Africa Brought Them Together
Tassilo arrived in Africa to help development agriculture. Valentina had already been teaching drawing, geometry, physics and chemistry in local schools there for several years.
“Our meeting was probably preordained from above,” says Valentina. “It turned out that Africa brought us together. We came here to find each other and to live our lives as one. We have been together for 24 years and have raised three daughters. My spouse is ideal as a husband, father and businessman. If that is not happiness, what is?!”
At the beginning of the 1990's, GTZ (a German society for technical cooperation, involved in implementing sustainable development projects around the world) decided to finance the development of agriculture in Eastern Europe, Russia, and then Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. Von der Decken was sent to Russia, to Kaliningrad region. He coordinated the Russo-German agriculture project. His mission was to demonstrate to the local farmers that agriculture can be profitable, that it is possible to be a success working as a farmer. The main thing being to go about agricultural production in the right way.
His whole life the baron had dreamt of working on the land, being a farmer, tilling and sowing.
According to Von der Decken's recollections, in 1993 nobody yet talked about business. Working in Kaliningrad region, the couple were not considering settling there. There was hyperinflation, massive interest rates, food and petrol vouchers, heating outages...
“In 1990, almost all of the collective farms collapsed,” remembers Valentina. “Many found it very hard to adapt to market conditions. But my husband said: 'Do you know, they are buying shares when they fall in price. At the moment, nobody needs them, but in a few years the situation will be completely different. I have dreamt about working on the land, being a farmer, my whole life. Let's rent some land, buy a tractor and start tilling the earth and sowing.' So, in 1998, we started our own business. In Germany, all the land had already been divided up a long time ago. There, it was only possible to be somebody's manager, not boss of your own agriculture business, whereas here...”
A Sensible Approach and a Human Concern
“We started with nothing, took on a bankrupted agricultural concern, which we based our own farm on, and rented the first 300 hectares” the couple tell me.Von der Decken involved himself with the production side of things, was responsible for the crop-growing technology. And Valentina took on all the administrative duties: drawing up documents, arranging loans and the delivery of all the necessities, as well as selling the end products.
They have invested a lot of money in a ruined farm, and it has been given a new lease of life.
As the couple point out, the biggest problems at first were with the machinery. They started with one second-hand hand tractor and a plough. But to be an efficient producer, you need powerful new machinery. This they had to buy in Europe, taking out loans at enormous rates of interest from Russian banks.
These days, the German farmer already tills 2,000 hectares. He traditionally grows winter crops: rapeseed and wheat. Of the spring crops, he prefers maize on silage. Most of the land is well-kept pasture and hay-fields.
The general stock of cattle is 600 head, of which there is a dairy herd of 200 cows. If, at first, the yield from one cow was only 2,300 litres of milk a year, now it is 5,000 litres. Gradually they have rebuilt and re-equipped the old farm. To increase productivity, they started using artificial insemination. This is not the first year that the couple have kept bulls for fattening. As the farmer asserts, they have invested a lot of money in a ruined farm, and it has been given a new lease of life.
“In those days, normally, all these cows would have had to be sent to the meat factory,” says Von der Decken. “But we had premises, pasture and about twenty workers. To throw all that away would have been foolish. We decided that it was better to give the peasants work rather than condemn them to a life of poverty. If youngsters don't see their parents working, then how are they going to grow up? And what can you expect from starving people, they'll just start to steal? And life has proved us right...”
“As a boss, he is strict and demanding of his workers,” imparted Valentina. “But he is within his rights, for the simple reason that he is demanding of himself!”
Herr Baron works through, without days off, so he seeks the same conscientiousness from his employees. But he treats people in a human way.
“Relations between the boss and the worker should go both ways,” believes Von der Decken. “This is a particularity of farming life. If I didn't pay my workers or help them pick potatoes or make hay, how could I count on their good disposition towards me and conscientious work? If someone asks me for help, I try to help them, but if that person then steals from me, I will be tough and act accordingly.”
If someone asks me for help, I try to help them, but if that person then steals from me, I will be tough and act accordingly.
“Ours is a particular situation: we live amongst these people,” explains Valentina. “My husband was brought up to believe he is obliged to take responsibility, not only for himself, his family and his labour of love, but also for the people who work for him. They should be helped, paid in full, and on time...”Emphasis on the phrase “paid on time” is by no means coincidental. In the remote areas of Russia, in the post-perestroika and subsequent crisis years, employers' mistakes often impacted upon employees, delays in payment occurred (and still do), even at large companies...
Besides agricultural produce, Von der Decken is involved in consultancy work. Each year, the farm welcomes 10-12 groups from various regions of Russia. As part of the demonstration centre organised here, twice a year BASF conduct training and practical seminars on plant protection. Here one can get advice on growing grains and rapeseed, see demonstrations of the effects of BASF sprays on cultivation in person on experimental areas, and obtain the very best seeds for wheat, barley and rapeseed. The baron and Valentina's farm is regarded as a seed-growing farm. They were the first in the Kaliningrad region not only to import, but also to grow, first and second generation seeds.
A businessman who comes for a week to give orders is simply ploughing his money in for nothing, it just won't work.
You Have to Live and Work Here
“Here, you cannot simply invest money and then manage things from abroad,” Von der Decken is convinced. “To run a successful business in Russia, you have to live and work here, manage all aspects of production yourself, and not pass the responsibility for running the business on to someone else. A businessman who comes for a week to give orders is simply ploughing his money in for nothing, it just won't work. In Russian agriculture today it is hard for everyone: both locals and foreigners. We live with the same conditions as all the other Kaliningrad farmers. That I am a foreigner is less of a help than a hindrance. Several think that because I am German I have loads of money, that I bathe in luxury, have a lot of property. In actual fact, this is not the case. We built this farm up from nothing, and practically all the money we earn goes into it. It is not possible to say that conditions in Russian agriculture have improved a lot. Every year some kind of new difficulties crop up. That's how it was, and that's how it will be. You just have to be prepared for this. And organise your business carefully...”
“To be competitive,” his spouse joins in, “it is essential to use powerful machinery, the very latest in cultivation technology, which we got hold of. As a rule, we bought the combines, tractor and attachments in Europe, took out loans against them and received a subsidised rate of interest from the Russian Federal budget. Due to the global crisis in 2009, the government started to finance only the buying of machinery produced domestically. And since that time, despite the fact that we need several pieces of machinery, we haven't managed to acquire any more.”
“It is hard to operate when there are no long-term loans,” picks up Von der Decken. “A farmer has to repay his loan after a year. Of course, we have to duck and dive, but we need money to grow the business. Paying back an investment loan after five years is much more realistic. It would let farms move forward. Of course, we take out loans, working capital and targeted loans. Like all those in agriculture we get subsidised interest rates.”
And instability hinders work. Because of this, it is impossible to predict the development of one's own business even five years ahead. Generally, this isn't helped by annual rises in the costs of electricity and fuel, especially when the purchasing price of milk either stays the same or drops completely!
Or take this case, for example. Annually, all Kaliningrad farmers produce approximately 250,000 tonnes of grain, and 80-100,000 tonnes are sold abroad. But in 2010, due to a huge harvest failure, the RF government temporarily imposed an embargo on the export of wheat. It would have been possible to sell it at export for twice the money, but due to the embargo, Von der Decken, like the other Kaliningrad farmers, had to sell it on the spot, at throw-away prices. It's true that the couple did not stop sowing, after all, unused land quickly becomes overgrown, and the embargo was only temporary.
Out of five years, one is successful, one absolutely terrible and three are average. Kaliningrad region is an area of risk farming.
“The weather causes a few problems as well,” continues the baron. “We have noticed that, out of five years, one is successful, one absolutely terrible where we endure losses, and three are average where we gain something and lose something, but we overcome these difficulties all the same. Taking the region's particularities to do with risk farming into consideration, I have to devise and map out a strategy. If the frost kills the winter rapeseed, than I have to replace it with spring rapeseed. You have to rotate crops which will end up reducing your losses.”A foreigner planning to do business in Russia, especially in agriculture, needs to know all these subtleties, or to find a Russian partner.
“Nothing will work for him on his own,” Tassilo Von der Decken is sure. “It was easier for me because my wife is Russian. Valentina understands better the ins-and-outs of Russian life, she knows the mentality, customs, she has taken on all the paperwork. Thanks to her, we have been able not only to rent land, but also to own it. Also, no German wife would ever come here. For her, life in some tiny Russian town without all the familiar trappings of civilisation would be unthinkable. To exchange a comfortable life for our local conditions? In the end a businessman has to choose: family or career. We know all about this. There have been foreigners who came here hoping to invest money in agriculture and make a quick profit. But they soon left empty-handed.”
“Many of them could not understand why we stayed and didn't, as they put it, grab our suitcase and leave,” says Valentina. “But we don't have a suitcase, we have production already set up. We already have the necessary machinery and equipment. We have put our investments here, and we keep on developing.”
The couple are now sure that the decision to start a farm was the right one. And a business does not come about without hard work. Even with the numerous difficulties, the possibility of running your own business in Russia exists. “Of this,” say the Von der Deckens, “we are convinced”.