Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Finally, Russia....

Well the Nuffield journey has certainly taken me to some amazing places where 12 months ago I could not have imagined going.

I was more than a little daunted as I boarded the plane in Sydney, the thought of heading off again by myself to a foreign culture made me realise just how fast I had slipped back into my comfort zone.

Approaching Moscow the cloud cleared and snow was evident as far as I could see. I wondered just how much I would be able to move around and observe. The next flight was southward, some 400 km to Voronezh, where the snow had melted less than 2 weeks ago. Already the talk is around starting the spring planting programme next week.

My impression of the black earth region encompassed deep, black clays, based I suppose around the small areas of alluvial black soils at home. I am surprised to find a sandy clay, sticky, but by no means tending to be cloddy or overly difficult to manage and work. Still haven't got a good handle on the water holding capacity, although it sounds as if it is limited, as every year the profile is full following the snow melt, however, this does not convert to yield without sufficient rainfall in the spring/early summer.

One of the major constraints is the very short autumn and spring planting windows. Winter wheat has about a three week optimum planting period, and the entire spring and summer programme has to be completed, again in around three weeks. For a business operating at the scale of Black Earth Farming, this presents a major logistical challenge, growing 80,000ha of wheat and 160,000ha of spring and summer crops.

It is for me, another lesson in cultural difference and the influence of history. The sheer size of the country and the diversity is difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately my knowledge of Russian history is limited, and I feel in order to connect with a culture a deep understanding of the past and the things that have shaped the society is essential. A complete lack of basic trust, translating to having to pay for the petrol before you fill the car at the service station, to the lack of forward and futures markets and all trade done on a cash on delivery basis. There is no counter party trust in business.

Emerging from the long winter, the small towns and villages can only be described as bleak, the trees still devoid of foliage, no green in the grass, and the sunshine feeble against the cold breeze. Yet only a week after my return to Australia, temperatures in the high twenties to low thirties were predicted. A very quick turnaround... It is amazing to reconcile the images I have with the productivity of the region.

It has been a really great taster to visit both Russia this year, and Ukraine last November, and I would love to travel more widely through these areas as the potential and opportunities are exciting, albeit with significant challenge and in some cases, political and social risks. Management oversight would be critical to in order to limit drift back to former farming and production techniques, as well as petty theft and pilfering.

I hope to return

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