'The Land is Cheap': Farming Makes a Comeback in Russia

By Jason Bush

Investors are pouring billions into agribusiness and trying to reverse decades of Soviet mismanagement.

Under a baking sun, two green combine harvesters trundled across a vast expanse of yellow barley, unloading their grain into waiting trucks. It was a bumper harvest in Usman, a rural district some 300 miles south of Moscow. Yields of barley almost doubled this year. And there was plenty more to come. On the endless plains of southern Russia this summer, wheat, corn, and sunflowers towered high above the rich black soil for mile after mile.

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Just four years ago the same fields sprouted nothing but wild grasses. Although this land had been farmed for centuries, the tradition nearly died out in the 1990s. The Soviet kolkhozy, or collective farms -- hardly paragons of agricultural efficiency -- went bankrupt as communism collapsed, and villagers abandoned the land. "When Gorbachev came to power, everything began to fall apart," says Alexander Gulov, a former boss of a collective farm in Usman.

But farming in the area, and across Russia's traditional grain belt, is making a comeback. Commodities traders, food processors, shipping outfits, and others are buying up farms, hoping to cash in on high global grain prices. These new investors are pouring billions of dollars into land, then revamping management and technology in operations that span thousands of acres. Today, large agricultural holding companies control some 10 percent of Russia's farmland, up from 4 percent in 2003 -- though in the most productive areas they have more than a quarter of the land, according to the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies in Moscow. "There's huge potential here," says Robert Coleman, a South African who oversees farms in the region for Agro-Invest, a Moscow group that owns 100,000 acres around Usman. "We've invested in big machines, are applying Western ideas, and are getting great results."

It's easy to see why there's so much interest. The U.N. says Russia has some 480,000 square miles of arable land -- an area more than twice the size of France. That's 8 percent of the world's total, much of it highly fertile "black earth." But owing to decades of agricultural mismanagement, Russia accounts for less than 4 percent of global crop production and is a net food importer.

Among the biggest of the new outfits is Agro-Invest. Over the past two years it has spent some $350 million and now has nearly 900,000 acres. The company farms wheat, barley, corn, and oilseed across a broad swath of southern Russia. Although it's still operating at a loss, revenue is on track to top $40 million this year, roughly double the level in 2007. "Today only big agro-industrial holdings can be profitable in farming, because it requires huge financial resources," says Zorigto Sakhanov, Agro-Invest's chairman. In December, Agro-Invest's parent company, Swedish-backed Black Earth Farming, raised $256 million with a listing in Stockholm, giving it a market capitalization of roughly $1 billion.

Other investors are joining the land grab. Alpcot Agro, a Swedish company, has invested $230 million in Russia and controls over 120,000 acres. Russia's RAV Agro-Pro, with Israeli, U.S., and British funding, has some 370,000 acres. Danish-backed Trigon Agri has acquired 300,000 acres in Russia and Ukraine since it was established two years ago. All three companies plan public share offerings when global market conditions improve.

Out in Usman, the foreign investors' confidence is shared by locals. "Russia's possibilities are simply colossal," says Viktor Karnushin, Agro-Invest's regional boss. He says the company will boost the acreage under cultivation by 50 percent in the coming year, and productivity will improve rapidly as the farms use more imported machinery. Wheat yields, he says, should climb by 25 percent. "People were worried [in the 1990s] about the future, but now they understand that everything will be O.K.," says the former army colonel.

He can't wait to show off the farm's latest acquisition: a $300,000 Canadian Bourgault cultivator. In recent years the farm has replaced most of its rusty old Russian tractors and harvesters with equipment from Illinois-based John Deere. "There's simply no comparison," says tractor driver Nikolai Yaroslavtsev, who complains that his old Russian model was forever breaking down. These days a GPS navigation device helps the tractor stay on course as it traverses the fields. All the new technology means the company employs 340 people on land that was farmed by 3,000 during the collective farm days -- and Agro-Invest grows more crops.

Throughout Russia, there's huge potential for similar productivity gains. Grain yields in the country average around 1 ton per acre, only about a quarter of what farmers in Western Europe get, says investment bank Troika Dialog. But Russian land averages $400 per acre -- a mere 10 percent of the cost in France, and 20 percent of the price of land in Brazil.

In the countryside, Russia's capitalist revolution is still a work in progress. A communist-era ban on the sale of agricultural land wasn't scrapped until 2003. Even now, local authorities suspicious of outside investors often find ways to block land sales. About three-quarters of farmland is still controlled by the former collectives, and 10 percent belongs to small farmers. And there's always the risk -- as with Russia's oil and gas industries -- of a backlash against foreign ownership. Foreigners are barred from buying farmland, although companies such as Black Earth Farming have circumvented the restrictions by creating a Russian subsidiary, while Alpcot Agro and others hold long-term leases on their land. "Business is very local in Russia, and you need to have support from the local authorities," says Bjorn Lindstrom, investment manager for Alpcot.

Local farmers in Usman have no shortage of gripes, especially when it comes to the soaring costs of fuel and fertilizer. Domestic grain prices, meanwhile, are 40 percent below international levels because the Kremlin has placed restrictions on exports to keep a lid on inflation. If Russia wants to boost food exports, it will need to invest billions to upgrade ports and railways.

Such pitfalls explain why investment in land may not be the safe bet it might seem. "If grain prices were to fall, a lot of these companies would face real problems," warns Kingsmill Bond, an analyst at Troika Dialog. But there's still no denying the potential: "The land is cheap," he says. "And there's lots of it."

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