Growing Cities Blog

Reflections on Urban Farming in Russia

April 17th, 2014

When we started making Growing Cities, a new documentary about urban farming in America, we never imagined where it would take us. As a road-trip film, we knew we’d be traveling across country meeting farmers, innovators, and community organizers from New York to New Orleans – but what we didn’t know is the international interest the film would garner upon completion.

The film has screened in communities across the world, including in the U.K., Croatia, Iceland, Portugal, and Australia to name a few. We’ve found the issues in the film, such as community revitalization, food deserts, and land use are not unique to the US, but are the same problems communities across the world are struggling with.

Most recently, we had the opportunity to travel to Moscow, Russia, as part of the Ecocup Film Festival and with the support of the US Embassy. I spoke with many students and citizens there about urban agriculture, which is a relatively new concept for Russians. However, that isn’t to say they don’t have a long history tied to the land.

Almost every time we showed the film, someone would ask, ‘have you heard of dachas?’ At first, I had no idea, though by the third or fourth time I had a pretty good understanding. Dachas (literally meaning ‘something given’ in ancient Russian) are peri-urban seasonal homes, which usually have small land allotments attached. These plots were first given out to loyal vassals starting in the late 17th century with Peter the Great, though now Russians from all classes have these plots.
Many Russians, especially of the older generation, spend their summers at their dachas cultivating their favorite fruits and vegetables – not just beets and cabbage, but many others such as apples, carrots, leeks, and mushrooms. In fact, some estimate close to 40% of Russians food is produced by dachas, including half of the milk, two-thirds of the vegetables, and more than 80% of the country’s fruits and berries. So maybe it’s the rest of the world who should be learning from the Russians when it comes to food production?

The best equivalent I could come up with in the U.S. is the community garden, except these are obviously much closer to where people live and usually smaller. Since many Russians were very concerned about contamination of urban soils and air, I stressed techniques such as raised beds or bio-remediation in order to avoid soil contaminants like lead or petroleum.

Though I don’t expect my visit will start a wave of community gardens or aquaponics farms, it is my hope that Russians took as much as I did from our interactions. And who knows, maybe a rooftop farm in Moscow will sprout up sometime soon … let’s just call it a dacha!

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