Back to Farming

After a year’s sabbatical in England, long-time expat (although he doesn’t call himself one), David Morley is back in Moscow working to help western farmers and agricultural suppliers set up in Russia.

David, why did you come back to Russia?

Last year, I had one real estate disappointment too many and decided to leave Russia. In Russia, when you have a set-back you usually come back up again, anybody who has lived here through the 1990s will know what I mean, but this time I didn’t come bouncing up in the same way. So after 25 years in the country, I decided I’d had enough. Being back in Old Blighty came as quite a shock. I had missed out on Margaret Thatcher and all the changes she brought in. I felt a bit odd, although it was very nice to be able to look out of the window and see Oxfordshire countryside, which is absolutely beautiful. After a while, I realised that there was nothing particularly I could do there in terms of earning any money. So I tried to start to do things in Russia again long distance, I would send off thousands of emails, but this didn’t mean that I could make things happen in a country thousands of miles away. So there was only one thing to do: to come back.

What is your agricultural project all about?

I am continuing an involvement with farming in Russia that started eight years ago, when I helped a Swiss Investment Fund disinvest from a farming project they set up in the Kaluga region. The farm was created to train Russian farmers. Here was a project where local farmers could actually see how things should be done. The Swiss Government decided that their usefulness had come to an end and decided to sell the farm. They didn’t want to sell it to Russians because they thought that it might go rapidly downhill, instead they wanted Swiss farmers to come in. I got involved in helping to find them. We put an advert on a Swiss farmers’ website, and we had literally hundreds of enquiries from people who were interested in what was a small project: a 450-hectare dairy farm in the Kaluga region.35 farmers came over to have a look. The successful applicant had to have a certain amount of money, but it wasn’t very much because the Swiss were prepared to sell the farm at the cost of their investment, which at the time was 12 million roubles. We ended up selling it to three Swiss who we thought were suitable and who wanted to do it. They had to invest quite a lot to get the farm going again, and they have just started to turn a profit. They told me that if they had known how difficult it was going to be when you miraculously sold it to us, we would probably have never have done it. The problems they had were nothing to do with farming, they were to do with the local administration, with the various inspectors, with getting building permissions, with hygiene and veterinary services and various things. But they are still there.

I also got to meet British farmers who came over here. Then I heard of all sorts of people in consulting or agricultural businesses, who all said that there is a growing interest in eastwards expansion. So I thought: what a good idea! I have the business knowledge and experience to help foreign farmers avoid some of the problems that those Swiss farmers encountered.

There is a lot of money going into agriculture in Russia, but it’s like everything here; there is money going into big business, but not so much into small businesses. The villages are dying. I thought that if Russian agriculture is going to get things going, they are going to need western technology and expertise, not to mention finance. Russian farmers are also looking for western consultants on contract who can help them sort things out. At the same time, there are a lot of people in Britain, and Ireland as well who are trying to find a job. A lot of family businesses don’t have anywhere for the kids to go after agricultural college. So basically, we are a gateway into Russia for farmers, agricultural specialists and suppliers. We are setting up an international information network where anybody from all over the world can look into the opportunities that are available. So far, we have had a fantastic response. People from Australia, New Zealand, America, Asian countries, Denmark and other countries have contacted us wishing to do something. The equipment manufacturers are also interested in doing more.

Whilst we started out thinking that we’ll just provide services for those who want to come in, such as legal services and land acquisition, now we are looking wider and signing agricultural experts up, and country managers. We are not farmers, we are just people who have experience in doing business in Russia, and marketing also, which is really important because farmers when they come over usually haven’t got a clue about how to sell their products. We organise an exchange of information between these people like a Farmers Club. But it is a business as well because we earn commission from the deals that are actually going through.

One of the projects that has a very good chance is a distance learning facility for Russian farmers, to learn about management and the latest technology in their particular field. It is difficult for farmers to attend courses themselves or send people off somewhere, so e-learning could be very useful for them. So we’ve got a hell of a lot to do.

Have you got any actual results as yet?

Things are just beginning to take off, however we have had a few success stories already. For example, we have a farmer from South Carolina who wants to come over and be an organic farmer in Russia! He has never been to Russia before, he hasn’t got a clue what it’s like, however we have already found a farm in the Moscow area that wants to use his services, and it looks like they are going to start to do something. Conversely, a company approached us and asked us if we could help introduce Texas Longhorn cattle into Russia, and this is ideal because we think we will be able to get results pretty quickly.

Which part of Russia are you concentrating on?

We are looking at the whole country, and are holding high-level talks with the administrations of various regions, because each region has different agricultural needs. One of these regions is Kalmykia, which is traditionally a sheep-farming area. The sheep population in Russia has declined by more than a half since 1992, 3 indigenous breeds have become extinct and 9 more are vanishing. So our task there is to see what can be done to increase the population and quality of the meat. We also have to improve the infrastructure: the meat processing, packing and so on. We now have a company from New Zealand which is very interested in going there and helping them get their industry back again. The potential in Russia for this kind of business is huge.

This report by:  John Harrison