Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Russian Dacha Gardening

With the growth of large scale commercial agriculture over recent years, there is increasing concern about the need for diversity in size and scale to provide resiliency to our food system as a whole. Americans have become increasingly dependent on outside sources for our food, with most of us dependent upon grocery stores with their 3 day supply of food being constantly trucked in. A need to re-examine our food distribution system is being advocated by many concerned by recent estimates 30–40% of food waste that happens before the food even reaches our homes.  There is a growing consensus that we must find way to curb our increasing use of petroleum for transportation, to power the mining equipment extracting the minerals used to replace those lost in the soil, and for herbicides, pesticides and petro-chemical based fertilizers.

Stephen Scott, co-owner of Terroir Seeds, suggests we consider the example of Russia, growing almost half of its total food production in home gardens in a difficult and short-season climate.  What might we learn to help us support more local, small-scale, sustainable agriculture in the United States?
It appears many dachas operate mostly function outside of the cash economy, with dacha gardeners sharing their surplus with relatives and friends after saving enough to feed themselves through the winter, and only then considering selling what remains. Scott suggests that traditional economic calculations fail to realize the additional value and benefits of a dacha gardens that serve as an important means of active leisure as well as a way to reconnect with the land. 

So how did these dacha gardens come to be such an important source of food for the Russian people?

Cousin Irene's mother's family's dacha 

Chris' cousin, Irene, visits family dacha in Kaluga
(appears to be 2-3 hours outside of Moscow)

Dachas, from the verb “davat’” (to give), were originally plots of land distributed by the Tsar in the 17th century.  Dachas were given as awards to prominent writers, poets, musicians, composers, scientists, and top-ranking generals. As soon as the person fell out of favor, his or her dacha was the first item to be taken away. With rapid growth in the urban population during the Industrial Revolution, increasing numbers of upper and middle class Russians began to escape the heavily polluted cities to a summer retreat in the country.
After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, most dachas were nationalized. Some were converted into vacation homes for the working class, while the better quality homes were distributed among the prominent functionaries of the Communist Party and the newly emerged cultural and scientific elite. The construction of new dachas was restricted until the late 1940s, requiring the special approval of the Communist Party leadership.
Following the devastation and hunger of World War II and the failure of the centrally planned Soviet agricultural programme to supply enough fresh produce, the number of squatters grew geometrically The government had no choice but to officially recognise their right to amateur farming. Due to the desire to keep workers in the big cities, the size of the allotment for dachas, typically “zero point zero six of a hectare”,  was too small for most people to live on permanently.  A typical plot of land was surrounded by berry trees and shrubs with a small house and a hut for storing garden tools. Around the house there were rows of plants and vegetables.At the beginning of the 1960s the number of fruit trees that could be planted was heavily regulated by the rules of the dacha settlement to make the area visually pleasing.
In 1955 legislation introduced a new type of legal person into the Soviet juridical system, a gardeners' partnership distinct from the internationally popular community gardens. The gardeners' partnership received the right to permanent use of land exclusively for agricultural purposes and permission to connect to public electrical and water supply networks.
The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union saw the return to private land ownership in thee 1990s. Most dachas have since been privatised. Dacha owners finding themselves with more discretionary income began to make improvements to their dachas. Many dacha lovers choose to live on their plots of land building houses including heating and electrical systems. Having a banya (a small bath house) at your dacha is not a luxury any more. Many residents of big cities began to look to the dacha as a place for recreation as people in villages allowing owners to rent their dachas to wealthier city-dwellers.
The rise of a new class in the Russian society (the 'new Russians') has added a new dimension to the concept of dacha. Most dachas of the elite are constructed with brick and concrete, unlike the middle-class dachas that are mostly constructed with wood. Comparable in size and decor to mansions and palaces, they become an elaborate display of social status, wealth and power. These new symbols of prosperity are designed by professional architects, usually in eclectic style that reflect the nouveau-riche tastes of their owners, featuring luxury items. Many of Russia's oligarchs and successful entrepreneurs, athletes, pop musicians, and mafia bosses now choose their dachas as their primary residence.

Many Russians prefer to grow vegetables themselves because of the widespread belief of excessive use of agrochemicals in the store-bought vegetables, and the higher costs of the vegetables in stores and bazaars.  The most common dacha fruits in cool temperate regions of Russia are apple, blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, raspberry and strawberry (sometimes also sour cherry, downy cherry, plum, pear, sea-buckthorn, Actinidia kolomikta, black chokeberry, serviceberry, sweetberry honeysuckle, blackberry and grape. Popular vegetables and herbs are potato, cucumber, zucchini, pumpkin, tomato, carrot, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, radish, turnip, onion, garlic, dill, parsley, rhubarb and sorrel. Even relatively large plots of ground are often cultivated manually using instruments such as a spade or a spading fork. In autumn the grown potatoes and other crops are gathered and transported to the city where they are stored in cellars, dugouts (usually located on unused plots of ground), or in personal automobile garages.
In 2003 the Russian President signed into law a further “Private Garden Plot Act” enabling Russian citizens to receive free of charge from the state, plots of land in private inheritable ownership. Sizes of the plots differ by region but are between one and three hectares each [1 hectare = 2.2 acres]. Produce grown on these plots is not subject to taxation. A further subsequent law to facilitate the acquisition of land for gardening was passed in June 2006.

My son had an opportunity to visit a friend's dacha outside of Moscow in the winter.  

Approaching the dacha

A peak inside


Nearby dachas

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