Introducing Russian farmers to dairy, U.S. style

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NOSADKINO, Russia - The 600 imported Holsteins huddled against the frost exhale clouds of steam, so cold is their cathedral-size shed. Shan Betzold of Emerald, Wis., ambles down the broad aisle with hands plugged into his black jeans, kicking at a couple of potatoes that somehow got mixed in with the feed.

For 2 1/2 years, Shan Betzold and his wife, Nancy, have labored to build an American-style dairy business on part of a former Soviet collective farm.

They are nine time zones from Wisconsin and struggling to adapt to a foreign culture. ("I almost know enough Russian to get into trouble, but I'd never get myself out," Shan Betzold said.) As employees of a Minneapolis-based nonprofit foundation, the Russian Farms Community Project, they have built a model dairy that one day, they hope, will improve Russian agriculture.

It hasn't been easy. Many farmers here are dubious of American notions of how to run a dairy. The Betzolds sometimes have a hard time persuading their workers to adopt more modern techniques. Still, the deeply religious couple believe they were chosen for this work, and they have dedicated their lives to it.

"I still think idealistically that we can change Russian agriculture," the silver-haired Shan Betzold said. "We're two people, working on only one farm. But I still think it can be done."

For Westerners, the image of Russia is an increasingly glitzy Moscow, with its garish billboards and casinos and rows of black Mercedes sedans lined up outside pricey restaurants. But a short drive outside the capital, an older, poorer and more somber Russia begins.

Many collective farms, their fields carved out of pine and birch forests, remain cut off from research that has transformed agriculture elsewhere, clinging to obsolete practices.

Most dairy farms here house their cows in unclean conditions and don't chill the milk while it waits to be transported to processors. As a result, the milk has high levels of bacteria and dirt. Because farmers use inferior feeds and an older breed of animals, Russian cows produce far less milk than Western ones, and what they produce has less fat and protein. "When you look at a Russian cow, you're looking at a cow from the 1950s in the United States," said Shan Betzold.

The Betzolds owned a 200-acre dairy farm in Wisconsin. After a car accident a few years ago, Shan Betzold realized he was looking for a higher purpose. "He felt at that point that God did not want us to stay in Emerald, Wisconsin, all our lives," Nancy Betzold said.

When the couple began reading about the struggle of Russia's farms, they decided that was where they could make a contribution. They called a neighbor who worked for the Russia Farms Project, whose officers include several former executives with the Land O' Lakes cooperative

"I can't believe you called," the Betzolds recall the neighbor saying, "because we're setting up this farm, and we'd like to hire you as manager."

The foundation has worked in the Moscow area for more than a decade, first providing consultants to dairies, then trying to help one farmer make his dairy a showcase operation. Neither effort worked. Traditional Soviet practices were too deeply ingrained.

So the Farms Project decided to build the $3 million Nosadkino dairy from scratch, with an American farmer to run it.

The Betzolds sold their farm to a neighbor. They attended eight weeks of Russian language classes in South Carolina. And they arrived in Nosadkino on Aug. 18, 2002, with their two daughters, Haeli, now 15, and Brielle, 13.

The next day, Shan Betzold found workers cutting down a field of corn for use as silage, or winter feed. The trouble was, it had been a wet summer, and the green corn stalks needed a few more weeks in the field. Damp silage would rot in the silos.

It was being cut because in Soviet times, central planners in Moscow decreed that every farm had to begin harvesting silage Aug. 15 - whether it was ready or not. The tradition stuck. "We're four days' late," the workers told Shan Betzold.

The couple hunted for a supplier who would sell custom-blended feed. During the summer, they stopped Muscovites who pulled over on their way to their dachas to steal corn from the fields. When Shan Betzold went to local milk processors to negotiate a price, none believed he could produce milk of the quality he promised.

Staffing the farm became another challenge. Even in rural areas, young Russians tend to live in small apartment blocks, and few grow up handling livestock, fixing machinery or picking up the other skills needed on family farms.

Among the Betzolds' skotniks, or cowboys, are two men with degrees in mechanical engineering from technical institutes.

"They said they never actually had their hands on an engine in school," said Nancy Betzold. "All their mechanical engineering knowledge comes from books."

In Soviet times, the chief function of an enterprise was to provide employment. Remnants of that tradition remain. While a Wisconsin dairy with 600 cows would employ eight or 10 people, the Betzolds have a staff of 26, including six security guards and a cook who prepares a hot lunch.

A typical Russian dairy has 75 employees.

Nancy Betzold spent a half-hour a month on the farm's books in Wisconsin. But Russia's mammoth bureaucracy has a ravenous appetite for paperwork. Nosadkino farm has a full-time bookkeeper. "And she can't handle the load," Nancy Betzold said.

Mikhail Sorokin, 27, worked on farms in the United States and Germany as part of exchange programs before returning to help his father supervise a 750-acre collective farm and meat-processing plant near Posadelkino.

He was excited, he said, after seeing a television report about the dairy: "The next day, I called Shan and said, 'I want to meet you and work on your farm.'"

He now makes about $350 a month as the dairy's veterinarian, cow herder, tractor driver and general repairman. But like many young Russians, Sorokin seems more interested in the security that comes from working for others rather than for himself.

A young farmer like Sorokin who wants to start his own dairy might find the cost prohibitive. But that is in part because Russian farms have a tradition of being large enterprises rather than family-run businesses. Most are collectives that can apply for government aid and loans.

Even without a major investment, Betzold said, local dairies can make major improvements. Russia's dairy cows, for instance, are kept tethered all winter in heated, unventilated barns, spending months breathing methane and ammonia fumes.

Diseases such as tuberculosis and viral bovine leukemia, both common in Russia, can spread from animal to animal.

Moscow has about the same average winter temperature as the northern American Midwest, and in most of the United States dairy cows are kept outdoors all winter. So the Betzolds' shed has no heater, no doors. Where the peak of the roof would normally be, there is a strip open to the sky. Instead of being tethered, a few dozen cows mill around inside the shed in pens about the size of a couple of tennis courts.

No innovation is harder for Russian farmers to accept than keeping their cows out in the cold. "Even when they see it, they don't believe it," Shan Betzold said.

Last winter was one of the coldest in decades in northwest Russia. When a shipment of cows arrived in the early spring at the Betzolds' farm, a rumor spread that all the Betzolds' herd had died of the cold. But the Betzolds said they were expanding their herd, and not a single animal had died.

A major Moscow-area food processor, Wimm-Bill-Dann, buys all the milk they can produce. The company blends the Betzolds' milk with milk from other suppliers.

So far, few individual farms have followed the Betzolds' lead. But Wimm-Bill-Dann has asked the couple to serve as consultants and set up a second dairy in the city of Stavropol in southern Russia. Eventually, the company might establish others.

The family seems determined to make Russia their home. It is, they say, their calling. "We're not here for the glory, you know," Shan Betzold said.

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