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Russian Oysters? Foie Gras? Not A Problem, Say Farmers In Sanctions-Hit Russia

Russian Sanctions Help Feed Crimean Oysters
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WATCH: Sergei Kulik has been producing oysters and mussels in Crimea for the past six years. (Video by Andrei Kolokoltsev; camera by Oleg Kamushin, Crimean desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

YALTA, Ukraine -- Sergei Kulik is a busy man.

When he is not supervising operations at his oyster farm, the entrepreneur is taking phone calls from Russian companies in search of new suppliers following sweeping sanctions slapped on a range of Western foods.

Kulik set up his farm eight years ago in Crimea to resurrect the production of this prized delicacy in the region.

With the Ukrainian peninsula's annexation by Russia earlier this year and the ensuing Russian ban on Western foodstuffs, demand for his oysters has soared. "If before the sanctions only specialists and professionals had heard about me, now the broader public knows about me, too," he says.

Since the ban -- imposed this summer in retaliation against Western sanctions over Moscow's actions in Ukraine -- seven Russian restaurant chains have already contacted him to place orders. Kulik has had to turn them away. So far, his farm is only big enough to cater to Crimean consumers.

"The sanctions came a little too early for me," Kulik says. "I only have two of the three necessary stages in place: the farm and the boat. I'm still missing a coastal base for collecting and storing the oysters. Without this third element, it will be very difficult for me to ship to Moscow and St. Petersburg, let alone on a regular basis."

Like many farmers in Russia, Kulik is exploring ways to fill in the gaping void left by the sanctions. He has asked for government subsidies and hopes to expand his farm from its current 5 hectares to a total of 30 hectares. "The sanctions have led to empty shelves in terms of exotic seafood," he says. "So I think gourmets are suffering."

Blessed Are The Cheese Makers

Russian officials, led by President Vladimir Putin, have touted the restrictions as a chance for the country to bolster its flagging food industry. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued a "road map" for agriculture last month, which he believes will boost domestic production and reduce Russia's dependence on food imports.

Putin, speaking in televised comments this week, said the sanctions had breathed new life into Russian businesses and warned Western countries they had "lost Russia's food market."

Both Russkoye More and GlavTorgProdukt, the country's largest fish producers, have already announced plans to boost their output. GlavTorgProdukt has unveiled further plans to open a new fish-processing plant in the northwestern city of Vyborg.

Smaller entrepreneurs have also jumped at the opportunity to fill the niche left vacant by foreign exporters. Residents of Barnaul, in Siberia's Altai region, will soon be able to purchase Camembert- and Roquefort-style cheeses produced locally.

Is that Russian cheese?
Is that Russian cheese?

And at the Valaam monastery, located on an island near St. Petersburg, monks are retraining as cheese-makers. In mid-October, the monastery, a favorite retreat of Putin, posted photographs of one of its monks taking lessons from cheese producers in Italy.

The monastery said Father Agapy had learned to make a range of cheeses, including Mozzarella and smoked Ricotta, and would pass on his knowledge to other monks at Valaam. Production is scheduled to begin in December.

Road Map To A Distant Future

Overhauling Russia's agricultural sector, however, is a massive challenge.

Millions of acres of land have fallen out of production since the Soviet collapse as Russia increasingly turned to imports to meet its demands. Despite being home to some of the most fertile land on the planet, Russia imports about 40 percent of its food. In Moscow, this figure amounts to 60 percent.

Considering this dependency and the dire state of Russian agriculture, many experts say the ban on Western imports is sheer folly. "We need to reduce the volume of oil and gas in our foreign trade, and for that we need a variety of products," agrees Yevgeny Yasin, a former economy minister under President Boris Yeltsin. "But I think this move is inefficient, it won't help boost domestic production."

Economists say most businesses will need years to adjust to the loss of Western partners.

Government reform programs could help cushion the blow, although recent efforts have fared poorly. A program to boost dairy production nationwide, for instance, has increased milk output by a mere 3 percent since its inception in 2007 despite more than $10 billion in aid.

Moscow has pledged billions more dollars to help the country's largest companies weather the trade sanctions. But despite the patriotic speeches encouraging Russians to produce and consume their own food, government support for farmers remains limited at best.

"Peasants are idle, it's easier for them to stand on the labor exchange or work as drivers than cultivate the land, because agriculture is very unprofitable," says farmer Dmitry Klimov, whose own poultry farm in the Moscow region initially went bust. "In the European Union, governments allocate a 5-euro bonus per year for every chicken. There's nothing like that in Russia."

Millions of acres of land have fallen out of production since the Soviet collapse as Russia increasingly turned to imports to meet its demands.
Millions of acres of land have fallen out of production since the Soviet collapse as Russia increasingly turned to imports to meet its demands.

Klimov, a former journalist, was able to salvage his farm by injecting his private funds into the business. Today, the organic guinea fowl raised on his farm is served in some of Moscow's top restaurants.

Klimov now wants to try his hand at foie gras, in collaboration with the owner of a French-style delicatessen store in Moscow. Although he says he came up with the idea before the restrictions were slapped on Western imports, Russian-made foie gras is sure to be a hit with local gourmets pining for the now-banned French delicacy.

Klimov's first attempt failed after the livers turned out too light to make foie gras due to the relatively small size of Russian ducks. The farmer recently ordered 200 duck eggs from France and hopes to showcase his first batch of foie gras by summer 2015.

Despite the potential boost they could give to his business, Klimov disapproves of the sanctions. In his opinion, there are simply not enough farmers in Russia to feed Russians. His farm, he says, is the only one in a 150-kilometer perimeter.

"It's very unfortunate that agricultural development is being associated with depriving consumers of products that they've come to love," Klimov laments. "I think what is taking place now is pure demagogy, the same kind we are witnessing in our country in many other areas."

Consumers Worried

Those pinning their hopes on the new agricultural "road map" will have to wait until the end of 2015 for the promised new policies to be introduced.

Meanwhile, Russians are bracing for shortages reminiscent of Soviet times. Usually well-stocked Moscow supermarkets are displaying empty shelves as foreign goods run out -- including staples such as poultry, cheese, and milk, to name a few.

As winter approaches, officials have sought to reassure jittery consumers and pledged to offset shortages by increasing imports from Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

But shipping in food from more distant locations has resulted in higher import fees. Compounded by local producers taking advantage of the shortages, food prices are skyrocketing. Prices for meat and poultry rose more than 18 percent in October, and dairy products by more than 15 percent, according to government figures.

And with their government threatening to ratchet up sanctions against the United States and Europe, Russians may be in for further belt-tightening. Moscow says it is mulling restrictions on imports of Western clothing and vehicles, and has threatened to bar foreign airlines from flying over Russia.

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