Mr. Akimov, the founder of Russia’s fledgling farm-to-table movement, to ask urgent supply questions. How many chickens and eggs could he provide, they wanted to know, and could he deliver 100 tons of cheese, say, immediately.
Mr. Akimov, 36, who has a heavy beard and an infectious grin, had to turn them away — his 100 farmers produce nowhere near the amounts requested. LavkaLavka, the organic farm cooperative he and a friend set up about five years ago, sells between six and 12 tons of artisanal cheese annually, for example.
“The main thing which the sanctions have already changed is in people’s minds — in government, in business and on the streets, they have started to think more about where their food comes from,” Mr. Akimov said in an interview in his new, homey restaurant in central Moscow, where the light fixtures are sawed-off milk cans painted red. “If the sanctions give a chance to develop local farmers, to develop sustainable agriculture, it is very good. But I am not sure it will happen.”
In August, Russia banned all beef, pork, fish, fruit, vegetables and dairy products from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and Norway for one year, retaliating for Western economic sanctions imposed after the Kremlin destabilized Ukraine.
Senior leaders, starting with Mr. Putin, heralded food sanctions as a chance for Russians to finally stock their larders with homegrown products. Dmitri A. Medvedev, the prime minister, released a “road map” for agriculture last month. “The aim of our efforts is to increase our own agricultural produce and to reduce Russia’s dependence on food imports,” he said.
But the content of the road map was basically “watch this space,” with new agricultural policies promised by the end of 2015.
Critics said the government typically announced the sanctions first and thought about the fallout afterward. A range of experts and organizations noted that beyond the populist, patriotic speeches about growing food locally, there is minimal government support when it comes to supplying the new land, long-term credit and transportation logistics that Russian farmers desperately need to expand.
Flying over France’s Cognac region two years ago, Mr. Akimov noticed that every field, every lake, every copse was neatly groomed and exploited — there was no space for new projects. “If you looked at Russia there is nothing, nothing, nothing — you can do everything,” he said.
Russian agriculture basically collapsed twice in the 20th century. Immediately after the revolution, the new Bolshevik government organized what amounted to gangs licensed to strip the countryside of anything edible to feed the agitated urban poor. Output dropped to half what it had been in 1913.
Production had just recovered when forced collectivization started in 1928. Stalin decided that Russian grain exports would underwrite large-scale industrialization, and by 1937, 90 percent of Russian farmers had been pushed onto collective farms. Those who resisted were killed or sent to the gulag.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the government advanced large-scale corporate farming and basically favored imports.
“Peasants have always been second-class citizens — during the czarist era, during Soviet times and still today,” said Vladimir V. Miloserdov, an agriculture expert raised on a collective farm in southern Russia, who vividly recalls the maximum two sacks of grain his family received as its annual salary.
In the last 20 years, more than 106 million acres of arable land have fallen out of production, Mr. Miloserdov said, and Russia has fewer cattle now than it did in the 1940s.
Experts agree that is a sorry state of affairs for the largest country on earth.
Far from spurring production, sanctions so far have served mostly to raise food prices. Inflation has risen to 8.3 percent this year, well above the anticipated 6 percent, with the rise attributed to escalating food prices as local producers exploit shortages or importers pass on the costs of shipping in salmon from places like Chile instead of nearby Norway.
Prices for meat and poultry rose more than 18 percent through October, while dairy products were up by over 15 percent, according to the federal statistics agency, Rosstat.
“Russia cannot provide itself with dairy products, fish, vegetables and other types of food,” said Mikhail Anshakov, the head of the Society for the Protection of Consumer Rights, which calls for food sanctions to be rescinded. “Self-imposed sanctions under these circumstances were madness.”
The public has generally supported the sanctions, however, because the Kremlin wrapped the idea in nationalist colors, and state-run television regularly broadcasts programs showing supermarkets bursting with goods from Africa, Asia and Latin America. While the foreign news media tend to focus on the dismay of the urban elite over the sudden dearth of oysters and foie gras, Mr. Anshakov said, the real story is the potential gap in providing staples like milk.
Dairy farms have plenty of forage at the end of summer, he said, but with winter comes the main challenge to farming in Russia — virtually the entire country freezes. At that point dairy companies usually import vast amounts of powdered milk to mix with real milk, Mr. Anshakov said. “Now with the sanctions that is impossible,” he said, with powdered milk from traditional suppliers barred.
Some farmers, however, have been slightly gleeful about their prospects under sanctions.
Justus Walker, an American immigrant farmer in Siberia, became a YouTube sensation for a short news clip showing him laughing at the thought that he could finally sell the mozzarella he produces because the cheaper Italian variety would no longer be available.
Chicken is another example. Only about 10 percent of chickens sold in Russia come from abroad, mostly from the United States. Sanctions were a gold mine for local producers as imports no longer kept prices down.
But experts said that over the long run higher prices would not overcome more basic problems faced by small local farmers like those who sell through LavkaLavka. (Lavka means “little shop” in Russian.)
Andrey Ovchinnikov, 53, worked as an interior designer when a friend’s endeavor persuaded him to become a chicken farmer. Sales went well, but he could get neither the credit nor the land to expand. He raises thousands of birds on less than an acre. Since his farm sits about 50 miles from Moscow, prime country for dachas, the local government has been reluctant to give him land it can sell at a premium.
After almost a year of cajoling, he finally persuaded local officials to at least visit his farm this month. “I cannot say the government is really paying attention to agriculture yet, but at least they are looking in our general direction,” he said.
LavkaLavka has made getting that attention its mission.
The cooperative started after Mr. Akimov, then the creative director for an online magazine, and his friend Sasha Mikhailov, an information technology specialist, started paging through the most famous cookbook from czarist times, “A Gift to Young Housewives.” The two men kept stumbling across unfamiliar root vegetables like rutabagas, parsnips and scorzonera.
“When you read this book you wonder how many interesting things there were, how many delicious things we had here in Russia that disappeared during the Soviet period,” Mr. Akimov said.
The two began rooting around in farmers markets near Moscow for ingredients, and eventually their hobby “changed from a hedonistic project to a social project” to support local, organic farmers, Mr. Akimov said. They now run five shops, two small cafes and a restaurant.
Members of the collective hope sanctions stick around long enough for Russians to start exploring their own food, not just substitute imports from China or Turkey for what once came from the United States and Europe.
To try to speed that process, LavkaLavka has started monthly food festivals celebrating something local. This month it is the parsnip, which is called pasternak in Russian, just like the surname of the “Doctor Zhivago” author.
“If you ask a Russian what is a pasternak, he will say a famous writer,” Mr. Akimov said, “It is a vegetable, but nobody knows it.”