Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Friday, 1 August 2008 08:43 UK

Turning Russia's rich soil into riches

By Daniel Fisher
BBC News, Moscow

British farm in Russia
Heartlands Farm has transformed the landscape

There are almost 100 million acres of farm land lying deserted and unfarmed in one of the world's most fertile areas - land that could feed millions of people.

This is not a doomsday scenario, it is a Russian reality.

At a time when world food prices are causing hunger and poverty for millions of people around the world, it might at first seem criminal. But those high prices could actually see the land once again bearing food for the world's markets.

Two British farmers from Nottinghamshire have been breaking new ground in the southern "chernozem" (black earth) region of Russia, by turning derelict land into prime wheat growing fields.

Their introduction of modern farming methods has boosted production to as much as three times that of local farmers.

Roll that out across Russia and, without touching any virgin land, Russia could be providing the world with up to 300m tonnes of cereals a year - making it the third largest cereal producer behind China and America.

There used to be a great collective farm here with lots of tractors and people, but now there is nothing
Local farmer

In 2002 Richard Willows, a former commodities trader, and Colin Hinchley, a farmer in his own right, came to Russia and bought up land in the Penza region that no-one was farming.

They set up Heartlands Farm and began to apply modern farming techniques with hi-tech equipment.

The results have been astounding - a serious eye opener not just for them, but for the local authorities as well.

Colin Hinchley took us around his 67,000-acre farm and, as we walked through a one of his fields of rippling green wheat, he explained how they did it.


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"This land was just scrub land. It's not been farmed for eight or nine years, so we have to cut away the vegetation, the grass and all the trees and begin the cultivation process," he said.

"The soil is very good and very consistent, considered one of the best growing mediums in the world. And the large scale - this field is the size of an average farm in England.

"So far we have managed to double the yields, but this year we expect three times a normal Russian yield - around six tonnes a hectare."

Heartlands have now been followed by many other foreign agro-industrial giants. And not just foreigners but Russians, too, have seen that there is money to be made not just by drilling in the ground but by cultivating it as well.

Deserted landscape

A short drive off the beaten track on the way back to Penza showed a very different story.

At the side of the road we caught sight of a weather-beaten couple using a scythe to cut grass for their horse.

Traditional Russian farming
Traditional farming methods continue in rural Russia

The wife told us: "There used to be a great collective farm here with lots of tractors and people, but now there is nothing."

"The bosses drank it all away," her husband added.

There are productive farms run by the state but, with one of the lowest levels of investment in agriculture in the world and a lack of manpower, these are few and far between.

Many of the villages where these people lived are often now deserted.

One village we drove through had only four wooden homes left out of 400. In the centre was a large ruined Orthodox church rising up out of the waist-high weeds. Its frescos were all gone and its cupolas colonised by grass. The only signs of life were the skylarks and cuckoos singing in the trees nearby.

Venturing further outside the village we drove cross-country through what seemed like scrubland, but was in fact an abandoned field.

Trees and meadow flowers competed with each other on the rolling hillside, and even a wild fox came close to see who had intruded on his peace and quiet.

The rumble of tractor wheels had clearly not been heard here for many years.

Over the next three years the same fox will watch Heartlands' satellite-guided tractors transform his hunting ground into a wheat field to feed hungry people.

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