Everything on the farm is designed to be in tune with nature’s cycles, from crop rotation to unheated winter greenhouses for frost-resistant greens
Alexei Zharov doesn’t believe in weeds. “In biodynamics, there’s no such thing as a weed,” he says, surveying his crops, which are hemmed in on three sides by birch forest. Instead, he uses the German term beikraut, which means “beside plant.” In his fields, there’s room for both edibles and non-edibles. “If I kill the weeds, I won’t understand the processes going on in my soil,” he says.
Zharov has a PhD in geobotanics, so he understands those processes well. As he walks through his fields, he rattles off the latin names of various plants, their herbal and medicinal properties and what they say about the soil. Because he doesn’t use chemicals, he has to constantly be in tune with the natural processes around him. “I hear plants,” he says. “There is a language outside of words.”
It’s hard to disagree, especially on a sunny September day here, 150 kilometers south of Moscow, miles into the forest, where it’s quiet enough to almost hear the trees think. Instead of clashing with the surrounding wilderness, Zharov’s well-ordered, multicolored fields seem like the best part of it. Everything on his farm is designed to be in tune with nature’s cycles, from crop rotation to mulches to unheated winter greenhouses for frost-resistant salad greens. Zharov’s solutions to nature’s challenges are as exquisite as an art form. Across the field, on the very edge of the forest, stands a row of corn — it’s his fence against the trees. Since tree roots go far and deep, they can easily drain away water that he needs for his vegetables. But the corn row acts as a barrier, reducing the water required for his own crops.
With all this knowledge, you might think Zharov would be a professor at an agricultural college or a professional agronomist. “I want to write a book,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like so much knowledge has piled up in my head that it’s going to explode.” But Zharov doesn’t teach, and he isn’t writing a book anytime soon. Here, 10 kilometers down a dirt road that’s impassable without four-wheel drive, he is doing something a lot more exciting: running Russia’s first community-supported agriculture (CSA). There are 22 families and a box of fresh produce every week — cheaper than the supermarket. Most surprising of all, Zharov is making a profit.
When Zharov decided that he was moving back to Russia from Germany a few years ago to become a farmer, his friends told him he was crazy. And when he announced last year that he was going to start an organic, biodynamic CSA, even the Russians said he was off his rocker. “Strange fellow, it won’t work in Russia,” he kept hearing. “Must have spent too much time in Germany.”
It’s true, Russia doesn’t have much of a small-farming tradition. During the 1960s and ’70s, when organic farming and local food were becoming trendy in the West, the Soviet Union was still trying to build larger and more industrial collective farms. Private enterprise was punished by law. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a flood of cheap goods from the West made it all but impossible for local producers to compete, and supermarkets sprouted up like weeds.
But as the country caught its breath in the early 2000s, the landscape began to change, organic foods included. Between 2005 and 2015, the amount of organic agricultural land grew by more than 5,000 percent, and it kept climbing — that’s more than the Bitcoin bubble. And, after Russia responded to Western sanctions in 2014 with a partial ban on food imports, food producers across the board received a boost.
Zharov isn’t interested in money, though, or organic certification. In fact, he doesn’t sell to just anyone, and definitely not to the highest bidder. If you want to buy food from Zharov, you have to prove yourself first. “It’s not for everyone,” he says when asked about his project. Giving a tour of his farm, he tells two members of his CSA that if someone new wanted to join, the current group would have to approve them first. It’s about as close as you can get to a secret agricultural society.
When Zharov first came to Russia, he made more money selling to high-end restaurants. But the distant relationship he had with the final consumer left him feeling unsatisfied, so he turned the business model on its head. Now, he picks his consumers. He talks about “relationships outside the market” and “alternative paths of consumption.” His dream is to have a system based on loyalty, friendship and community, not money. One day, he hopes to spread his idea to all of Russia. But for now, he is satisfied with opening up a second cluster.
It’s an idea that sounded crazy not too long ago, in a country that’s still dealing with the aftershocks of unbridled capitalism and the novelty of the supermarket. But Zharov is proving that there’s room for change.