Our friend Vasily moves into self-employment

In two earlier posts I talked about how we came to know a young Belarusian man (Our friend Vasily –  early contacts) and then how we brought him to England for a week (Adventures of a Belarusian beekeeper in England). Now I would like to bring the story up to date.

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He transformed the old railway wagon, that we had first seen as a rusting hulk, into a superb beehive transporter, with an almost luxurious interior:

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This has enabled him to move his bees round the countryside in the short season in Belarus to maximise pollen gathering opportunities. He also invested in a motorised centrifuge which means he can handle more efficiently the honey extraction from his increased number of hives.

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Wax production from the hives has also increased and he was able to get hold of better quality wax foundation to use in the hive frames:

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But there was an even bigger spin-off from his involvement in our projects which at the time we hadn’t foreseen. Vasily came with us to buy sapling fruit trees for the community orchard we tried to establish in the nearby village of Golovchitsy. I wrote about that frustrating experience too in a very early post on this blog (see Planting orchards in Belarus).

The grower we bought our saplings from was based in the town of Kalinkovichi and Vasily’s visits there with us and subsequent discussions with the owner led him to take an interest in orchards and growing fruit trees. As a result of doing a lot of research on the internet, he taught himself how to do his own grafting and the care and maintenance of fruit trees. Starting small on the land at his dacha, he decided to produce his own saplings from grafts, but quickly realised that if he were to do this on a commercial scale, it would require more land.

It was this realisation which determined him to move from his job in a state enterprise to working for himself. It was an enormous step for a young man with family responsibilities and in a country with few models of entrepreneurial activity. Indeed where the very word businessman has negative connotations and implies something between spiv and con man

He spent a long time negotiating with the local council to obtain a suitable plot of land that he could use for his fruit tree nursery, as the Belarusian government is not in favour of private ownership of land. Eventually he succeeded in getting the piece of land he wanted and he planned to plant it with saplings in the spring.

After a snowy winter (we are now in 2013), the nearby river Pripyat flooded and his dacha was inundated, so everything had to be dug out.

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After that he started to set up fence posts to enclose his new plot of land with a chain link fence. But spring set in early and suddenly he found that everything was beginning to shoot and he had to stop the fence work in order to plant the saplings. Then back to finishing the fence, and by now the first dry periods were starting so that the saplings need watering. Fortunately there is water nearby, but he still has to use his tractor to fill a big water-trailer. It’s a never-ending job throughout the spring and summer.

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In total he managed to plant 600 trees: there were more but he had entrusted them to a friend, only to find that sweet-toothed hares had been gnawing their barks and they had died. He told us that he didn’t sleep for three nights after finding out about that.

Once it got warmer the bees became active once again. So he moved backwards and forwards between his new plot of land and his dacha, looking after the trees and doing all his beekeeping work as well, checking the hives, catching swarms, centrifuging the honey. Last year was an exceptional one for honey: his bees produced over two and a half tonnes, a record amount. It was so much that he ran out of containers to store it in and had to borrow containers from beekeeping friends.

Then there was the plot of land at the dacha to look after, potatoes and vegetables to plant, and his tractor and other equipment to maintain. After long hours of work he was dropping with tiredness at the end of the day.

It is a privilege to be his friend and we are really proud to see how he has grown since we first met him. We look forward to seeing how his small business develops in the coming years. His success has been some consolation for some of the other sustainable livelihood projects that we attempted unsuccessfully to get off the ground in Belarus.

 

Our friend Vasily – early contacts

Vasily and family

Vasily and family

In one of my very first posts on this blog called Planting Orchards in Belarus I mentioned our friend, Vasily, and promised that I would write more about him in a separate post. Well, two years on, I thought it was time to follow through on that promise.

In that earlier post, I chronicled our relationship with Belarus and the eventual disillusion that set in for my wife and me when our sustainable livelihoods initiative there foundered. Well, at least our attempts to set up large-scale community orchards.

One positive thing that came out of that experience is that we met Vasily. So I want to write about him and how we got to know him, and then in couple of posts I’ll talk about what happened next.

In 2005 we were invited by the local authorities to work in the town of Narovlya which is right down in the south of Belarus, near the border with Ukraine. So my wife went there to discuss potential projects. He was introduced to her as someone who put all his efforts into doing something: “If Vasily grows potatoes, they’ll be the tastiest. If he grows plums, they’ll be the biggest.” He was young, bright-eyed and smart. Although he spoke no English, he mercifully spoke Russian slowly so he was easy to understand.

Vasily had trained as an electrician and at the time we first met him he worked in a school, in charge of facilities rather than on the teaching staff. Although he lived in a block of flats with his wife and two children, he had been brought up in the countryside and was a country boy at heart. He had decided that he wanted to do something practical outside of his work and similar to what he had done in the village where he had been born. So he bought a little wooden dacha on the edge of town with about 3 hectares of land, grew his own potatoes and cereal, even kept a pig or two.

Vasily's dacha

Vasily’s dacha

Vasily's garden

Vasily’s garden

Vasily was 16 when the Chernobyl accident happened in 1986. He was born in a village about 12 kms south of Narovlya, closer to the border with Ukraine and Chernobyl. He told us: “At the time of the accident, people in the village were potato picking. Rumours went around that the Chernobyl nuclear power station had exploded. No one knew what that meant, and whether it was good or bad. A typical reaction was ‘If it’s blown up, then build it again.’ They didn’t know what radiation was.”

In the following days children still carried on going to school and then at the end of April the children were evacuated to camps. Over the next few weeks they were moved several times to ‘clean’ areas, but they still were not told what was happening. Two months later, he returned to his village and his parents were still living there.

It wasn’t until September/October that they were evacuated from the village and told to take only essentials as they would be coming back in 3 days time. So people just took essential papers, money and some clothes. In fact, they were never allowed back and soon after the village, with its houses and everyone’s possessions, was razed to the ground and buried in a pit. The village is now in part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone and people are still only allowed back one a year to visit family graves and lay flowers.

Vasily’s favourite hobby now was beekeeping which he had been doing now for about 10 years. After Chernobyl there had been many wild bees around and he first became interested in bees when he found a wild nest and took honey from it, even though he got stung. He did this a couple of times and when he went back a third time there was none left. From this simple beginning he taught himself beekeeping from books, as there was no one to help him do it.

Beehives in Vasily's garden

Beehives in Vasily’s garden

Vasily is absolutely fascinated by bees and their behaviour and I learnt an enormous amount about them just from talking to him. When we first met him he had about 30 hives at his dacha.

The queen lives for 5 years, but the first 3 years are best for honey production. Each hive has about 30,000 bees and in Summer a bee lives for c.30 days before it dies of overwork and worn out wings. In its short lifetime a bee collects about one teaspoonful and to produce 1 kg of honey they need to visit 12,000 flowers. The hives have bee guards at the entrance to stop bees from other hives from stealing their honey and they can recognise them by their smell.

What surprises him about bees? “They are hardworking, they don’t get tired and they gather so much honey.”

Bees don’t sleep. In Winter they slow down and clump together in the hive for warmth – they don’t hibernate – and eat about 10kg of honey. Belarus is very cold in Winter with temperatures going down to -20 degrees C, so Vasily keeps the hive warm with padding inside the top of the hive itself.  He has a mixture of types of hive, some factory made, some bought secondhand and some he has made himself. The Belarusian hives are also made of thicker wood to keep the bees warm in the Winter.

Hive with winter padding in the cover

Hive with winter padding in the cover

Vasily hardly needs to look at the hives in Winter, only occasionally tapping on the side of the hives and diagnosing from the resulting noise whether there is a problem with the hive. Normal hives make a buzzing noise which quickly dies down. Hives where there is a problem make a sort of continuous swishing noise. Lots of bees die at this time of year, so he needs to build up their strength after Winter.

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The bees stay in the hive from October through to the April. At the end of the Winter, the bees need to be cleaned, so if it’s still snowy he sprinkles sand on the ground for them to come out and fly around and do their ablutions. If he didn’t do this they would get snow-blind, fall to the ground and freeze to death.

One of his biggest problems is selling the honey. He does not have the time to sell at retail prices, so his only real option is to sell to a pan regional beekeeping association in Soligorsk, but the price they offer him fluctuates and they won’t always buy from him. He also produces wax but it would not be sufficiently profitable to sell it on its own – besides, he doesn’t produce enough of it.

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One of the key things about Vasily is that he is really enterprising. He works long hours at the dacha in the evenings, even in the Winter, making bits of equipment and tools that he cannot buy or afford. I asked him once whether it doesn’t get too cold to work at the dacha in Winter and he told me: “It’s fine – until it gets down to minus 10 degrees and then I go home.”

Mobile apiary?

Mobile apiary?

During one of our early visits he showed us an old railway wagon that he wanted to turn into a mobile apiary, so that he could take hives round to fields flowering at different times of year. It struck me, as I looked at the rusting hulk, that this was a bit of a pipe dream, but then again I didn’t know Vasily.

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