Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published June 06, 2011, 09:52 AM

AGWEEK EXCLUSIVE: Travelogue

DAY 1 – INTO MOSCOW Saturday, April 2, 2011 My flight from London to Warsaw is on the Polish airline Lot (“Flight”). I sit next to 37-year-old Kristopher, a chatty post-doctorate university professor and researcher on mathematics in the city of Rzevzow, a town in of about 200,000.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

DAY 1 – INTO MOSCOW

Saturday, April 2, 2011

My flight from London to Warsaw is on the Polish airline Lot (“Flight”). I sit next to 37-year-old Kristopher, a chatty post-doctorate university professor and researcher on mathematics in the city of Rzevzow, a town in of about 200,000.

Kristopher tells me is a specialist in math that is useful in computer science, relating to “discreet harmonic analysis.” He is returning to Poland after a trip to the University of Cambridge in London. Kristopher heard that I would be taking an agricultural tour of Russia and said that would be good.

“Clean food is important,” he says.

I ask what he means by “clean food,” and Kristopher says clean food means no genetically-modified organisms and in systems where “producers would not cheat.” He says Poland is “still not decided” on whether GMO crops are acceptable. For now, he and his wife, a lawyer, and their two young daughters eat organic food. “I would like to know that there are no consequences,” from GMO food, he says. He says the Poles can’t rely on non-GMO food in their markets. He’s particularly suspicious of food grown in Germany and France. He asks me what I think about non-GMO food. I tell him I don’t go out of my way to buy it.

Kristopher tells me he keeps a small garden in which he raises mostly fruit trees and bushes – apples, raspberries. On one hand, he says he’d like to start his own farm, raising corn and other crops. At another point, he says it’s possible his family could move to Warsaw.

Kristopher pauses to have an urgent conversation with a flight attendant. It’s our lucky day, he confides: “Lech Walesa is on this plane,” he says, gesturing toward first class.

Soon, Kristopher is scrambling to get out of his seat so he can walk up-front with little blue camera. He finds Mr. Walesa, Poland’s president from 1990 to 1995 and asks his bodyguard to snap their picture together. To my surprise, the bodyguard does it. “He was kind of angry,” Kristopher says, and then smiles.

**

I continue on LOT airline to Moscow. I deplane at about 8 p.m. It is dark at Sheremetyevo (SVO) airport, northwest of Moscow, about 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit). It is a gray evening, with Aeroflot planes lined up, in their red and gray.

Vitaly Grechushkin, an Amity Technology service manager, picks me up. We take the train from northwest of the city to the Beloruskaya Metro stop in the Moscow

Vitaly, 30, hosts me at his apartment for two nights. He explains that this is no imposition. His wife is expecting their first child, a son, in about two months, and has gone to her mother’s home in Ukraine, where she has citizenship and health care benefits.

The Metro trains are relatively crowded. Lots of unsmiling faces and black or gray-black clothes. Many of the men wear farmer-style caps that appear to have stiff, thick, insulated top. Lots of black.

Seated on the “Metro” we sit across the aisle from a curious fellow who identifies himself simply as Vladimir. This fellow says he’s 73 years old and still works as a mechanical technician. Vladimir wore rubberized boots next to a 4-inch collapsible auger, his backpack with his fish, and a small bait pail with its padded seat. Fishing had been good, the man says, and soon is showing us cell phone photos of his catch – European roach fish.

I tell Vladimir that I am an ice-fisherman, too, and that I write about agriculture.

Soon, Vladimir thrusts his cell phone toward me again, showing a large potato patch that he maintains at his “dacha” or country cottage, with the help of his wife. He grows red potatoes and white potatoes, he says. He has to water them, especially in the recent drought, and he has to pick the bugs off of them by hand. Potato bugs must be everywhere on earth, I tell him.

After the Metro, we rent a shuttle-like bus, which goes the final way to the apartment. We drive past fuel stations, some with the familiar BP name of home. Gasoline here varies from station to station, but one of the prices is 25.4 rubles per liter. That translates to about 85 cents per liter, or about $3.21 per gallon.

Vitaly, at his apartment, makes me a wonderful “smoothie” from berries and ice cream.

He tells me he grew to age 13 in Uzbekistan and moved to Russia for about five years. The son of a builder and an accountant, he returned to Uzbekistan at age 16. After 11th grade he studied accounting. In 2003 he moved to Oklahoma City, Okla., where he attended Heartland Bible College. He graduated and in 2007 and returned to Russia. Through his church, he befriended Nickolay Ryabov, an Amity executive, who introduced him to his future employer -- Howard Dahl and Amity Technology.

“I love working with mechanical things,” Vitaly says, in a quiet, gentle voice. He notes that a grandfather had worked with machines. Amity seems a perfect career for him.

DAY 2 – MOSCOW’S SITES

Sunday, April 3, 2011

At 8 a.m. I take a taxi from an outlying village into Moscow. We drive through muddy, puddle-pocked backstreets until we get to the main highway. The taxi driver, in his mid-50s, seems pleased with his 1995, Soviet-made “Lada” sedan, which reminds me of a Subaru I once owned.

On our way into the city, we drive past the country’s famous dachas – an unmatched mishmash of dwellings, often with tall privacy fences, sometimes oddly added-on with extra stories of different styles. I’m told some of these dwellings are permanent, some weekend getaways for Moscow apartment-dwellers. Often the dachas are surrounded by high fences and flanked by tall birch stands.

Closer to the city, the roads are patches of flower beds, typically filled with wood chips, waiting for annual flower plantings. One odd thing: city workers stand in groups on a Sunday morning, chopping boulevard ice by hand, presumably in attempt to speed the melt, either for safety or to hasten the spring and flower plantings.

In the outer circles of Moscow, we drive past a collection of white-colored apartment buildings. Some are 14 stories high, built in Brezhnev era of the 1980s. These dwellings often provided with glassed-in porches, with curious variety of purposes and repair. Often they are hanging linens or other laundry.

The taxi driver speaks little English, but gesticulates toward the east -- “MosFilm Road,” he says. “Film factory.” Later, I learn it is akin to a Russian Hollywood.

Close to the city center apartments complexes become more upscale, but unusually dense and tall. The first floor of many of the apartment dwellings advertises strip-mall type retail space. As the taxi gets into the center of the city, the grandeur of downtown Moscow seems to unfold.

I am mistakenly delivered at the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, famous as the first American style hotel built in 1991. Howard Dahl and I share a phone call and soon, he walks (runs) the ten minutes to my location. Dahl, 62, jogs to my hotel in jeans, a baseball cap and a black coat and tennis shoes.

Among other things, I mention that the Slavyanskaya’s modern lobby is provided with a list of plaques that lists the names of dignitaries who have stayed here – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton among them.. Dahl tells me that this is the hotel that had been owned by Paul Tatum, an Oklahoma entrepreneur and Republican fund-raiser. Tatum famously was gunned down in 1996 at a nearby subway. Apparently he had confronted the wrong Russian crime figures.

Dahl is generous – insistent, even -- to give me a glimpse of what he’s learned about the city over the past 20 years. “You can’t come to Russia and not see Moscow,” he says.“Moscow is like New York on steroids.” The city combines the artistic and financial centers of New York with the political power of Washington, D.C. – a one-stop shop. But he’s an amazing tour guide, speaking some Russian words, and picking out meaning in the signs, printed in Cyrillic lettering.

• Dahl takes me on a whistle-stop tour of four of the city’s best subway stations. These are works of art, the best ones built in the Communist-led Soviet Union glory days of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a time when the Soviet workers – industrial and agricultural -- were celebrated with works of art. My favorite stations were the Ploschchad Rovolyutsii, with its bronze sculptures, and the Kievskaya, with its mosaics picturing the Russia’s friendship with the agricultural Ukraine.

• We see the Metropol Hotel where Lenin hung out in October of 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution occurred. The central elevator is decorated in stained-glass. Just across the way is the Bolshoi Theater, grand opera and concert venue that has been closed for refurbishing since 2005. It is expected to reopen in October 2011. Up the street is a prison where Joseph Stalin jailed and executed many in his Great Terror period.

• Red Square is next to the Kremlin – a great fortress built as the center of the city, surrounded by massive red brick wall, 1.4 miles long, up to 62 feet tall and up to 21 feet thick. The structure was completed in its current form in the 1500s and today encircles numerous buildings that are the center of power in modern Russia, and home to the country’s President, Dmitri Medvedev. Lenin’s mausoleum – somber, unremarkable structure -- is closed for viewing this day. Out front are 100 Communists, waving the red flags with the sickle-and-hammer. At one end of the square is a Communist looking to be in his late 70s or better, speechifying, about the good old days of Communism. Howard says there are many Communists who believe that the country has lost its world place in the wake of the downfall of the Soviet Union.

An important detail: Next to the mausoleum there is some road construction. Howard is delighted to see a Bobcat skid-steer loader, made in North Dakota, in a company founded by his grandfather, E.G. Melroe. It is one of a series of Bobcat products we’ll see on the trip.

• St. Basil’s Cathedral, in Red Square, was built in the 1550s, and is the geographical enter of the city. The church has bonfire-like look, and eight side churches. At the north end of the cathedral is Lobnoe Mesto, a platform from which tsars spoke.

• Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, completed in 1860, was dynamited by Stalin in 1931, to make way for a Palace of the Soviets that was never built. Nikita Khrushchev made it into the world’s largest open-air swimming pool. In 1990, however, the Soviet government agreed to let it be rebuilt, and the project was completed in 2000. It has all been rebuilt, largely to original specifications.

• The Novodevichiy Convent, founded in 1524, is where Peter the Great kept confined his ambitious, half-sister Sophia for life. The Novodevichiy Cemetery, just to the west, is where famous Russians, including Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin are buried. The life-like busts and statues of famous poets, playwrights, soldiers – even journalists – demonstrate a focus on personality. There are about 100 people visiting the grave of actress Liudmila Gurchenko, who had died at age 75 on March 30. Dozens of six-foot flower arrangements adorned the pathways for an actress of the Elizabeth Taylor stature in Russia.

Howard, a Christian, comments that there is a sadness that these remarkable personalities probably saw no hope beyond the grave.

In the evening, we go to an Italian restaurant on the 29th floor of the 35-floor Radisson Hotel (formerly Hotel Ukraina, and still called that). Howard meets three people – Dmitri Rylko, a Russian agricultural economist, Sergey Shkurenko, a farmer with headquarters in Kursk, and Ryan Offutt, with whom I’ll travel the next day to Krasnodar.

Vitaly collects me to overnight at his apartment.

DAY 3 – KRASNODAR – ACT HEADQUARTERS

Monday, April 4, 2011

A taxi takes me from Vitaly’s to Domodedevo Airport, where I meet Ryan Offutt. at the Domodedevo Airport. (The same airport where the suicide bomber killed 35 people in January 2011.) There is a two-hour flight to Krasnodar, a city of about 100,000 people, and headquarters to ACT. The airport is reminiscent of an old Fargo Hector Airport terminal, with kiosks outside, selling consumer items, including borscht, the classic beet soup.

(Separately, Howard flies to Dagestan. The Dagestani President Magomedsalam Magomedov has a plan to establish a 200,000-acre -- eventually irrigated -- sugar beet production in that country. The Dagestanis want Amity’s involvement. Howard participates in talks but says the deal depends on some Russian commitments.)

Ryan Offutt is a generous host in a city he knows well. As a driver in a Mercedes SUV takes us through Krasnodar and to ACT headquarters, Ryan tells me the city has come a long way since he first saw it in 2003. Streets are in better shape. Flower beds will be planted. The economy is humming. We stop for a quick coffee at new McDonald’s restaurant, the fanciest I’ve seen. At mid-afternoon there are lines of upscale young people. We grab a coffee at a fancy dessert bar.

We arrive at the ACT headquarters. I interview Andrey Rybalkin, ACT’s managing partner. We go to a quick lunch at a local, Armenian-style diner.

After an interview, Offutt meets privately with his associates at ACT. I interview Rybalkin’s father, Peter, who had been the director of the agricultural research institute in Soviet times.

Offutt and I meet when he emerges from his meetings with Rybalkin. We have a bowl of soup at a local Italian restaurant, and Offutt is on his flight back to Moscow.

DAY 4 – KRASNODAR – THE FARM.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

ACT officials take me to the farm of Alexander Bolobolov. A father-and-son team runs an 8,000-acre operation that is much more than that – a bakery, chicken and duck operation. The farm went from 1,200 employees “before perestroika” to 70 farm employees and another 35 processing employees today. I am moved by Bolobolov’s proud farming heritage that dates to the 1820s, his commitment to a farm and processing company where 35 relatives still find employment.

My flight back to Moscow, and the traffic delay, makes it too late to make Howard’s dinner meeting with another in a string of farm financiers. I go directly to the Hotel Belgrad downtown – no wireless internet, no cable -- $200 per night.

DAY 5 – MOSCOW – HOTEL DIPLOMACY

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

After a short hike to the Radisson Royal (Hotel Ukraina), I meet Howard on the 11th floor, where he is meeting with a series of contacts. First on the list is Bob Foresman, country head for Barclays Capital. The two are board members for a liberal arts evangelical Christian college.

Second is Gustav Wetterling, director of procurement for Agro-Invest, based in Moscow, which runs “Black Earth Farming Ltd.” Wetterling talks about the planting plans, the look of the winter wheat. Howard discusses the new, 12-row technology for sugar beet equipment, says it will be ready for export next year. Howard shows him various video clips from his iPad.

After meetings with other farm managers, Howard takes me via Metro to find the Red Square Hostel, a $35 per night place that is close to Red Square. It is behind a heavy, rusting steel door, with wide staircases, leading to a non-descript entry on the fourth floor. Howard leaves me to settle in, and goes back to the Radisson Royal to meet with some of his associates privately. I check in and amble back to Red Square for a second look.

In the evening, I reconvene with Howard back at the same hotel, in the same restaurant. This one is with the CEO of a large agro-holding. This fellow has North American roots, but declines to be identified by name or origin. Among other things, he speculates it might take as few as 30 Russian-sized farms to farm all of North Dakota.

It is late. I retire to the Moscow hostel -- $35 a night. I am to share a six-bunk room. I think this is fine because I’m an old canoe camper and Agweek is on a budget.

Surprise: A Russian woman is occupying a bunk in the room I’d been assigned. Despite the fact that a Chinese man is staying in the bunk below her, at 11:30 p.m., she starts protesting loudly that she had paid for a gender-exclusive, individual room. I tell her I paid for my room, too, and will stay. She can take up her complaint with the hostel managers. “I’ve been married 28 years,” I tell her. “I’m not interested in you.” After other residents come in smelling heavily of cigarette smoke, I decide to take a shower and spend the rest of the night awake, catching up on e-mails with the free wireless internet I the lobby.

DAY 6 – KURSK, RYLSK

Thursday, April 7, 2011

At about 4:45 a.m., I leave the hostel and catch a taxi to the grand Radisson Royal (Hotel Ukraina).

At 6 a.m., Howard is in the lobby, and we are soon approached by Sergey Shkurenko, general director for Interregional Agroindustrial Co., Ltd., a farm that Howard has been doing business since 2003. His driver, Victor, is a pleasant fellow and often talks about how he sometimes takes equipment to do some fishing, if he has time, when traveling with Shkurenko..

We travel on the M2 highway, southwest from Moscow. It is a major highway but not an excellent thoroughfare. The five-hour trip goes through small villages, some with gas stations. We stop at one and have a coffee.

We arrive in Kursk at early afternoon.

The city is famous for the Battle of Kursk in World War II (The Great Patriotic War). The Germans had lost momentum in the siege against Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43. The highway leading into town splits, and the boulevard between has blocks of parked tanks and other implements of war, as a memorial.

From July 5 to July 16, 1943, some 3,000 German tanks slammed into 8,000 Soviet tanks and related defenses at Kursk (including a 3,000-mile trench system) as the Germans tried in vain to regain momentum on the Eastern Front. In the initial attack alone, the German army suffered 54,000 casualties, including 10,000 killed or missing. The Soviets had 177,900 casualties including 70,000 killed or missing. Thousands more died in the ensuing counter-offenses in August. Moments to the battle – big and small -- are everywhere.

We stop at a Russian Orthodox church for a quick look-around. Women in the church are constantly sweeping the floors with stick-style brooms.

We stop at “Jupiter 9” one of the larger John Deere dealers that handles Amity products. We see some Amity machinery, crated, in the company’s yard. It is the only Amity equipment I’ll see on the trip, as it is early spring.

We travel on to Rylsk, the headquarters area for Sergey’s farming operations. Rylsk is a town of about 17,000 on the bank a picturesque Seym River.

Shkurenko takes Howard off to see some of the land he is in the process of acquiring. We stop at a defunct collective farm for a picture of the skeleton of livestock buildings. We off-road to the edge of a stream from which they’d plan to irrigate the land.

We tour a Shkurenko’s 2,000-cow dairy. The barns themselves are familiar -- built by Coverall, the Saskatoon-based company. The company took bankruptcy in 2010, in the wake of a building collapse of a Dallas Cowboys practice facility in 2009.

Closer to town, we go through a potato warehouse, operated by the Shkurenko farm. Some of the women workers here are sitting next to the piles, putting potatoes into bags by hand. Storages have modern ventilation systems, however. We go to the farm headquarters, which once was an industrial center. Shkurenko explains that the main assembly area will be transformed into another potato storage and grading center.

We are taken to Maryino Palace, where we’ll stay for the night. It was a manor of Prince Baryatinskih, built in the early 1800s, and bordered by a park and pond. The interior courtyards are like walking through a museum: crystal and bronze chandeliers, paintings, bars. After checking in, we head to the “farm” for dinner.

The Shkurenko farm “dinery” serves a sumptuous affair. The table is laden with meats and salads, with local flavor. There are toasts, offers of wine vodka – occasional mystified shrugs at moderation.

DAY 7 – TO POLTOVA, TO KIEV

Friday, April 8, 2011

This remarkable day starts with a wake-up at the palace, and a breakfast at the farm headquarters.

We drive about 10 minutes into Rylsk, and to a housing area on the northwest edge of town. It’s a group of what appear to be 1950s vintage, peasant-style homes. At intersections, and often on slopes heading into ravines, there are piles of bottles and garbage. I am told homes in such communities are often tidy, even though the common areas are not.

At the center of all this is a collection of buildings with domed roofs, some under reconstruction – the Monastery of St. Nicholas.. Howard points to the placard at the entrance – 1505. Soon, Abbott Pankrati approaches. He appears in his early 40s – robust yet kind, with a thick black beard and pointed clerical hat.

Three of the buildings date to the 1700s. The primary church is ornate and with icons of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in anticipation of Easter. Pankrati’s assistants serve us tea, with fancy candied fruit, among other things. We sign a guest book and Pankrati presents Howard with a special gift – a six-sided stars that was once gold leafed and decorated one of the domes. Howard’s jaw drops as he learns that the star had been shot by the Soviet troops as they destroyed the monastery in the 1930s.

All of the buildings are being restored, but there is really no budget for it, so it will take time, Pankrati says. We make a quick trip back to the farm’s conference room, for lunch. Howard is looking at his watch.

Soon, we are in the SUV, heading for the border. Shkurenko has chosen a border crossing straight to the west. Officials at the crossing give us the bad news. It’s a crossing, all right, but no Americans can pass there. We spend about an hour on the border, waiting to see if Shkurenko’s connections can get us across, but to no avail.

We travel three hours out of our way to cross at a larger crossing.

Here is where we learn about the vagaries of travel in rural Russia. Villages are not square with the world, and roads are not marked adequately, and not straight. We started three times out of one village four times before we were on the right path. GPS is no help because the area isn’t mapped and there are few if any road signs.

We’re driving fast – sometimes 140 km/hour, or nearly 90 mph, on very dicey roads.

Eventually, we get to a border crossing. We are stopped by five sets of officials. The process is long enough that we stop at an outdoor, brick restroom. The men’s room is a hole in the floor.

Finally in Ukraine, we pass through vast areas of fertile, rolling soil. From time to time, I ask if we can stop the car to photograph a landscape. Howard is thinking of his waiting farm managers at Astarta-Kiev farming operation and eventually says, “No more stops.”

I don’t ask again -- until about, 6 p.m.

Now, the storm system has made yet another pass and time it produces a stunning double rainbow – the sharpest rainbow colors I’ve seen -- with the terminal end in the middle of one of the vast fields. “Howard, you have to let me stop,” I say, and he relents.

I dash out of the passenger door, and run so fast through a ditch on the other side that I take a tumble. Happily, the camera isn’t broken, although my lip is cut. I stand there, in awe of the rainbow, and soon head back to the car.

Soon, we are driving once again.

At late dusk, and we drive into Yareski, a village near Poltava. Howard is set to meet farm managers from Astarta-Kyiv, one of the agri-industrial holding companies. Astarta-Kiev is the leading Ukrainian sugar producing and processing company, and is vertically integrated, owning six factories.

Howard has a deep relationship with this company, which has probably purchased 500 units of his equipment over the years.

I take a walk to photograph the factory. I return to find Howard in a meeting with a dozen Astarta-Kiev men, including their agricultural director, and the manager of the local sugar factory. Among other things, Howard talks about Amity experts are available 24 hours a day during planting and harvest.

After the meeting, we reconvene in a Ukrainian rural restaurant, for dinner, at about 9 p.m. Howard shows the men the bullet-riddled star, from the monastery. There are toasts. The food is outstanding, and served by women, dressed in blue dress uniforms and heels. The restaurant is quiet, other than another couple or two. Some of the booths in the front eating area have curtains that can be drawn for privacy.

At 10 p.m., we say goodbye, and soon are riding again – about two more hours to Kiev. At about 12:30 a.m., we check into our hotels.

DAY 8 – A DAY IN KIEV, HOMEWARD

Saturday, April 9, 2011,

Kiev is a city of about 2.7 million and is considered a more livable city than Moscow, in Russia.

It has a history dating back to the 482 A.D. when Scandinavians are said to have established it along the trade route with Constantinople, in what is now Turkey. The city became the third most important in the Russian Empire, and was caught in conflicts in subsequent wars, and was occupied by the Nazis from September 1941 to November 1943. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was about 62 miles north of the city, but winds carried the radioactive contamination the other direction.

We tour around Kiev with a very affordable, knowledgeable woman from a local travel agency. She seems disappointed that we can’t enjoy her entire spiel in the windy, cold conditions, but there are the touring is exceptional. Among my favorites:

• Gorodetsky House was designed by architect/big game hunter Vladislav Gorodetsky and was built as an apartment building in 1902, and is across the street from an unspectacular presidential residence. The residence is relatively accessible because the president rarely stays there, we’re told.

The Gorodetsky House is unique because it is decorated with dozens of cement sculptures of animals of all types – frogs, sinking ships, mermaids, rhinoceros heads. Gorodetsky lost the building in a loan default. It was owned by the chairman of a sugar factory until the Bolsheviks nationalized it in 1921. Since 2005 it’s been refurbished as a presidential residence for visiting diplomats.

• The Museum of the Great Patriotic War – This national museum was established in 1981, still in the Soviet era, and it shows. The site includes an impressive a lineup of static Russian tanks and vehicles. A partially-earth-covered outdoor museum includes a series of dramatic sculptures, depicting the tragedy and struggle of the war. Large panels include a depiction of struggle at home, the pain of mothers whose children went to war, the defense from a German invasion in 1941, the successful 1943 Battle of the Dnieper, where the Soviets regained the land. A 200-foot “Motherland” statue is clad in titanium is a soviet-style female figure, carrying a 50-foot sword. (The statue stands 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, including the sword.)

• A sculpture of the legend of the Slavic tribe leader “Kyi” and a Viking ship, with brothers Schek and Khoriv, and sister Lybid, who are believed to have started the city.

• The St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at Mykhailiv Square in central Kiev. The cathedral was destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s, but was reconstructed after Ukrainian independence in 1991. The cathedral area includes the Ministry of Foreign affairs, with an interesting curved architecture.

I fly out at mid-afternoon, to Amsterdam and on to home in America, with a lot to think about.

Tags: