During fieldwork for our Arc Ark research project, I walk the street in Sakkyryr, the central village of the Eveno-Bytantay Ulus (District) of the Sakha Republic, Yakutia, East Siberia. I stop to take a picture of two beautiful white cows as they feed on something I can’t quite identify, out on the street at minus 20 degrees
This is the only municipality worldwide where a unique breed of Arctic cattle has survived in more or less genetic isolation all over the 20th century. Now that this kind of local biodiversity resource has become more valued again, from here such unique Sakha cattle have been exported to other areas as well, namely the Suntar, Gornyi, Namski ulusy, and even some to the Altai region, where one entrepreneur from Yakutia started a farm business.
When these two cows finished eating and move on to a house themselves, I follow them, and see in front of his house a young guy feeding food to cows. He kindly invites me in when I express my interest. His name is Nikolai Baishev, the world’s youngest farmer of Yakutian cattle. He was just 22 years old when he started officially farming, but in fact he has done this his entire life, as his 64 years old mother xxx had worked her entire life with cows – and many generations before her too. They are one of those families who kept at least some private cattle even throughout the Soviet Union when private property was heavily criticised by the authorities.
Nikolai introduces me to their wealth, altogether around 25 cows. This makes them one of the three big farmers in the village, the other ones being Afanasiy, and the heroic Svetlana Dmitrievna, who has been keeping cows privately as a single woman ever since the end of the Soviet Union.
I am surprised when Nikolai goes in the house, just a normal house for people, with windows and the like – and the cows just follow him! I follow him too, and it turns out they had converted their entire house into a cowshed! Nikolai tells that this is the house he has grown up in, where he spent his entire life. Only recently they moved to the neighbouring house, with his mother, and converted this one for the cows.
Matrena, Nikolai’s wife’s family, the Sotrudnikovy, also have a long history in Sakkyryr. But her grandparents moved to the small village of Dzhargalakh, where she grew up and went to school. The school in this small village can be considered a luxury: for a village of 200 people they keep a full 11 year school, which has currently around 40 students. When Matrena was there, they did not merge any classes, although the number of students per class has been only two. “Imagine (says Matrena), that one of us is sick – then you are alone with the teacher, or there isn’t even anyone in the whole class. Currently there is no fourth grade in the school that has now 40 students.
Matrena finished the school in Dzhargalakh and married Nikolai, and pretty soon they started their farm. We started buying cows, she says. “First we had three cows, then nedxt year five, next year 8, and next year 11, and hopefully this is how it will continue. We aim to build our herd up to 25 cows.
Matrena was just 21 years old when they started the farm. She is very brave and entrepreneurial. On the other hand she acknowledges that they heavily rely on the experience and knowledge of their elders, whom they respect and value tremendously. Nikolai’s mother has worked all her life with cows, and tells Matrena all her wisdom. They also share the yard with Ivan and Anna Moncharovy, who are in their 70s, and pass on their experience to the young couple. It is Ivan who slaughters the cows and horses for them. He knows also about the old ways and customs. For example that once you slaughter a cow, you could take out the “diaphragma” from the top of the stomach, and the women cook it immediately. Then by the time the men are ready with the butchering, the food is ready and they enjoy the freshest possible meat dish.
Matrena is convinced that the cows are like people: if you don’t love them, they feel bad and die eventually. “It depends also how you train the cows. They get used to your
tenderness, and long for your closeness”. Kyunei is the leader cow. When we go to feed the cows with water, at minus 25 outside, then Kynei goes first, and is close to Matrena with body contact all the time. She likes to be fed and “lured” out to the water drinking place with some potato peels.
After drinking, the cows spend all their day outdoors and roam around in the village, mingle with others, until they go back to their home yard in the early evening for feeding and milking. It is surprising how they find their home among all these yards that look so similar in a tightly built environment. Matrena says that people can help the cows to organise themselves in herds. She develops the herd instinct for example by not tying the cows together in the cowshed, as well as the calves. If they are tied on ropes, and then let free, they can well get angry at or hate each other. Nikolai tells that last summer there was one young bull that went to the forest with other animals. They had roamed in the forest for months and then came back to the village eventually. All the other animals went to their home yards,
whereas this one did not come back to Nikolai’s. In the end he found it and decided to slaughter it: “we don’t need such animals with difficult character”. So that is one additional selection mechanism that cattle breeders apply to keep their herd manageable.
The young couple dreams of building up their farm into an exemplar. It is impressive how Matrena is decisive and knowledgeable about this in her young age and with no other than school education. With the help of somebody at the Sakha Republican Ministry of Agriculture, she managed to get a grant for starting farmers, from which they bought a tractor. Then later, she spread the news about such grants and encouraged other people in the village to apply.
Even in the Sakkyryr Kindergarten, where Matrena works, she convinced a young colleague to start farming. She is also married, and Matrena told her “you can do this, we also managed”. In this way they act as messengers for a way of life basing on a unique animal breed adapted to the toughest possible Arctic conditions, and thus preserve not only that animal breed but also the old ways of knowing the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals that has been so important for human AND animal adaptation and survival in the Arctic.
Matrena is full of plans how she would like to further develop their life. She is not going to stop at having got a grant for a tractor and 11 cows. She wants to apply for more grants to build a new cowshed. When the Sakha Republican President Borisov’s wife came for a visit, she had a look at their cowshed in their former house – and Matrena thought how nice it would be to invite her into a nice cowshed with a central channel in the middle where it is easy to keep the floor clean. Then she would also have an easier time to grow their cattle herd up to 50, which is her dream target – just like neighbour Afanasiy has.
Sometimes she goes and asks him for advice, for example on feeding amounts for such a big herd. How much hay do you need to prepare over the short summer for a cow herd of 50? Quite a lot, if you consider that one cow should eat at least 1.5 – 2 tonnes of hay per season (and this is still considered extremely little in comparison to all other cow breeds).
The young family has also a big Russian Kamaz truck in the garage, which they plan to drive to the city of Yakutsk this winter for getting more supplies. Sakkyryr is not connected by road nor railroad to the city – only in winter is there an ice-road. Driving the more than 700 km to Yakutsk can take a week in these tough conditions. But driving your own truck there is about the only way to get for example additional feed for the cows to Sakkyryr. You cannot by kombikorm and vitamins here, or only at prices that they could never afford. But she so much would like to increase the milk production a little bit by not only giving hay to the cows, and helping the calves survive better with vitamins. “Maybe we could even bring some fodder for chicken, and start breeding those here”, Matrena dreams.
“We are an achievement for our entire district” (my zhe dostoianie raiona), she says, and thinks that this can also make it worth for the authorities to support such young families that want to achieve a sustainable and economically viable life using the traditions of their elders and the resources of their homeland – through hard work in one of the world’s toughest environments for human and animal survival.
I really hope that this wish will come true, and that people like them are successful exemplars that will make others follow after them.