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Russian Farm, Chinese Farmer

When a Chinese investor bought a farm outside this village a few years back, he was pleased enough to name it Golden Land. The soil was rich, the sunshine and rain bountiful.

A farmer plants rice in Baishixi, Yunnan province, China.
Bloomberg | Getty Images
A farmer plants rice in Baishixi, Yunnan province, China.

The land, deep in rural Russia, was also largely devoid of people.

No more. Today, row upon row of greenhouses here teem with dozens of Chinese farmhands picking tomatoes. And in a season with a bumper crop of tomatoes, the foreman said he would happily have employed hundreds more.

The influx of Chinese farm labor in Russia reflects the growing trade and economic ties between the two countries, one rich in land and resources, the other in people.

For years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, both countries have struggled to convert these complementary strengths into real business opportunities. A few mining ventures are succeeding. And state companies have struck big oil, coal and timber deals that form the backbone of the economic relationship.

Although China’s ventures into Russian agriculture have been on a smaller scale, they could end up being just as important — not least because they raise tensions about the role of immigrants similar to those seen in the United States over migrant Mexican farm laborers.

According to the World Food Program, Russia has the world’s largest reserve of arable yet now fallow land, a legacy of the collapse of the Soviet collective farm system and the depopulation of rural Russia over the last two decades. Russia’s population is 141 million, compared with 1.3 billion in China.

China has perennial worries about securing enough food and finding enough work for its rural population. Some Chinese-run farms in Russia ship their soybean crops to China, and as the Chinese presence in the farm sector grows, so will the potential for more food exports. (Vegetable farms such as Golden Land sell their produce locally.)

As food prices spiked five years ago, before the financial crisis, the Chinese government opened talks on investing in Russian farmland. The program came to fruition this year with a $1 billion contribution by the China Investment Corporation in a joint Russian-Chinese fund investing in agriculture and timber in Russia and other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Under a Russian government-backed program, Chinese companies also formally lease about a million acres of farmland, much along the border with northeast China. In addition, Chinese companies lease about two million acres of Siberian forests, where Chinese lumberjacks fell timber for export back to China.

In some cases, Chinese investors are purchasing land in Russia. Golden Land is one of nine Chinese farms in the Sverdlovsk region in central Russia, according to the local ministry of agriculture. Far more have sprung up to the south, in the Chelyabinsk region. Chinese vegetable farms even operate outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, thousands of miles from the border.

Golden Land’s business could grow as easily as the chest-high tomato vines do in the hothouses here, said Zhang Wei Dong, the foreman, who goes by the Russian nickname Lyosha and doubles as an interpreter when needed. “Look at the empty land,” he said, gesturing about.

Mr. Zhang had a Federal Migration Service quota this year for 70 immigrant farm laborers, but said he could use many more.

Recruiting workers is not the problem. Chinese weeders, planters and pickers are more than willing to make the journey, a cramped, sweaty third-class rumble across Siberia from Manchuria. It is a trek toward economic opportunity familiar to countless Mexican grape collectors in California, Filipino nannies in Dubai or Algerian street sweepers in France.

Unfolding from her stoop over a tomato bed, Li Hunlao, a farmer from near the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, explained, through an interpreter, why she ventured so far from home: “I came for the money, what do you think?” Salaries of about $650 a month are five times the salaries of field hands in China, she said.

The Kremlin’s foreign policy has recently emphasized better ties with China, as Europe’s economy wobbles near recession, a theme last week at the summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization in Vladivostok.

“We have been through times of sunshine which were very beneficial,” President Vladimir V. Putin said in an interview with the Russian state-owned RT television released on Thursday.

As host, Russia set the meeting agenda. Tellingly, given Russia’s bounty of land, Mr. Putin chose food security and agriculture as a top topic, in recognition of Russia’s large and growing role in exporting grain to developing nations.

The Russian government has set a goal of increasing trade with China to $200 billion a year, from $80 billion in 2011. By comparison, trade between the United States and China was $503 billion in 2011, according to the Department of Commerce.

Skeptics of further economic ties between Russia and China point to deep mistrust dating to border skirmishes fought along the Ussuri River in 1969 that froze all development for decades. The border, in fact, was only fully demarcated in 2009.

Russians also harbor fears that broadening economic cooperation will lead to a wave of Chinese immigrants taking over sparsely populated territories, a concern heard in this village, too.

“Why are these people here?” said Nadezhda A. Kolyesova, a saleswoman out for a stroll recently through Ostanino, a picturesque jumble of wooden homes overlooking a pond, birch forests and the Golden Land farm.

“I have nothing against them,” she said. “But Russia is for Russia, and China is for the Chinese.”

After some contemplation, she conceded, “I suppose it’s all right, so long as they don’t enslave our children in the future.”

The farm has a policy of giving free vegetables to any local who shows up, mostly older people. The Chinese workers live in makeshift dorms made of plywood and scrap lumber, and patronize the village store for cigarettes, vodka, sausage and ice cream.

Once, a fight broke out between young Russian and Chinese men. No romances have been reported, but the consensus of several grandmothers at the local market was that, in fact, Russians and Chinese can live peaceably side by side in rural Russia.

Today about 400,000 Chinese migrants live in Russia, making up only a tiny portion of all immigrants in the country, most of whom come from former Soviet states in Central Asia. Chinese migration could well increase, however.

In past seasons, Golden Land, a farm created out of an empty field five years ago, obtained at least enough permits to work its greenhouses, though bureaucratic tangles in Russia’s temporary work visa program reduced the quota this year.

Vladimir Balasanyan, a local from Ostanino who works as a manager at the farm, and in whose name the Chinese investor initially formulated the land title, said few Russians wanted farm jobs these days. “Our government wants our farmers to work,” he said. “But Russians don’t want to work on a farm.”

The Chinese investor in Golden Land had traded for years in a market in the nearby city of Yekaterinburg, according to Mr. Balasanyan. He obtained the land by buying shares in a defunct collective farm from villagers. He now lives in Harbin and recruits farmhands for Golden Land by word of mouth in surrounding Chinese villages.

The owner, Piao Chen Nan, pays a higher salary to the Chinese than they would earn at home. He can afford it because he earns more on the sale of tomatoes — a pound sells wholesale for about 25 cents in this part of Russia, compared with about 8 cents in northern China, Mr. Balasanyan said.

In the late fall, workers set up iron stoves in the greenhouses, and through the first frosty nights, feed them with split birch firewood from the forest, extending the growing season for a few weeks. Inevitably, though, the Russian frost sets in and the Chinese leave, retracing their journey home along the trans-Siberian railway until the next season.