The Rise of Russian Organic Farming

Vladimir Putin is known for many things, but an advocate of environmentally friendly, organic food is probably not one of them. Yet in his speech to Russia’s Federal Assembly in December 2015, Putin makes his stance clear: “Russia is able to become the largest global supplier of healthy, ecologically clean and high-quality food which some Western producers have long lost, especially given the fact that demand for such products in the world market is steadily growing.” Whilst realising that there are other factors behind this statement beyond sheer commitment to ethical food production, Putin acknowledges the potential of Russia’s agricultural industry in a burgeoning market. What has brought about this stance?

When it comes to talk of Russia’s food industry, the first thing that might well spring to mind currently is the food embargo. In retaliation to Western imposed sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, at the start of August 2014, Russia implemented a ban on agricultural products, including meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and dairy products, whose country of origin had introduced sanctions against Russia. There were a few indicators that some were finding ways around the embargo, with reports of apple imports from Switzerland (not included in the sanctions) swiftly increasing 400-fold and a billboard in Samara, the city where I spent my year abroad, advertising ‘real Italian cheese’ long past the introduction of the ban. However, the embargo has undeniably had a huge impact on the agricultural industry in Russia, opening a space in the market for domestically grown produce.

This space in the market equally applies to organic products, which are also included under the embargo’s remit. Whilst organic products certainly do not hold the same proportion of the market as they do in countries like Germany, the market does continue to grow steadily, which is impressive considering the unstable economic climate in Russia. The Association of Russian Farms and Agricultural Cooperatives (AKKOR) estimates that there is a potential market for organic production worth 300-400 billion rubles (£2.7-3.6 billion). And this growing, but still relatively untapped market—there are only 70 organic farms in Russia—has been spotted by a few adventurous former city-slickers, who are now making up what Forbes has termed ‘the new wave of farmers’.

I spent a week helping on a farm run by such a ‘new wave farmer’, Bio-farm Bolotovo, 120km south of Moscow in the Tul’skaia region of Russia. The farmer, Pavel, was a former deputy financial director of a big transport company, but had left to become an organic farmer. It was a small farm, hidden away a few kilometres from the nearest village, surrounded by apparently endless forests. They kept a few goats and sheep, but the farm mainly grew vegetables, such as cabbages, beans and potatoes alongside the Russian culinary staple—dill. A handful of workers lived in the two wooden houses, but especially during the summer months, the farm was desperately short of hands to keep on top of weeding and dill harvesting, so they look for volunteers, to come and stay for a week or so to help. The people on the farm made for an interesting mix: Pavel, the businessman turned agronomist; one Muscovite who had come as a retreat out of busy, urban life; my friend and I, two foreigners taking the opportunity for a bit of alternative travel and a family of workers from Ukraine who did not seem to care much for organic food. The farm also had regular visits from various journalists eager to find out more about this organic movement. While I was there, a group of young hipster journalists from one of the trendy Moscow journals picked through the mud in their pristine trainers and looked taken aback at the outdoor toilet—the farm was a world away from the lives of the affluent, urban, ecologically aware consumers that make up the target market. But then again, that is surely not unique to Russia.

The farm is the only one in Russia to be accredited with the German based International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). But as mentioned above, according to AKKOR there are already 70 farms producing organic food. This highlights one of the issues in determining what is organic or not. There are many accrediting bodies with differing criteria and application processes, and the Russian government has recently introduced its own law seeking to facilitate organic farming. What this means is that it can be hard to define and standardise what is organic and what is not. After all, the babushka at the local market selling cabbages she has grown at her dacha may well be just as organic as the certified cabbage you buy at an eco-shop for a higher price, but then again she may well have a penchant for dousing her cabbages in all manner of chemicals.

It is safe to say that there is a distance for Russia to go before it can fulfil Putin’s vision as the world-leading supplier of ecologically clean food, with Russian organic enterprises still occupying only a small part of the domestic agricultural market, let alone competing on the export market. But only a fool writes off Russia and in this case, its organic farmers.