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28 Apr, 2009 07:52

Astrakhan: heartland of Russian agriculture

The Astrakhan region is one of the biggest market garden areas in Russia and is famous across the country for its juicy watermelons and tomatoes.

Despite being one of the poorer regions of Russia, Astrakhan prides itself on having some of nature’s richest gifts thanks to its southerly climate and fertile soil. As such, its agricultural production is not only good for the nation’s taste buds, but also the local economy.

Tomatoes have been cultivated in the region for generations, making growing tomatoes a family tradition.

“My parents and grandparents did it and I’d say everyone in our village has about 20,000 tomato plants. The earlier on in the season we sell, the better the price we get. But it’s difficult because everyone’s selling the same thing,” said local resident Raisa Djafarova.

However if a farmer grows tomatoes on a bigger scale, like a farm spread over 30 hectares that churns out over 100 tons a year, the farmer will then face another major problem: a lack of reliable locally sourced labour.

During the Soviet era, tomato farms could rely on a steady stream of student workers. Today, like every farm in the region, every year the owners employ migrant workers from the former Soviet states like Uzbekistan from February through to about November.

For migrants the work begins at about 06:00 and does not finish until sundown, but they say they have no other option.

“We want to work here as we can earn a good salary. There are no jobs back home and I have a family of four children to feed,” said migrant worker Shafih Hakim.

Despite the clear need to employ migrant workers in all of Astrakhan’s many farms and fisheries, getting the necessary paperwork in order requires Herculean efforts, but, according to the farm’s director, it is still more cost effective than hiring locally.

“These men come to Russia solely to work,” insists the director of Tagievo farm Abdousatar Tagiev, “they’ve left their families and homes behind. But the red tape is a nightmare: we now have to re-register them every three months, whereas it used to be just an annual procedure.”

Despite the farms gaining a healthy income from rice and tomatoes, it is their duck and geese stock that really lay the golden eggs.

“Our profits have increased 20% since we brought the geese. Their meat and eggs are hugely popular, but they also help to fertilize the ground, which helps increase our fish stocks,” shared farm deputy director Valery Dobyakov.

Female geese are the most valuable because it’s the eggs that they lay which provide an important additional income for the farm.

So as it struggles to modernize and adjust to the economic needs of a growing region, Astrakhan can continue to look to its own rich natural resources for survival.

“If people are interested in experiencing a real Russian life I would suggest Astrakhan as a place to visit. It’s nice here,” said Martina Benato, a student from Italy who has spent the last three months in Astrakhan.