Vegetable Trendsetter. Made in Belarus: natural food culture haute couture

With a machete in his soil-stained hands, Uladzimir Matusevič navigates a vast green field. His face is well-tanned, his fingers resemble tree roots, and nails are like small rocks with dark rims – marks left by years of hard labour. A couple of skilful swings of his knife and – voila! – another leek sprout is ready for a market stand or a supermarket shelf.
Uladzimir begins his daily work in the field at dusk. At dawn, he returns to his castle.

To New Zealand and Back

Uladzimir Matusevič is one of the first farmers of the post-Soviet era in Belarus. Back in 1988, he returned to his native village of Macki from the nearby Minsk in order to earn his daily bread from land. Since then he managed not only to build a prosperous farm, but also to maintain independence from the “father state” – a virtue so rare in today’s authoritarian Belarus.

Uladzimir was born in the village of Macki in 1953. “All my ancestors were common, poor peasants”, says Uladzimir. His father was a local man and his mother came to Belarus from Latvia, which has been annexed by the Soviet Union as a result of World War II events. She had a very hard time adjusting to the socialist way of life at a local collective farm (“kolkhoz”). Food was scarce, let alone money. “Son, run away from here”, she urged Uladzimir when he graduated from the village school. Uladzimir studied well and enrolled into a nautical school in Tallinn, Estonia,  then part of the Soviet Union, where he studied radio engineering. This gave Uladzimir a chance to see the world on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Working in Vladivostok, a Russian city across a bay from Japan, he travelled on fishing and cargo ships as far as Australia and New Zealand. “Already then I began to compare my life, the life of my parents with what I saw”, recalls Uladzimir. He supervised the ship’s radio station, which also gave him a chance to listen to radio stations from abroad, which, in the open seas, were not jammed. “I began to wonder why we in the Soviet Union keep on building this “bright future” for our people but this future never comes”, he remembers.
Eventually, Uladzimir returned to Belarus, married his classmate and decided to try his luck in Minsk. He changed several engineering jobs, and spent more than a decade in the big city. “But I have been dreaming about coming back to my village all the time”, he says.
As the Gorbachev-inspired period of liberalization –  Perestroika – unfolded in the mid-1980s and the kolkhoz stranglehold eased, people were finally allowed if not to own, then at least to rent some land and sell their crops on the market. Uladzimir sensed the opportunity and returned to his native village Macki.

First Capital

Beetroot was (and still is) one of the most important crops grown in Belarus, used mainly for sugar production or for feeding cattle. In the Soviet times directors of chronically ineffective kolkhozes adapted a practice of thrusting small lots of beetroot upon families living in nearby villages. These people had to cultivate the lots and sell the harvest to kolkhoz at a very low price, which did not match the effort invested into its production. Those who refused to cultivate beetroot were punished by kolkhoz authorities. They would not receive timber to heat their homes in winter or get hay to feed their cows; a kolkhoz tractor might have not come to help them plough their small personal fields. Even village doctors and teachers were subject to this beetroot serfdom.

One can only imagine the amazement of the director of the Macki kolkhoz when a man from Minsk entered his office and claimed he wanted to settle in the village and was willing to rent 5 hectares of land to grow... beetroot! This man was, of course, Uladzimir Matusevič. 
“The first summer I earned about 8 thousand Soviet roubles”, says Uladzimir. At that time the sum was enough to buy a very good house. “I weeded the beetroot alone, and my whole family helped me to harvest”, he explained.
One hectare is a square sized 100 by 100 meters. One can only imagine what weeding 5 hectares by hand all alone must look like. Nevertheless, the effort paid off. Uladzimir assured kolkhoz directorate that he could manage the land and was allowed to rent more. He was a true pathfinder, one of the first of his kind in the country. When Uladzimir received papers from the bank, he was marked as “Land Renter #1”.
In 1991 Uladzimir officially changed his status from “land renter” to “farmer”. In the early 1990s the number of farmers in Belarus quickly grew to about 4000.

Today there are some 2000 farmers in the country. Most of them are enduring people, who are able to compete with the heavily subsidized kolkhozes, relics of the Soviet past.
One of the most difficult tasks for Uladzimir, unexpectedly, turned out to be providing an official Belarusian-language name to his farm “Majontak Matusevičy” (‘Matusevič Manor’). Officials insisted that it should be written in Russian, but Uladzimir prevailed.

Vegetable Trendsetter
Uladzimir proudly weighs a broccoli, as huge as two fists clinched together, in his hand. “We are trendsetters in terms of fancy vegetables in the country”, he explains. Today, the farm of Uladzimir occupies 40 hectares of land, stretched across several fields. Many sorts of vegetables which are grown on his farm, are not to be found anywhere in Belarus. To a large extent, he remains faithful to the beetroot kind – it is just that the choice of sorts is much more elaborate and somewhat exotic for this country: for example, kohlrabi, Brussels sprout or cauliflower. In total, he grows 24 kinds of vegetables on the farm.
Uladzimir lives and works together with the family of his sister. His son and his wife have also recently joined “Majontak Matusevičy”. “With my son settling to work here, life has become much easier for me”, Uladzimir sighs with obvious relief.
Uladzimir also has some seasonal workers, most of them living in nearby villages. However, today it is more and more difficult to find people who can actually work on land. Young people move to the cities, and the old are too weak. Many people living in villages have already forgotten how to work, or are plagued by alcoholism.
“I do not want to expand my farm too much, because this would keep me from work. I would have to turn into a manager, and I don’t want that. I want to work myself, with my own hands”, says Uladzimir.

Seeing Beyond Horizon
“I told myself once that the more trees I plant, the longer I would live”, says Uladzimir half-jokingly. If this is true, he may well rival the Biblical Methuselah some day. Uladzimir has already planted more than 700 firs (not counting his apple garden). He tries to shape the surrounding landscape with the trees he plants. Uladzimir takes special pride in the fact that his land is already distinctively seen on internet satellite maps owing to the lanes of trees he has planted along roads.
Several years ago Uladzimir rented a small forest, which divided one of his fields. Some other farmer would probably have cut it down for timber, but Uladzimir decided differently. He liked the forest for its beauty, and, having found three kinds of rare plants there, he even made sure that the forest is now officially protected by the state as a small natural refuge.
On the crossroads near the village Uladzimir approaches a small grove of trees. “I have planted this oak when I was 30”, he says, gently tapping the coarse tree rind. “It can live for two, three hundred, or even a thousand years – all depending upon which masters this land will have in the future”. Nearby, Uladzimir planted another oak-tree in order to commemorate the birth of his son. By its side there are three birch-trees – in the memory of his late mother.
“She had a very difficult life, my mother”, says Uladzimir, stumbling upon his words, his eyes shining with tears. “If she could only see this...” he says, with a wide gesture, as if attempting to embrace his land. “It would be a present for her, for her hard life”.
Indeed, the large house Uladzimir has built does resemble a castle. He deliberately asked the architect to recreate a Belarusian landowner’s home of the past. Today, his home accommodates three families – his own, his sister’s, and his son’s. “I pity you, living in large cities. I live in freedom. This is not business, this is a way of life”, smiles Uladzimir, looking at the vast field of broccoli, which slightly swing their leaves like small green waves under the wind.

By Aleś Kudrytski for the ODB
Photo by: Tatsiana Haurylchyk