Friday, October 20, 2006

Closing down the dacha…

Riding that early morning bus out to the village is not a pleasure
As most of my readers know we maintain, if maintain is a good word choice, a dacha farm here in Belarus. A dacha farm is usually something like a one acre plot which most Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians- basically everyone out here in eastern Europe- use to help feed the family. Outside of Eastern Europe, these small parcels might be thought of as a cabin, or perhaps a summer home, but here they are used as mini farms and are a normal part of life. Mastery of the art of farming one's dacha is a matter of pride as well as a fiscal and perhaps even a cultural necessity. Eating habits of the region are basically only direct-from-the-farm, what people eat mostly comes from their own land and so what I am doing is not only usual, it is more like simply fitting in.

However, though I got some compliments this year (most improved player?) I am not so sure that I am all that good at it. I like gardening, but I certainly lack a green thumb. Also, I am really too lazy (or busy)to really do a good job of keeping the weeds at bay and consequently, we always end up fighting through a jungle
A view down our village street in the early morning sunlight
when it comes time to maintaining our field. Also, because we don't really live out in the village, we don't keep any animals and this makes a difference when it comes to things like adding in fertilizer and things like this.

But yesterday was our day to finish basically the last of this year's farming. The last item we had to take was our cabbages and so as usual for a day on the field we were up early and on the 7:45 bus out to the village.

This year we grew about the same amount of cabbage as last year, basically enough to make about 60 or 70 liters of pickled cabbage for ourselves and some extra to eat fresh and to offer to friends. We grew three different varieties of head cabbage as well as
Anya counting our pumpkins. We have been juicing them (vegetarian soup stock) as well as baking them and roasting the seeds
Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Cabbage isn't all that hard to grow and it is a staple of the Belarusian diet along with potatoes and probably pig fat (sala) which I myself take no interest in.

We finished cutting cabbages after about two hours and bagged them. I couldn't find a horse and cart today (I was luckier for the pumpkins) and so we had to cart them back to the house ourselves. We then did some clean-up of the house and raked and burned some weeds before stacking our stuff out by the gate.

We have been needing to rent a car this year because of how may apples we have and we had hoped that this would be the last time that we would have to do this, but unfortunately, the capacity of the trailer was only enough to get our cabbages home and so we will have to try and get our pumpkins, potatoes and a couple of bags more of apples home next week.

Our land; As you can see, there are still a lot of weeds to be cut and burned before the snow comes
I want to tell you though that this all is quite a lot of work. And, when it is all added up, I am not sure that we actually saved any money from simply buying what we needed at the market. I don't know how many times I tried to make sense of the numbers, but basically at best we had a wash from what we paid in maintenance and transportation to what we received in food. There are many, many variables involved and there is a lot to be said for both the health benefits from the exercise and for the pride involved in feeding ones self with one's own two hands. But be that as it may, I am thinking that next year, rather than worrying about improving, I am more thinking about how to cut the costs down to a minimum.

Tanya showing off a good cabbage
I don't know if this means that I am getting tired of doing "The Life" or not. I certainly get asked that question a lot from neighbors and such. I guess I got this more last year than this. Maybe this was because we were more systematic about our farming this year; this made things more manageable but a lot of the romance and surprise went out of it. Maybe flying by the seat of your pants asks people to question your abilities or maybe they just got used to me. And it was always a difficult question to field because I never knew whether they were wondering about me and why an American was willing to do manual labor for basically nothing, or whether they were looking for an excuse to opt out of it themselves.

Certainly though the world is changing and the economics of Belarus is moving away from the everyday use of the family plots for subsistence. And it is ironic that this is so because with the rise in food prices, you would think it would be just the opposite.

Here's Annie enjoying her favorite part of farming: Eating apples
During the time of the Soviet Union, people who grew pickles and tomatoes in their hot houses had a huge leg up economically. For much of the last decade this thinking was still pretty normal and lots of people saved for and bought plots of land hoping to make a killing as in the old days. But the markets never really allow for very much profit, dacha farmers must agree to sell their one or two acre's worth of goods for the same prices as the state managed collective farms, and therefore the issue as to whether or not it is worth it is on pretty much everybody's mind.

This year's apple joke is just one such example. Thinking that it would be a nice gesture to offer a bit more money to the villagers, the price of apples bought by state trucks was originally set at 100 rubles (4 cents) per kilo. But as the season progressed

Here's a quick lesson in cabbage harvesting: First, find the spot just below the head and cut; then, remove the outer leaves leaving only the clean head. Repeat this several hundred times
and it became obvious that this was a great apple year, the price dropped below last years 70 rubles to all of 50 per kilo. So even when there was some good fortune and extra materials, the state wouldn't allow any money to go to the villagers even though the state would in the end sell their low end, sugared wines and banked juices, which of course they would have more of, for the same price or higher.

So is it worth it? Well, people keep their cabins out in the woods for rest and relaxation- and for fishing and hunting and they put a lot more into it than we do. I am talking about both Americans and Belarusians here. And there are still many dachas available out there around lakes or closer to town.
Finally everything is home. Now all we had to do was lug it all upstairs
I would love to fix up the place a little, maybe add on a second story (and add a dish); camp fires, peace and quiet. It's a hard choice.

I guess I just don't know. It is surely going to require some thought. But in the mean time, if you will excuse me, I must go help Tatyana juice some apples and then I have to go and get our podval ready for the incoming pumpkins and potatoes. And Sunday of course, we start chopping, salting and massaging cabbages in earnest. It's that time of the year you see, And we have a long way yet to go before we can sleep.

More soon…