Picture two giant farms: one the size of France; the other the size of Wisconsin. That is how many acres of agricultural land sit fallow in Russia (45 million) and Kazakhstan (35 million).
The 250,000-acre Chilinka Collective Farm, in northern Kazakhstan, was once known as an oasis on the steppes. It was home to 500 people, 60,000 sheep, 1,000 horses, and 1,000 cattle. Today, it’s completely abandoned, a ghost town from the Soviet era. Here, native son Rahimzhanov Zhumabai stands in the town banya, where he took steam baths growing up. My latest blog for @natgeo and @the_fulbright_program looks at the challenges Kazakhstan faces in putting 34.6 million acres of fallow agricultural land back into production.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse. During that time, many collective farms were abandoned, creating “ghost farms” that now haunt the steppes.
Dilapidated barns loom behind a bull on Sputnik Farm, near St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2005, the former pig farm belonged to the 88 million acres of agricultural lands that had fallen out of production since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That year, Sergey Goncharov and Sasha Buzuleyev bought the farm and started one of Russia’s pioneering Black Angus operations. It led the way to them becoming partners with an American rancher, Darrell Stevenson, and putting another 40,000 acres of unused land into production. Today, their combined herds have grown to 12,000 animals.
Ranchers working to rebuild the cattle industries of Russia and Kazakhstan have a large inventory of abandoned farms to choose from.
Rancher Serik Ospanov stands in a barn that’s in mid-construction. The foundation and concrete pillars were all that was left after looters scrapped the pre-existing barn in the 1990s. Ospanov believes that Kazakhstan’s abandoned “ghost farms” are an untapped resource. Because they’ve sat fallow for so long, they qualify for organic certification. #comradecowboys #kazakhstan #steppes #organic #certifiedorganic #photojournalism #documentaryphotography #ussr #sovietunion @the_fulbright_program @natgeo
Because these lands have sat unused for so long, they may qualify for organic certification by even the most stringent international guidelines.
House of Culture on Chilinka Sovkhoz (collective farm). The streaks running down the wall is caused by the top row of adobe bricks slowly melting away. A former town resident calls them “the tears of Chilinka.” Photographed in film with Soviet-made, FED 2, from 1950s. @comradecowboys For more scenes of Soviet “ghost farms,” read my latest story for @natgeo @the_fulbright_program. Link in bio, or copy & paste this: bit.ly/1JZmueL #sovietunion #ussr #documentaryphotography #photojournalism #travelphotography #collectivefarm #filmphotography #blackandwhite #blackandwhitephotography #adobehouse #ghosttown #kazakhstan #russia #adobebricks #erosion #childhood #thisusedtobemyplayground A photo posted by Ryan Bell (@comradecowboys) on Jan 24, 2016 at 3:11am PST
Read more about it in my latest article for The Plate, National Geographic’s food blog.
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Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, travelling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.