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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stressed Businessman Turns to Potato Therapy

MTMlynchik sows potatoes at his mother-in-law?s dacha to escape the stress of city life.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Vitaly Mlynchik's business partner was more than a little surprised when, after calling to organize an urgent meeting, Mlynchik responded, " I can't make it tomorrow, that's the last day I can harvest potatoes."

Mlynchik's friends tell this story as a joke, and he is used to hearing jeers like "You'll reap just what you sow," and "Better stock up for the winter or you'll starve."

However, Mlynchik's penchant for potato farming is born not of necessity but of pleasure.

He is on the board of directors of investment company Energokapital, which had a turnover around 3.6 billion rubles ($122 million) in 2000, and is founder and president of Gruppa Nobel, which conducts financial operations and wholesales of sheet metal. But every spring, Mlynchik succumbs happily to an acute case of potatoitis.

"I like shoveling earth," Mlynchik says. "When you're mending stuff or doing something else, your mind is still occupied. Shoveling earth gets all the thoughts out of your head."

Despite his wealth, Mlynchik still prefers vacations in the country to trips abroad, a newfound passion for many of his friends.

"I like going to the country alone. I take as many books as possible and rest and read for the first three days. After that, I go into a potato frenzy," he says.

Mlynchik's touching relationship with potatoes developed during his childhood in Belarus. Later, after graduating from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute and opting for family life in St. Petersburg, he became interested in securities and founded Energokapital in the early 1990s.

Work on the securities market was intense, however, and Mlynchik found he had to devise a way to unwind on the weekend. Potato farming provided just the kind of escape he was looking for, and his mother-in-law's dacha, with its 600-square-meter vegetable plot and location just two hours outside the city, offered an opportunity to indulge his passion.

At first, Mlynchik planted Belarussian potatoes sent to him by his mother, but they didn't adapt well, so he started using local varieties.

When the neighbors found out about the city businessman's hobby, they shared their knowledge of potatoes with him, though some locals still scorn Mlynchik for not planting enough -- unlike a real peasant.

Today, Mlynchik's potato plantation occupies 400 square meters and his harvest is usually big enough to eat some new potatoes in the summer and leave enough to plant for next year. Some potatoes even make it to the city.

Although Mlynchik enjoys eating potatoes -- his favorite dish is potato patties, which he orders in every restaurant he visits -- he views farming as a form of therapy rather than a source of food.

"Planting potatoes is a type of relaxation, a change in my field of work," he said. "It's not a question of quantity; I like to observe how the same variety of potatoes grows under different conditions."

He employs many tricks to better his harvest. Sunning the potatoes, carving a groove around potatoes before planting them or burying them at different depths.

Trial and error has shown that "lost" potatoes -- ones that weren't dug up during the previous year's harvest -- grow the best.

To give the land a rest, he sows barley, a trick he learned in Belarus. Other farming knowledge he gains from reading and from word of mouth.

Mlynchik also gets new varieties of potatoes in the most mysterious ways.

"About three years ago, I came to work, and the security guard said to me, 'An anonymous man told me to give you this.' He then handed me something wrapped in paper," Mlynchik said.

"Well, I planted it, and it turned out to be the most fertile plant I'd ever had. Unfortunately, the unknown man left no contact information, so I don't even know what sort of potato it was."

Mlynchik has tricks he uses for attracting labor as well, if only temporarily. Friends and business partners are always up for spending a weekend out in the fresh air.

Guests examine the neat, labeled rows with interest. They even lend a hand. After all, what else is there left to do when the host is hard at work, planting, weeding and raking?

Chores are divided up in the family. Mlynchik's son and daughter reluctantly help him plant and dig up the potatoes, and his mother-in-law insulates the potatoes with earth before a frost.

Every year, patient relatives try to convince Mlynchik to make the harvest smaller, to little effect.

"Once I start digging, you can't stop me," Mlynchik said.