The rise of the dachniks

This article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 26th May, 2012

The rise of the dachniks

Last time I began telling the story of Angelo Eliades and his permaculture food forest in his suburban backyard in Preston, Melbourne. In response to that column, a friend sent me a link to some research that was carried out a few years back into the scale and productivity of agro-foresty and bio-intensive small-scale production in Russia. This research formed the substance of a PhD thesis submitted by Leonid Sharashkin in May 2008 at the University of Missouri.

This column will be in parenthesis to Angelo’s story, which after all, has a lot to do with the yields achievable in small-scale food forests. Next time I’ll return to his story proper.

If you’re really keen on the Russian research, you can download the full thesis – a mere 248 pages of text and tables – via ‘’. Here’s the (very) short version: Russia is a nation of small-scale gardeners, or dachniks; and they are very, very good at it. Some 35 million households, two-thirds of the country, grow a fairly significant portion of their food on a dacha, a small-scale garden plot with an average size of 600m2, belonging to urban dwellers, either privately or in a co-operative form.

The tens of millions of current-day dachniks are following in the footsteps of a centuries-old tradition of small-scale, self-reliant agrarian communities. As Sharashkin notes, this means that these practices did not suddenly re-emerge en masse in response to the economic collapse in the post-Soviet Russia of the early 1990s, but rather have deep historical and cultural roots that go well beyond the food production and economic dimensions.

Small'scale intensive production in Russia
Small-scale intensive production in Russia

Yet the productivity of the dachniks is impressive. Sharashkin reports that in 2004, they accounted for (conservatively) 51% of total agricultural output by value, around $US14 billion, or 2.3% of Russia’s GDP; a larger contribution than steel manufacturing or electricity generation. And when the focus shifts to staple food crops, as opposed to commercial crops for export, the figures are truly remarkable. Over 90% of Russia’s potatoes, over 80% of its vegetables and fruit, and over 50% of its meat and milk, are produced on small plots, with little or no machinery and minimal energy inputs.

And all this is achieved on a mere 2.9% of the country’s agricultural land, compared to commercial agriculture, which requires the other 97.1% of the agricultural land to produce 49% of total output.

Such extraordinary productivity is explained by two principal reasons. First, the care and attention that comes with labour-intensive gardening for self-provisioning. Secondly, the embrace of polycultures and perennial species, rather than single crop monocultures, characteristic of agro-forestry: plantings that ‘are intentional, intensive, integrated and interactive.’

And beyond their food yields, these spaces also generate a social yield. They are places ‘where a family comes together’ and where they ‘celebrate special occasions’. Dachniks watch over each others’ plots, and they share seeds as well as gardening experiences and tips.

As Prime Minister Gillard boasts of Australia’s potential to be the ‘foodbowl of Asia’, others look to the parlous state of the Murray-Darling basin, the impacts of the coal-seam gas industry on water tables and fertile soils, the growing reality of climate change and the looming shadow of peak oil, and wonder whether we shouldn’t first focus on feeding ourselves. In this debate, the dachniks of Russia have proven that ‘decentralized, small-scale food production is possible on a national scale’.

Which is why we should celebrate the growth of community gardening in this country, and in our region in particular. On Saturday, 2nd June, the Bellingen High School Community Garden will celebrate its first birthday, and everyone is welcome. There will be activities for children from 10.00 a.m., the pizza oven will be fired up for lunch, as well as live music and a photo exhibition. Come along and see what Charlie Brennan, Olivia Bernadini and their many helpers have achieved over the past year. For more details, visit the Facebook page of the Bellingen Community Gardens Association.

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