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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Farm Ruin, in a Roll of the Dice

Midsummer rain splits your cherries and your harvest check. Worms get into your apples. A slipped disk leaves you flat on your back for a crucial three months.


Like other bearers of humanitarian aid, Washington farmer George Rohrbacher is introducing Russia to an aspect of the market that he knows intimately: the good old capitalist tradition of financial ruin.


Rohrbacher's "The Farmer Game" is a board game that outlines the microeconomic melodrama of the American family farm, complete with natural disasters, inheritance taxes and second mortgages. It's "Monopoly" with crops, and without the "I'm-going-to-feed-on-your-carcass" mentality, explained Rohrbacher. In other words, if you don't go broke, consider yourself a winner.


Within a year, 7,000 Russian-language editions of the $30 game should be circulating through Peace Corps offices and former kolkhozes, the communal farms where Russians are now studying small business. Although Rohrbacher himself funded production of the Russian-language version of "The Farmer Game," the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and the U.S. Agency for International Development were sufficiently impressed to help finance its translation and distribution in a country that its inventor respectfully refers to as "one hell of a piece of farmland."


One of the main points that Rohrbacher, 46, hopes to drive in about the family farm is the instrumental role of bankruptcy. During the 25 years he has spent on the farm, Rohrbacher has skirted bankruptcy repeatedly himself.


He was a post-graduate greenhorn -- a young man who had not sat on a horse in 22 years -- when he bought his first 27 acres of irrigated farmland.


"My dad was a biochemist," he said. "I always just assumed I would go and get a Ph.D." Instead, he and his wife got dairy calves and part-time jobs in town. The dairy calves and a bumper crop of concord grapes went to finance the next land purchase, and Rohrbacher and his wife quit their day jobs, realizing "not only that we liked farming, but that we were good at it."


But then, thanks to the "contravening chance variables" that enliven the board game, things went wrong. When he began marketing "The Farmer Game," in fact, it was a last-ditch effort to avoid selling 1,000 acres of cattle ranch. "We were right on the edge of losing the farm," he recalled. "We figured if we had one more year like that we were goners."


The constant fear of going broke helped the American agricultural industry remain competitive through a farm crisis that shut down 200 farms a day. It could do the same for Russian farms, he said. When Rohrbacher began visiting the first of Russia's 28,000 collective farms to be privatized, he was struck by the atmosphere of pervasive carelessness.


"Because I'm a cattle rancher, the first thing I noticed was that the whole area looked like cattle country. There were no fences anywhere," he said. "I never saw a fence except for this one herdsman with a 20-foot bullwhip over his shoulder. In America we would have put a little capital investment in and built a fence."


As Rohrbacher sees it, the only cure for the "obvious lack of interest on the part of the herdsmen" is capital investment.


"It's a business exercise. The principles are just the same as running a shoe store, or a yogurt factory," he said. "This is capitalism with training wheels."