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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Organic Farms, Minus the Granola

Struggling to establish himself as a private farmer on the plot of land he received from the collective farm where he was born and raised, Vladimir Frolov, 32, is Russia's answer to the homesteaders of the American West.

He is also an aspiring organic farmer.

In the West, organic farmers, who work without chemicals and use ecological methods to enrich their soil, are often stereotyped as granola-eating intellectuals who have the luxury of worrying about protecting the land, not eking a living out of it.

But for many cash-strapped Russian farmers, the choice is simple.

"Chemicals are expensive -- and on top of that you need special equipment to apply them," said Frolov, who salvaged his three tractors from the kolkhoz junk pile.

That's why Frolov uses many of the methods of "sustainable agriculture" promoted by American scientists who believe heavy use of chemicals ultimately ruins farmland and makes crops dangerous for consumers.

He fertilizes his fields with peat moss and "green manure" -- nitrogen-rich legumes like alfalfa which are plowed back into the ground to replenish nutrients. He defends his potatoes from pests like the Colorado beetle through a kind of agricultural rhythm method, timing his planting so that crops mature before the beetle hits its peak population.

The result? A potato yield of 25 tons per hectare, as opposed to an average of 19 for the region and 5 for local state farms. And a passel of satisfied clients -- mainly businesses that buy in bulk to resell to their workers -- who remember his potatoes as being tasty and "ecologically pure."

"Before, people cared only about the price. Now they're starting to think about quality," said Frolov, though he said Russia has a long way to go before consumers can afford organic food marketed, and priced, as such.

"If we miss this chance it'll be all over," said Natalya Andreyeva, an instructor at the All-Russian Agricultural College in Sergiyev Posad near Frolov's farm, who this fall is launching a course on sustainable agriculture for local farmers. "Once they start making some money and using chemicals we'll have to start from scratch to convince them."

Andreyeva, herself a private farmer, said people who work their own land are naturally inclined to treat it with respect. "It's as if you are in it together with the land; everything you give the land returns to you. You couldn't have any relationship to the land when you worked 9 to 5 on the collective farm."

That's just what Frolov and his wife, Lena, have been doing for the last two years, they explained over lunch in the house Vladimir built of logs chinked with moss, where marigolds line the front walk and a plastic chandelier dangles from the ceiling above a squat wood-burning stove.

Among their guests were Sylvia and Walter Ehrhardt, two American organic farmers who came over to share their farming and marketing experience with local farmers and instructors under the auspices of the Center for Citizens' Initiative. The Ehrhardts are helping Andreyeva to organize a local farmers' market and plan a cooperative processing plant. Chowing down on tasty fresh cucumbers and radishes grown chemical-free in Lena's garden, Vladimir proudly showed Sylvia the grapefruit-sized Dutch potatoes he grew this summer, and complained that the Russian variety he had planted proved to be runts.

"You know what you do?" said Ehrhardt, who worked in President Jimmy Carter's press office before moving to Maryland to grow organic berries, fruits and vegetables. "You call these baby potatoes and sell them for twice the money." The Russians burst out laughing.

"I was serious," Ehrhardt said, and told of how she and her husband found no buyers for full-sized cauliflowers but sold tiny ones for double the price per pound. "Some people have more money than brains, don't they?" remarked Andreyeva.