Wisconsin couple off to Russia for 2 years to teach rudiments of family farming

November 27, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

ASHLAND, Wis. -- Thanksgiving Day on the Lee and Judy Stadnyk farm south of town was pretty much the same as on thousands of family farms across the country.

L There were chores to do. Cows to milk. A turkey in the oven.

But after Lee and Judy Stadnyk finished their holiday dinner, they also finished packing their clothes, said goodbye to their cows and handed over their tractor keys to a neighbor.

They're leaving northwestern Wisconsin Saturday, bound for Russia. They'll be gone for two years.

The Stadnyks have sold their dairy herd and have leased their 240-acre farm. They were picked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as one of two farm couples -- out of 100 who applied nationwide -- who will help teach Russians how to start and operate a privately owned family farm.

"There are a million farmers who are better farmers than I am. My neighbor's a better farmer than I am," Mr. Stadnyk said. "And there are lots of people who speak Russian better than I do. But they couldn't find anybody else who could do both."

The Stadnyks say they probably were chosen because of their success at starting a farm from scratch and for their experience at growing similar crops in similar soils and climate as the region of Russia to which they'll be moving.

They'll be part of a pilot program in which a portion of a massive, state-run cooperative farm will be broken up and homesteaded by 21 Russian families.

Their task won't be easy. There is no tradition of private land ownership or family farms in Russia.

"It makes a big difference whether you own the cow or the state owns the cow," said the 49-year-old Mr. Stadnyk. "If the state owns the cow, it's just a job. If you own the cow, it's your life."

The Stadnyks don't have a tradition of farming, either. They grew up in a Missouri town. Mrs. Stadnyk went to college to be a nurse. Mr. Stadnyk has a doctorate in biology and has taught at Northland College in Ashland since 1971.

The couple were drawn to farming, however, and in 1980 they bought a downtrodden farm near the hamlet of Sanborn, south of Ashland. They built it up, modernized, started a now profitable dairy herd and expanded operations.

Lately, Mr. Stadnyk said, he has been a lot more of a farmer than a college professor.

"It's not rational, I know," he said. "But we love it. It's something we really love doing."

It's that love of the land, of the livestock, of the seasons and of what the earth and a lot of hard work can do, that the Stadnyks will try to instill in the Russians who volunteered for the model program.

Some of the Russians want to raise small grains or potatoes. Others are interested in livestock. One wants to start a horse farm in a country still crazy about horses.

Mr. Stadnyk said he won't try to push the "American way" of farming. He wants to act more as a facilitator and problem-solver than a teacher.

"These are people who really want to do this. It's almost like homesteading. Somebody said it's going to be like North Dakota in 1890," he said: lots of enthusiasm, little experience and,

probably, lots of heartbreak.

Some of the Russians in the program worked on the giant State Farm Chaplynski near Volkhov, not far from St. Petersburg, that is being partially broken up for the experiment.

But they were workers -- drivers, mechanics, bookkeepers -- not farmers. Other Russians in the program are former soldiers who found themselves out of work when the former Soviet Union reduced the size of its military.

Each will receive 50 to 150 acres, some credit vouchers and maybe a small government loan.

They will be on their own to build houses and barns, buy machinery, till the soil and raise crops and livestock. If they don't make it alone, the nearly bankrupt Russian government probably won't be able to bail them out.

The Stadnyks haven't ignored what some might see as a contradiction in the Department of Agriculture's efforts to help the Russians at the same time U.S. government policies encourage larger, corporate farms at home.

Mr. Stadnyk thought hard about that, took a puff on his pipe and wondered aloud how he could avoid a direct answer.

"I see that. They [the USDA] are telling me that I'm not big enough with my 40 milk cows and 150 [tillable] acres," he said.

"I agree that having the land and our food supply spread out among a lot of people, rather than a few corporations, is the best agriculture policy. But our last two administrations really have gone the other way.

"All I can say is that they probably expect some of these new Russian farmers to fail, too; for there to be some merging of farms and some people not making it."

In that sense, it will be much like home, he said.

The Stadnyks said they are excited to make the move. Both their children are grown, and the couple wanted a new challenge in life. They were considering the Peace Corps when they saw an ad for the Russian program in a regional farming newspaper.

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