– Georgy, could you tell us how you became a farmer?
I can joke by saying “I was bit by a farmer”. But in fact the process of me turning into a farmer was not instantaneous: the “bite virus” was penetrating me gradually. For seven years I have been keeping a blog called “Metropolis and Village” (www.method-estate.com). And the posts in my blog reflect all the metamorphoses of my very public and very substantial process of getting into crop farming. But since I’m quite a cautious person and I like preparing for anything in advance, initially my blog was private and only existed on my computer. For a year I wrote blog posts which only I could read, and only after that I opened public access to them.
At one point I realized that, while continuing to lead a normal life, doing consulting and business for a living, I was latently beginning to make decisions that were a little bit different from what I had done before. I ended up owning 124 hectares of land, and after a while I had a household that mooed and bellowed, I had employees and I had machinery. And the gap between a philosophically disposed urban dweller and an optimistic farmer living on his own land disappeared.
The biggest challenge for me is to take some area of land in a state of neglect and disrepair and to bring it to a desired condition. The image of how the land is supposed to look like after I have finished working on it is very important to me, and I call it “creative area”. The term “creative area” is often confused with the term “creative city” introduced by Charles Landry. Landry accentuated the opposite to what I am trying to make emphasis on. When the “creative city” notion was introduced, they relied on the creative class and arts professionals, on their versatility, their free life style and free thinking. As for me, by working on the notion of “creative area”, I relied on the idea that a patch of land is capable of not only consuming resources but also creating them, and we often do not pay enough attention to that. Here is how most people do business: they take resources from outside of their field, they keep the products and they throw away the waste. But a creative area is an area that collects the processes that create resources, not just the ones that use or process them. By the way, most cities today and all urban technologies are basically resource-destroying machines.
I look at land complexes to examine them in terms of how many resource-creating processes can be going on within them at the same time to produce water, energy, food or even human beings. There is a statistically confirmed opinion that cities are designed in such a way that human reproductive performance goes down in them. Outside the cities it is usually high, while in the cities it’s quite low. And the conclusion is as follows: cities are custom made areas in which birth rate goes down. It’s possible that this effect was not wanted initially, but it appeared and is now here to stay. My understanding is that such an area cannot be eligible for a creative area status even if it’s inhabited by the creative class, because basic production is disrupted here. Here is an example from biology: a lot of animals do not reproduce in cages, some don’t reproduce in cages too narrow, while fish don’t reproduce in small aquariums.
– What did you rely on when you selected an area for your farm?
As far as I’m concerned, creative areas involve singling out processes whose cost is growing, developing the ability of allocating them on this area and transferring resources from one such process to another.
Most economists work with discounting and in 99% of the cases it’s negative discounting. They usually say: “Yes, we have a certain value now but in the course of time it’s going to decrease.” This has nothing to do with creative areas. An object placed into a creative area will increase in cost annually, like good wine, cheese or wood. I came across the fact that the ability to see the cost increase processes and unite them together within one territory has not been mastered by our generation. Today any business performance review is based on analyzing a short period of time: if in the beginning of it you invested certain funds and by the end of it you got more than you had spent, then it’s okay, you have your economic benefit. But what you get with this is an absolutely artificial economic outlook. The assessment here would be positive even if you have drained everything this area had, all its basic resources that your profit won’t be able to compensate for.
When projecting creative areas I start out from the area’s own perspective. And I do my planning in terms of accumulation of the land’s fertility as the basic value of this territory. I know the starting price of a hectare. As soon as I do something right on that land, the price goes up. But not any sort of action on the land increases its value, mind you. Some people may build a house on their land, but then they cannot sell it with embedded value included. Because nobody needs it in this configuration and with this architecture.
For any area you can calculate its biological productivity. For example, one nominal hectare of land can give you 1000 kg of biomass. We take certain actions, change the biocoenosis design, and the area starts yielding 5000 kg. And we do the same thing to other resources as well, such as water, for instance. Most areas have short supply of water, they get it either from non-renewable water-well holes or from water intake areas of large rivers. By designing the water supply system in a certain way, you can transform the land’s water deficit into proficit.
For almost 5 years we searched for a patch of land which would have several important factors combined. It was important for me that it would have asphalt access road, because I’m a city dweller and I drive a street vehicle intended for urban roads. There is a road that stretches for 200 meters along this patch of land, and my land also extends into the forest for several kilometers. The forest closes the area off from the North, enveloping some large fields. And this is an important thing, because a forest edge is always richer in resources than the depth of a forest, and it is usually well illuminated too. The whole area is constructed from ups and downs: descending and ascending slopes. Due to that the land has creeks in which water does not accumulate like it would in a low land, for instance. That is the headwaters.
– What processes have already been started on your land?
We use the concept of controlled agrobiocoenosis and add the prefix ‘antropo-’ to it. A required element of farming processes and of developing a creative area is a human being, a ‘human inside a certain area’. Lands that we reorganize used to be previously uninhabited; they used to be tilled by workers of state-owned farms. And my assertion is that the agricultural lands support program can’t be successful because it forbids farmers to live on their own lands. Yes, today it is against the law of our country to live on farmlands. And as far as I’m concerned a person starts to really take care of his land only when he lives on it. For example, if my children run around and play on this land, they become hostages of the circumstances, and I will never use pesticides on this land. Simply because pesticides can cause harm to my children, my dog or myself. You need to live in the middle of your area and walk over its surface creating “attention circles”, because if you don’t see something with your own eyes, then it’s not really under your control and management.
Previously these were single-purpose territories. We restore grazing agriculture on the land that was for many years only used for cultivation of grain crops. But land fertility depends heavily on whether animals walk over the land’s surface. The legacy that we have – black and gray soils – was created by migratory steppe animals that ate grass and left improved remains of that grass. Animals are humus-creating machines. When choosing between the options we had, we refused from farm animal housing in favor of pasture farming. We calculated how many animals can graze on our land and, by doing this, improve it. For instance, the area of 1.5 hectares is sufficient for one cow; but the area needed for one cow can hold 6 sheep. In the SEKEM organization in Egypt there is an ecovillage whose organization is based on Rudolf Steiner’s principles. They keep cows so that they would produce manure. They almost don’t drink any milk, and the manure serves for expanding the SEKEM area. When buying adjacent patches of desert, the first thing they do is cover it with manure. Then they plant grass, then bushes, then large trees, and then in the shade of these trees everything else grows. But all starts with a cow, because a cow is the very machine that transforms cellulose into a fertilizer. Not a single man-made machine can do that.
Health is the key function of an area. If you move in the right direction, then you are accumulating health as a type of resource.
Then we design the groups of organisms that the area needs. We are basing this on our understanding of various groups of life forms, societies, symbiotic mechanisms, allelopathy. Symbiotic groups of plants help each other, which is why it is necessary to create them on your land. You mustn’t just grow one type of plant.
So, instead of «normal» fields that we’re used to – flat all the way to the horizon, without any partition – we are now forming what is described as agroforestry. Agroforestry is basically combining agricultural and silvicultural technologies. Along the fields we plant energy willows (by 4 meter wide stripes) that perform a multitude of biocoenosis functions. We have very strong West to East winds, and these stripes protect us from the wind and make farming possible on this land: if not for these living fences, the field plants would dry out. In this plantation birds often nest, too: songbirds, migratory birds. The birds eat the insects, so we don’t have to use pesticides. The cut willows give a lot of renewable biological material. Europeans cut them once every 7 years and change the whole plantation, but up to 21 years it can basically renew itself. The best energy willow hybrids in Europe yield 115 tons wet weight per one hectare, or 35 tons dry weight. This fantastic volume lets the boiler work on woodchips for a year, providing heating for several buildings. I’ve seen it in Austria. Three separate buildings located at a distance from each other are heated by a single boiler that works on woodchips, which is a renewable resource, and there is no gas involved at all. We also alloted an area for this. Because a land can and must produce energy resources. Europeans now allot 5% of their land for energy plantations, and they are planning to increase it to 7%. They have calculated that this is going to be enough for their energy needs.
– How deep do you go in working out the ecological chain from the largest life forms to the tiniest ones?
It is not enough to plant something; it’s also important that the symbiotic microorganisms that inhabit the plant’s root create a compaction and are then responsible for the nitrogen fixation of the air. Instead of spreading dozens of tons of fertilizers across the whole surface you can use special bacterial fertilizers. These are applied to the seeds. We mostly use radical fertilizers, but in India, for instance, there are free-living nitrogen fixers that can exist for several years together with the plant and perform the nitrogen fixation.
I am interested in the bottom boundary of studying the life phenomenon. We all know the photosynthesis process, which is creation of life by a green leaf. However, the chemosynthesis effect, discovered by Russian microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky, is rarely spoken about, and many people forget about it altogether. This phenomenon is a mirror reflection of what happens in a green leaf during the photosynthesis process. This use of complex chemical bonds by microorganisms, when energy comes out of fissioning these bonds without any sunlight involved in the process; and protein is created, which is basically the body of a microorganism itself. This is one of the alternative versions of hydrocarbons formation. Yes, certain sulphate bonds get damaged, but this energy is sufficient to work out life without any sunlight. And there are many conclusions to be drawn from here, by the way. For instance, such life forms can create fertilizers right in the soil by fissioning subsurface rocks. That is, if you haven’t killed these microorganisms some way and were able to bring them there, then a significant amount of fertilizers and needed trace elements will be created right in the soil by way of segregation. There are whole scientific studies that show how plants facilitate that. Plants are proactive. It is known that plants send carbohydrates accumulated by photosynthesis, and a certain type of microorganisms necessary for the plants is generated on these carbohydrates. That is, before drawing anything in, the plant first gives something away. The radical layer of plants always has a lot of symbiotic life forms, and that is how fertility works. When people talk about biomass buildup, they usually only count the part that resulted from photosynthesis, forgetting about chemosynthesis.
– Tell us about the project you started on your farm.
We took on that farm against our will. Our point of departure was the desire to grow a full range of food products for our family. We established a rule that we must produce 50 different food products. With the volume this large there are consumers for all types of production waste: for plant residues which can be fed to animals, for manure which works as an excellent fertilizer – it comes full circle. Let me provide you with an example that explains everything. The number of members of my family is equal to the number of laying chickens we have allocated for our family on the farm. A chicken lays one egg per day, and a human normally eats one egg per day. One human usually produces 120 grams of food waste per day (peels, remnants, etc.), and one chicken eats them. So a human and a chicken are creatures made for each other. As many billions of people as there are in the world, the same number of chickens is sustained constantly.
To cultivate land, keep animals or bees, we needed additional consumers for our produce. This is how we came up with the idea to share the expenses with other citizens. And we devised this deal: we grow quality food products for our family, but we grow them so that 1000 more people get the same food products. This sort of approach would allow us to get what we wanted. But then this question arose: how do we legalize our relations with the citizens? The economic relations around food products that have formed through wholesale and retail networks could not help here. Which is why we ended up establishing direct relations: contract manufacturing, namely preordering with advance payment. In legal terms the scheme is as follows: I, as a service center, process a citizen’s order which means I produce some food for him, for his money, on my land, using my resources. The first conclusion from that scheme is: I don’t have a right to produce what they haven’t ordered. Farmers usually produce what grows best on their land, what gives maximum production volume, and that’s not the way it should be. The second conclusion from that scheme is: I don’t need to produce too much. We have established a limit – 1000 people – according to our calculations, that’s exactly the amount of people who can feed on this land without violating the principles of its use.
We formed food products into bundles that are delivered weekly. A weekly bundle looks approximately as follows: 10 kilograms of food, including meat, eggs, dairy products, a balanced selection of vegetables, fruit and green grocery. The type of meat alternates: poultry, quail, mutton, beef. We have meat all year round, today there is no problem with that. As for vegetables, many of them can be stored for a long time, and in a very simple way, too, using old school technology – in storage clamps. We dig a long, 1-1.5 meters deep trench in the ground for freeze protection; then we carefully put vegetables into it, trying to avoid damaging them. Then we cover the trench. This is why we have fresh vegetables in winter and spring as well. Of course, there are new technologies too – special storages with air conditioning and even specific gas composition, with more nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
The whole thing is united into a single conceptual idea called ‘food forest’. I really like the idea of organizing communities akin to forest communities – they are quite productive without much human interference. This community is initially an artificial one, but naturalized to the point when it is able to live by itself for quite a long time: the inherent principles of alternation and cooperation work without human participation. And the name of our farm – “Lesnye Sady” (“Forest Gardens”) – reflects precisely the food forest idea.
– How profitable is this sort of business?
It’s easy to calculate. The annual subscription cost is 59 thousand rubles; we have one thousand customers, which means the yearly turnover is around 59 million rubles. In terms of old school economic assessment during the first two years this was an unprofitable business, i.e. a lot of funding had to be done from out-of-pocket. In practice we don’t pay a marketing agency, but directly to the customer instead, rewarding him for his trust and belief in our project. Citizens that join the “Lesnye Sady” cooperative get cheaper food of such quality that they won’t find in stores. We kind of buy their loyalty by providing them with valuable food for less than its actual cost.
At the advanced stage of our business, when the farm’s infrastructure has been completely formed, we should be able to spend 30% of the budget on development: selecting the best genes on the farm. Speaking about the role of a human in nature, I think that role is very simple. There is only so much a human can do with it. But what a human can do is select the best genes of animals, insects, microorganisms, trees and herbs. It depends on the farmer whether his land will have mediocre flora and fauna or the best of its kind genetically. It’s like a difference between a sour and a sweet apple. A tree can occupy the same amount of space but yield very different resources.
– Can your business be increased in scale or replicated?
The way it is devised now, it can’t be increased in scale, but it can be replicated. If the number of subscribers surpasses the permissible level, then we will need another area like that. As for me, I can act as a technology owner, an advisor – in transferring this technology and training people to use it.
Let me explain it on a simple example: one person eats several kilograms of food daily, and that can’t be increased in scale. You can make this person eat a kilogram and a half or two kilos, but not on a regular basis. In this respect food business is destined to redistribute its produce all the time. Today we see redistribution with the customers shifting from industrially manufactured food products to organically created food.
– How do you see the future of the food market?
I have a premonition that our bright future lies in producing food as close as possible to a human’s place of permanent residence. Producing food in a city is urban farming. Urban farming in new, «green», eco-friendly cities, where you don’t have doubts about whether or not a berry grown by the side of the road or in your backyard is edible. And that’s sort of an antithesis to what I’m doing now. But I want to build the system so that we could both support this cycle of the food industry as well as the next one, because we need to transfer the knowledge, to transfer the parent material, to transfer the technology.