Daniel Brooks

Several years ago, I bought a piece of land next to the village of Svistunovo in Tver Oblast. The idea was to form a camping project and make a great deal of money. While vast flows of profits have never materialized, the camping project is alive and well. What began as a grand plan has become a fabulous hobby. When I bought the land, I was offered an adjacent six hectares (15 acres) of property for a bargain basement price. Without thinking clearly, I did the deal. A third of the property slopes gently down to the Volga. Were it not for the trees in the way, the view of the river would be stunning. In an impulsive moment, I thought, cabins could be built here. The view alone would bring in a pretty penny. The other two thirds of the property is flat and situated about two hundred meters above the Volga. The land is wooded over with mostly birch trees with the odd cedar and fir tree making headway. The trees have been around for about a decade. The property is home to elk (whose tracks we see from time to time), hedgehogs, squirrels, birds and other critters. In early summer wild strawberries flourish, followed by black currant and finally, mushrooms. It is a lovely piece of property, making it a bittersweet error in judgement. 

One reason I took the dive was sentimental. Throughout much of Russian history, agricultural land could not be freely purchased. This changed in 2002 when the Russian government passed a new law allowing any individual or corporation to buy agricultural land. When the law passed, I felt an urge to buy a farm and be part of history, despite the fact that I am averse to farming and gardening with the exception of chopping things down. When the time came, I did the deed. Surely, I thought, the zoning for the property could be converted from agricultural to tourism or residential use. 

When I went forth into Russian bureaucracy to rezone the land, I reached a dead end. The requirements were complex. They involved an array of forms, the submittal of proposals to local bureaucrats and payment of a costly fee in the unlikely event the application was approved. I learned that agricultural land taken over by trees could be confiscated by the Russian government or its owner could be fined up to 700,000 roubles, about $10,000 at today’s exchange rate (twice as much in Dollars in days gone by). Selling the land made no sense. I paid very little for it and as it became more overgrown, its value shrank. Having little choice in the matter, I let it sit. 

The thought occurred to me to chop down our trees and sell the lumber. Not allowed. This happens in Russia; certain things are forbidden and that is all there is to it. Felling trees on farmland for commercial purposes? No way. All I could do was wait.

I wasn’t the only one. Over time, privately owned agricultural land all over the country has been taken over by trees. Owners of farmland in Russia have been letting nature run its course. By 2020, about 10% of all forests in Russia stood on farmland. Little has been done to clear deadwood that might pose as a fire hazard. Insects have gone amuck, chewing up things and causing damage. Fires broke out with suspicious frequency. To clear off the forests, landowners have been burning down the trees on their farmland, putting adjacent villages and towns at risk. Meanwhile, few if any landowners were fined or held accountable for allowing their agricultural land to be overrun by trees. The problem was too big. 

Recently, good news, or so it seems. A law has been passed, set in motion by President Putin, as such things in Russia often are. It allows someone with overgrown farmland to choose between zoning the property for agricultural purposes or chopping down and selling the trees that stand on it. Now in theory, our trees could have commercial value, as would the land. More importantly, confiscation and fines are less likely. A number of regulations will govern logging operations, which I have yet to read. An application will have to be made to rezone. It will undoubtedly be confusing. After the trees are removed, it will be possible to revert the land back to farming use. The new zoning allows mushrooms, berries and medicinal plants to be picked on forested land. I’m now reading about the medicinal properties of wild strawberries and black currants. They are phenomenal.

The law says that if a piece of agricultural land is without trees, it cannot be zoned for use as a timber enterprise. Not good news for those who ploughed their land. Good news, for those who didn’t.

Trees grow slowly and will mature many years from now. A landowner could do nothing, known otherwise in Russia as ‘avoiding fines.’ The longer the trees grow, the more lumber that could be offered to a future seller. In the meantime, confusing and complex laws about how trees could be felled could be avoided by not chopping down any trees at all. Someday, perhaps I can sell this turkey. Hope springs eternal 

These days, I’m learning about birch trees, of which I have a large number. I have always looked upon birch trees as a kind of tall weed to which the Russians have a romantic attachment. It turns out birch can be used for furniture and something called long boards. Various fir trees and cedar have value. So far, my skills at watching trees grow have been honed to perfection.  Maybe I will chop one down next summer. When it falls, I will yell, ‘timber,’ assuming I don’t get myself killed.

A better idea might be to focus on healthy berries. Wild strawberries are rich in vitamin C and the whole plant has been used to regulate the menstrual cycle. Don’t ask. A tea from the leaves can be used as a nerve tonic. That should come in handy. Black currant berries are rich in polyphenols, something I have never heard of until now. Polyphenols are micronutrients, a word that in and of itself says ‘healthy.’ The benefits of overgrown farmland continue to pile up. Pass the micronutrients!

Daniel Brooks

Copyright 29 September 2020