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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kolkhoz Goes Dutch and Thrives




NEAR THE VILLAGE OF KLUSOVO, Moscow Region f Russia's harvest is shaping up to be the worst in 40 years and the country is in the depths of an economic crisis, but for a young Dutch farmer who took over part of a dying state farm there is only one concern: how to sell his abundant crop of potatoes fast enough.


As the sun shone brightly, a steady stream of trucks pulled into Ian Willem Bakker's farm Thursday afternoon to pick up the potatoes that will feed the people of Moscow over the winter.


Bakker, 22, and his partner, Johannes Panman, 53, took over part of the Rassvet, or Dawn, state farm near the town of Dmitrov, about 60 kilometers north of Moscow, last spring.


To the astonishment of local villagers, 15 trucks arrived in April carrying everything from their personal possessions to agricultural machinery. With four other Dutchmen, including Panman's wife, and 17 Russian employees, the two partners set about planting potatoes on 210 hectares of the 650 hectares they rent from the state farm.


Using Dutch farming techniques, and work ethics, they turned their half of the state farm into a success story. While on the other half, the crops are suffering and some of the hundreds of farmers have gone years without getting paid.


"There is a great possibility for agricultural business here," Bakker said. "I'm planning to stay here for a long time."


As if giving proof of his words, the Dutchmen are building a large house on the land and getting ready to start a dairy operation.


The scene was a farmer's dream. But in place of the traditional Dutch windmills and canals, there were villages with old wooden houses populated with babushki and drunken men of an undetectable age.


Despite some complaints, though, the local villagers have benefited from the bountiful harvest of their new Dutch neighbors. But as often happens in Russia, in an unusual way. Struggling with their own generally bad harvest, villagers have been picking up potatoes left in the fields by the Dutch harvesting machines.


"We don't mind. They had very small potatoes this year, and we have big ones. And winter is coming," Bakker said.


The idea to farm in Russia struck Bakker last year when he was an agricultural exchange student in the Dmitrov district, part of the Moscow region.


"It is almost impossible to farm in Holland now. Dutch farmers these days go to Denmark or Canada. But to work there requires a lot of initial investment," Bakker said.


The Dutchmen were welcomed by local authorities, who eased the red tape. Goodwill toward the Dutch dates back at least to 1991, when Dmitrov and Flevoland in the Netherlands became sister towns, Bakker said.


Bakker said the secret of his and his partner's success was the use of Dutch farming techniques. "Here people use seeds that are six or seven years old. Big potatoes don't grow from old seeds, so we brought our own new seeds," he said.


As for this summer's rainy weather, widely blamed for Russia's poor potato harvest, Bakker said that the moisture increases the threat of disease to the plants, "so we just sprayed them more often with chemicals."


Next year, the Dutchmen hope to build on their success and start a dairy operation. They are currently renovating old Soviet barns, and plan to bring in 400 purebred cows from Holland in the spring.


Their first growing season, however, did not pass without some mishaps. The farmers brought six tractors with them from Holland, but then they bought four more, made in Belarus.


"Well, they are now for sale," Bakker said. "Those four never really stopped, they kept running, but they don't do anything either."


He's more satisfied with his local employees, though Bakker said he had to lay down strict rules.


"It seems that Russians need more discipline," he said. The rules are simple: Do not drink at work, work hard and don't damage the equipment. Violations are punished with wage cuts.


Alexander, 37, one of the farm's employees who had worked on the state farm for years, said he doesn't mind the strict work rules. "It's worth it, because the pay is good," he said.


Bakker, who has picked up some spoken Russian, seems to have little trouble communicating with his workers and said they often go out at night together to a local disco.


"They are good guys," Alexander said. "You know, on Saturdays, they themselves are buying us beer, and we drink together.


"But the rest of the crowd here from the state farm actually is drunk just about all the time," he said.


However, not everyone in the local village of Klusovo is happy about the arrival of the hard-working Dutch farmers. "One day I will just blow them up," screamed a man who only gave his name as Sergei Borisovich.


The lane leading to one of the Dutchmen's field joins the main road near Sergei Borisovich's house. "They have been going on their tractors in and out throughout the whole summer. So we were forced to live in the permanent cloud of dust," he said.