Greenhouse conditions for business

Olshany, in the Brest Region, is unlike any other Belarusian village, having a disproportionate number of ‘wealthy’ residents

Olshany, in the Brest Region, is unlike any other Belarusian village, having a disproportionate number of ‘wealthy’ residents. Impressive cottages sit in its suburbs and nobody is surprised at seeing a new Mercedes or BMW in the ‘cucumber’ capital. Young ladies from neighbouring villages love to joke that they set their sights only on Olshany men.


Such houses are common in Olshany

A reporter from the local newspaper tells us that tourists often stop at a particularly impressive house, thinking it to be a hotel. The owner regularly comes out to ‘shoo’ them away.

With 7,600 people (and annually increasing), Olshany is the country’s largest village. It has around 500 families and, every year, eight-dozen new marriages are registered. There are two schools, three kindergartens and almost 500 shops, while some families own up to three cars. Moreover, individuals own around 150 pick-up trucks, which they use for cucumber transportation. It’s more profitable to sell vegetables to Russia independently than with the help of intermediaries.

Residents are truly industrious, harvesting around 1,000 cucumbers daily from local greenhouses during the season, alongside tomatoes, cabbages and peppers. Many would love to farm more land, but there isn’t enough for everyone. Several years ago, the village executive committee introduced a quota, allocating each family no more than 5,000 square metres of land, unless they have at least eight children, in which case, they may have an extra 3,000.

In early April, life is in full swing on Olshany’s streets, with trucks transporting wood and fertilisers. Hammers are heard all over the village, as people renovate their greenhouses. Many have already planted cucumbers.

The local executive council is also busy, with up to a hundred people arriving each day to speak to Chairman Victor Gapko. Most have land-related questions. He tells us, “Our village co-operative is strong; accordingly, we don’t permit unlimited use of agricultural land. People are offered lots farther from Olshany but not everyone wants them. Many villagers want a couple more hectares to grow vegetables. There are 14 farmers in Olshany!”


Greenhouse-breadwinners

Mr. Gapko is upset by sensational stories circulated by the media. He notes, “We’ve read in the printed media that we sometimes spend up to $3,000 on a wedding, and play tractor hockey. They say that we have so much money that we don’t know how rich we are! Those from outside our village don’t appreciate how hard we work to earn a modest income. The situation has changed from how it was a few years ago, when a kilo of cucumbers would fetch up to $2 at the beginning of the season. These days, nobody will pay such a great sum. Last summer, cucumber prices fell to Br1,000 per kilo: truly low. Nobody is making much money, despite working day and night in the greenhouses. They resemble zombies because of tiredness: all anyone wants to do is sleep!”

A local market is situated near the village council. By its entrance, an elderly woman sells diverse small items: gloves, glue, screwdrivers... A man opposite her offers fertilisers and tin chimneys for greenhouse stoves. Drivers of several trucks are selling briquettes of peat and firewood.

Olshany residents are truly unique, preferring action to talk. We tried to talk to a local farmer but failed. He told us, “I’m not striving for nationwide fame. You can write that my name is Vasya. I have two trucks and 2,400 square metres of greenhouses. I take vegetables to Moscow, St. Petersburg and, sometimes, Ukraine. I work hard but am happy with my life. I’d rather not waste your time.”

Another man agreed not only to give his name but to have his photo taken (of his back!). Truly, this was an achievement. Igor was really very nice and chatty, having lived all his life in Olshany. He knows the cucumber business well. This year, he’s built a new greenhouse and plans to harvest at least 15 tonnes of vegetables. He explains, “When cucumbers grow in a single spot for many years, they’re more prone to disease. Moreover, their yield falls. With this in mind, we’ve decided to change location. The new greenhouse occupies 1,400 square metres. I can’t guess at the return. In my best years, just 100 square metres yielded as much as 1,000 square metres now. Much depends on price. I hope it will be high this year.”


Larisa Antonovich: ‘Cucumber growing is a local tradition’

Igor’s greenhouse uses 12 stoves and much firewood, which is placed nearby: it’s likely to be enough to last until the end of the heating season. Recently planted cucumbers are already growing steadily. “I mostly work alongside my wife,” he notes, adding, “The season starts in February. We initially buy seeds and then prepare them for planting out. In late March-early April, we cover our greenhouse with film, replant cucumbers and tie them up. Our friends and relatives often help us with this task. Of course, we can hire staff but we’ve decided to save money. We hope to gather the first harvest in early May.” The hardest job begins later: cucumbers need to be fertilised, weeded, pinched, tied and collected. Farmers wake up at 4-5am to begin work in their greenhouse, only stopping in the midday heat. They continue in the evening, until late at night.

Larisa Antonovich lives not far from Igor, and has a traditional, relatively small greenhouse, occupying just 700 square metres. On meeting her, Larisa is tying up cucumbers, while taking care of her 9-month son. The greenhouse is equipped with several stoves and the most challenging task is to ensure that it doesn’t drop below 15 degrees on cold nights. “Cucumber growing is a local tradition and a forced necessity: there aren’t really any other jobs in Olshany,” the young mother tells us. “Initially, children help their parents. Later, they raise their own family, building a house and greenhouse: usually, of about 1,500-3,000 square metres. Against these figures, our 700 square metre greenhouse seems modest but there’s a great deal of work to do. Weeding alone takes several days.”

The Director of Olshany’s school #1, Mikhail Lemeza, admits: cucumber growing is often the only way local villagers can make money. Some parents even ask teachers if their children can come home early, to help in the greenhouses. Mr. Lemeza understands, and accepts such requests, saying, “Why not, if it’s not a regular occurrence. Of course, pupils have to catch up on missed lessons. Our villagers inject thousands of dollars into their agro-businesses and need to generate income. At the beginning of the season, it’s a case of ‘all hands on deck’.”

The first Olshany Belarusian language school is being attended by 830 children, which pleases Mr. Lemeza greatly. He’s proud of his children: around half stay in Olshany while the rest enter university, returning after receiving higher education. Last summer, six former pupils were employed by the school as young specialists. He views Olshany people as industrious and hard working, as well as being multi-talented.

By Pavel Losev
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