Her name was Natalya. Her cheeks were ruddy, like a matryoshka doll. She had the figure of a dome atop St. Basil’s Cathedral. She was filthy, like she’d been dragged across a field.
Natalya, she was a fine onion. Then I made her into borscht soup, along with her friends; Ivan the potato, Yevgenia the beet, Mikhail the carrot, and Vladimir the beef chuck.
I bought the whole gang at LavkaLavka, an organic market in downtown Moscow (“lavka” means “little store”).
Russians tend to take things to the extreme, and this farm-to-table grocery store is no exception. Dirt is left on the produce. (Why? “Because it comes from Earth,” the clerk said.) The farmers names are printed on the labels. Each farmer has an online dossier. And if you want to eat any of it, step next door to their restaurant where meals are cooked with ingredients straight from the farm. It’s very Portlandia.
Thanks to a Western food ban in Russia, onions like Natalya are a lot more common around Moscow. LavkaLavka has gone from a niche business, catering mostly to foodies, hipsters, and expats, to a bellwether for how the country is adapting to counter-sanctions.
In 2009, when LavkaLavka’s owners first had the idea of starting the business, the closest thing to “organic, local” food sold in Moscow grocery stores came from Europe. Russia didn’t even have an organic certification program. (It does now, although it’s not stringent enough, LavkaLavka says.) The company’s founders, Boris Akimov and Sasha Mikhailov, were just two generation Xers going about their professional careers. Boris was creative director for a magazine, and Sahsa an IT programmer. They played in a rock band together.
The two friends were curious about the farm-to-table movement going on elsewhere in the world, so they went on a quest to see what it meant for them to buy local. It proved a fun excuse to road trip beyond Moscow’s city limits, into the village countryside, where it’s been said the “real” Russia begins.
They met people like Natalya Pashkevich, my onion’s namesake. She lived in the village of Kusovo, growing vegetables on the type of strip garden you see behind most homes in rural Russia. Unwittingly, Natalya grew her produce close to organic standard. She used no GMO seeds, no chemical fertilizers, and no pesticides. She planted, watered, pulled weeds, and harvested by hand.
Even if villagers had access to industrial gardening products, few could afford to buy them. In Russia, money rarely flows into villages. Gardeners grow food for their table, then trade the surplus with neighbors for whatever else they need.
This surprised Boris and Sasha. The Russian village was a cornucopia, yet there were no distributors connecting village farmers with city consumers. The supply chain was broken. That’s when they got the idea for LavkaLavka.
At first, the business was simple. They kept a food blog and made announcements to readers asking who wanted what during their own food-buying runs to the country. Then came the idea of an online grocery store. Boris wrote the stories, and Sasha got the website going. Demand grew, and soon they needed more product. To get it, they needed more farmers like Natalya, and they needed Natalya to scale up. Of course, all of these require more capital.
Around the same time, the Russian government had just passed the Food Security Doctrine. The law describes Russia’s dependence on imported food as an issue of national security. It earmarks billions of dollars in low-interest, government-backed loans to boost the food industry. Unfortunately, it’s geared towards big businesses and corporations (like the ranch I worked for in 2010). It was trickle down economics.
LavkaLavka’s farmers needed grassroots funding. Their main option was taking out a loan from the bank, but the interest rates were so high, it was a non-option.
Boris and Sasha invested their money, plus a portion of LavkaLavka’s profits, to create a venture capital fund that would make small loans to farmers. The company grew to the point they could open the brick-and-mortar store, plus the restaurant next door. This winter, they’ll open a farmers market in an IKEA-run mall in a Moscow suburb, with tentative plans to expand to 14 malls nationwide.
Sanctions have treated LavkaLavka well. Other companies, not so much. They’ve been playing catchup to find domestically-produced, well, ketchup and other staples.
The Western food ban has resulted in gulag-style treatment of confiscated goods. In the past two months, the government has destroyed 738 tons of contraband food. Grocery stores have scrambled to fill their shelves with imports from sanction-free countries, like Israel and Iran. And cheese is a hot commodity. (See Russians Sniff Out Real Cheese as Imported Dairy Ban Continues).
With winter coming, it’ll be difficult for grocers to stock their shelves with the variety Russians have become accustomed. Here, too, LavkaLavka is leading the charge with a solution: educate consumers to eat according to what’s available by the season.
And since root vegetables store well, that’ll mean a lot more of Natalya’s onions.
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, exploring the food-producing regions of Russia and Kazakhstan. Follow his adventure #ComradeCowboys on Twitter, Instagram, and the project’s website. Read the first piece in this series: Going Home, Home on the…Steppes of Eurasia