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Russia’s ban on EU food import may breathe new life into dacha gardening

August 27, 2014, 19:14 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara
© ITAR-TASS/Vladimir Smirnov

MOSCOW, August 27. /ITAR-TASS/. Restrictions on EU food import Russia imposed on August 7 as a counter-measure to Western sanctions may revitalize the once popular tradition of growing vegetables and fruit in the backyards of urban dwellers’ summer cottages in the countryside, commonly known as dachas.

According to the public opinion fund FOM as many as 59% of Russians have countryside homes (some livable only during the warm season and others, year-round) with tiny plots of land averaging 0.15 acres. A FOM poll has found that for half of the owners of such properties vegetables and fruit they grow themselves in summertime constitute “a considerable surplus to the foods they buy in supermarkets.” A total of 17 million urban families across Russia have tiny plots of land and are affiliated with non-commercial associations of gardeners - quite an impressive share of Russia’s 74-million urban population. Dacha gardens and rural households produce 80% of potatoes and 70% of vegetables the nation consumes.

In July 2013 the FOM pollster found out that 38% of dacha owners prefer to use their countryside plots of land for recreation - play games, have fun, throw outdoor barbecue parties for friends and enjoy fresh air and sunshine. The latest foreign policy trends, though, may provide solid arguments in favour of taking up a spade and do some digging to build a couple of vegetable garden beds. Just in case.

In the former Soviet Union in their effort to improve and diversify food supply (sometimes referred to as the “Food Program”) the authorities encouraged large industrial enterprises and conglomerates to set up and run their own greenhouse or even livestock farms. By agreement with the local rural authorities urban employees were granted plots of land on a disinterested basis for growing vegetables and fruit for home use. Many senior citizens, those whose memories of World War II years are still fresh, say they just cannot understand those who use their countryside plots of land for growing flowers and lawn grass instead of potatoes, which in Russia are often referred to as “second bread.” It is true that many middle class members owning rural properties around big cities sometimes go to great lengths in attempts to outdo the look of the neighbor’s house and the variety of exotic fur trees and shrubbery next door. In the meantime, in not so wealthy Russian provinces greenhouses with cucumbers and tomatoes and greengrocery garden-beds are as frequent as they have always been.

Some experts believe that newly-imposed restrictions on the import of farm produce may turn gardening from urban dwellers’ hobby into a vital need.

“When earnings fall, people have the natural urge to do something to go less dependent on supermarkets and feeding the family with fruits of one’s own labor looks a plausible solution. The Economic Development Ministry predicts 2015 will see zero growth in wages due to sanctions and taxes. For this reason most dacha owners next year will forget about flowers to opt for an extra veggie bed,” the head of the Development Centre at the Higher School of Economics University, Natalya Akindinova, has told ITAR-TASS.

“In the Soviet era a dacha in the countryside was blessing for every person fortunate to have it. It offered a good opportunity to grow something special to diversify the family diet when the variety of goods on offer at state-run stores left much to be desired. These days the tradition may stage a comeback. The explanation is simple. Import restrictions have activated many inflation-related factors and food prices are growing. At a time like this people in the low income brackets who have to spend most of their cash earnings on food may find it quite reasonable to rely on their own capabilities, in particular, their dachas,” Akindinova said.

Some regional authorities have already called for creating incentives for urban people to pay more attention to their countryside gardens. In St. Petersburg there are 622,000 families involved in gardening and in 2013 they are reported to have grown 500,000 tonnes of farm produce.

“One can hardly expect that dacha-grown foods can entirely compensate for the import shortfall. What it certainly can do is to compensate for the inevitable hikes in the prices of vegetables and fruit, as supply shrinks and problems with import substitution emerge,” Akindinova believes.

She warns that due to transportation costs food import restrictions will affect remote provinces far harder than big cities, such as Moscow.

“Moscow has many large vegetable warehouses. The variety of goods from other countries is invariably large. Nearly all import supplies to Russia go through Moscow. In the regions the imbalance will be felt to a far greater extent. Russia’s Arctic may be the hardest-hit, as climate there is not good enough for growing vegetables.”

“From the social standpoint it is very good that people can meet some of their needs. The fashion of growing ecologically clean products is highly welcome as well,” Akindinova remarks. “Of course, the cost efficiency of foods grown by amateur gardeners is extremely low and for the economy in general this trend has more cons than pros. Many people abandon their main professions. A plot of land in the countryside as such is a perfect getaway for many. Using it for rest and leisure is normal, but attempts to cultivate it to grow food in amounts large enough to live on look doubtful. However, at a certain point this may prove a forced solution.

 

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