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Swiss Farmer Making It in Russia

Hans Peter Michel left his home in the Alps and created a prosperous farm in the old village of Gorbenki near Kaluga where Europeans come to learn

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider


MYSTERIOUS FOREIGN SOUL

In a casual vest, working jeans, knitted cap, muddied winter shoes and slightly unshaven wind-burned face, if it were not for his accent one would never think that just a few years ago this man raised cows on Alpine meadows and suddenly decided to do the same in mysterious Russia.

<figcaption> Hans Peter Michel with his Russian family</figcaption>
Hans Peter Michel with his Russian family

- I have 400 milk cows! – Hans Peter Michel, a citizen of Switzerland and the Director General of Switzerland Milk LLC proudly takes me over his lands.   

- Why did I move here? – the Swiss gulps in the sweet Russian air:

- It’s good there (waves in direction of imaginary Switzerland), everything works! But all the land is already occupied. To become a farmer you have to buy an existing business, and that’s very expensive. You can’t do it like here in Russia – start from scratch with great opportunities and vast lands. Russia is a country where your dreams can come true! I fell in love with it as soon as I got here!

However, it wasn’t land alone that he fell in love with…as we guessed.

I FOUND A WIFE ON THE ASSEMBLY LINE

Hans’ Russian story began in 2003 when he read in a Swiss newspaper that there were people who had already tried to do farming in far Russia. A Swiss Fund (specializing in helping small and medium enterprises) sponsored the project, but they made debts instead of profits, because they provided money and technologies but failed to teach locals how to work in new ways, leading to bankruptcy.

Hans Peter made inquiries and took off to Russia. Together with his partners, he bought a share in the failed project, wondering whether he should stay in Russia. But then an insuperable force came into play – he fell in love with pretty Yulia who worked on the milk packing line. They threw a wedding party on the farm….

CATTLE LIKES TO BE COUNTED

Meanwhile Switzerland watched Hans Peter and his partner’s experiments, betting on whether he would succeed in this far-off, cold country, among these mysterious Russians.. They were surprised when they read in Swiss newspapers that Hans Peter had only 15 hectares in Switzerland where there is no place for even a tractor, but these strange Russians gave foreigners 360 hectares for nothing! And suddenly the Swiss wanted to see this miracle with their own eyes. So, together with dairy farming, an agri-tourist business opened in Gorbenki. Hans Peter attracts Europeans with his flowery meadows and clear lakes. He built a hotel with 10 bedrooms and of course called it Little Switzerland. He also lives there with his family and is gradually becoming Russian.    

KNIFE IN THE BACK

Hans tells a story that happened while the hotel was in construction. He hired non-local workers to plaster the walls:

- Gastarbeiters in German,maybe from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan… We agreed on salaries and shook on it. Then they told me that the walls were big and I would have to pay more. I said: “Let’s measure! They wanted to cheat me, and started to shout. One of them was drunk and stabbed me in the back. (The wound healed quickly.) The police arrived, he cried, said that he had little children at home and he needed to provide for them. And I forgave him…

I don’t know why, but I started to tell him about bloggers who comment wickedly on this kind of thing, saying: “Get used to it, this is not Europe, but criminal Russia”, but the farmer brushed me off:

“They’re wrong. That was for second time I got stabbed. The first time was in Switzerland.”

- By who?!

- Gastarbeiters as well…

A FUNNY STORY WITH A TRANSLATOR ABOUT FIGHTING DRUNKENNESS

Hans Peter tells how ten years ago he became acquainted with real Russian themes.

- Friends of mine came from Switzerland. We drank a little  (Just like a real Russian, Hans Peter does the “booze” gesture.)  A little. But in the morning I had to drive the car. A patrolman stopped me and made me to blow in the meter. And it showed.

Peter admitted he’d been drinking, but he asked the judge not to take away his driver’s license, because a farmer who is forbidden to drive his tractor and jeep is the same as ballet dancer Volochkova who is forbidden to do splits… However, life had a funny ending in store for him. The judge looked at Hans’ nationality and asked if he understood what paper he had already signed; and what verdict the court was going to give him. The farmer was very upset and said something incomprehensible.

The judge said:  “This means that he could claim the procedure was flawed, and all this will be for nothing, so I’m postponing the trial until we find a translator!”

The anxious farmer was summoned to court again a couple of weeks later.

- We couldn’t find a Swiss-speaker, the judge said, and gave the driver’s license back.

Hans didn’t explain that there was no such thing as the Swiss language, that they speak German, French and a little Italian in Switzerland…

However, one experience was enough for him: he swears that he has never driven the car while tipsy and even implemented a dry law on his farm.

INSEMINATOR YURA AND TRAINEES FROM EUROPE

It’s time for lunch. Young people wearing coveralls come into the hotel canteen. They help themselves to sausages and French fries with bean salad. They are dressed like everyone else but one senses that they are not Russian.

- Bon appetite! – they say to each other, stabbing sausages with their forks. They are trainees from Germany who have come to Kaluga to ‘get wisdom’. Hans Peter’s farm is included in the international education program and a reference from him is highly rated by European agri-business experts. 

Hans Peter also welcomes Russian specialists and says that sometimes they can be good, although he doesn’t always understand them.

- If a person comes to work for me, it means that he’s going to work, right? – he asks me.

- Right…

- “Well, not exactly.” He  tells me about Yura, a young inseminator who was going to put 75 cows on ‘maternity leave’.

- I asked him: “how is it going?” And he answered: “Everything is going according to plan. After a while I saw that only 15 of the 75 cows got pregnant… The rest could never have calves.

ONE FOR THE ROAD

Two houses, two home countries.

Someone is calling the farmer on the phone. He comes back with a paper, explaining that he needs to submit it somewhere. Paperwork has turned out to be another reality for the Swiss.

- There is so much wrong here, he says. – So many papers! And so much that I don’t understand. For example, let’s take subsidies. I should know in advance what subsidy they will provide in order to calculate how many fields I should seed, how much I need to spend on cattle feed. But they will only tell me the amount of the subsidy in fall. It should be the other way around!

…In a few days the Swiss-Russian Michel family is going on holiday to Switzerland.

- This is my house! – Hans Peter proudly shows me a photo of an impressive three-storied building before his trip. – It’s more than 100 years old!

- So does it mean that your home is actually there, not here?

He pauses and with sly squinty eyes says:

- That’s the same as asking a child who he loves more, his father or mother. I have two homes. The Swiss one has been feeding me for ten years – I rent it out. But I live in the Russian one. It’s good to spend holidays there. But in Russia it’s good to work. So please don’t make me choose. There are good Russian people here. I share my life with them and I will never leave them.

And Hans has kept his word: after skiing in the Alps, the Michel family come back home to Gorbenki.


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