When the Soviet Union broke apart, the collective farms of Kyrgyzstan were split up among the workers, with larger shares going to those who had worked the most years. Now, some 35 years later, the family farm is doing well.
My colleagues and I visited some of these farms near the eastern end of Lake Issyk Kul (â€śWarm Lakeâ€ť) which never freezes in the winter, and has long attracted settlers to its sheltered shores.
One of the Kyrgyz farmers, Talay, is a veterinarian by training, and although he occasionally charges for advice on animal health, he makes a comfortable living as a smallholder farmer, on his three hectares of land. He has six cows, 26 horses and a dozen sheep, which all spend the winter in a warm barn eating the alfalfa that Talay has harvested for them.
In the summer the animals graze in the mountain pastures and later on the stubble of the harvested fields. Itâ€™s a better life for the animals than a factory farm.Â A modern milk plant sends a contractor to collect the milk for Talay and the other village households, providing them with a modest, but steady cash income.
The farm families have time for the occasional party, when a horse is slaughtered to feed the guests. Horse is good to eat, but the neighbors will speak more approvingly of a two-horse party.
Talay takes the most pride in his 26 beehives, nestled among his apple trees. â€śBees and apples depend on each other,â€ť he explains. The apples need the bees to pollinate them, and the bees need the nectar from the trees to make honey (50 kilos per hive per year, worth about $5400).
Talay gathers the honey three times during the summer. Each time, the honey is richer. His pure, dark honey is so well known that people drive six hours from the capital city, Bishkek, to buy it.
Talay also collects pollen from the bees. He puts a little trap with small round holes over the door of the hive. The bees scrape the pollen off their legs as they crawl home.
Propolis is a waxy stuff laden with antibiotics. Bees lay propolis down in the hive to preserve the honey. Talay scrapes up the propolis into greenish grey balls. It is expensive, but he gives most of it away to people who want to use it as medicine.
Nothing is wasted, not the wax, not even the bodies of the bees, when they die. Talay boils three tablespoons full of bees in a cup of water for a few minutes. He drinks the infusion, and says that it is good for hypertension. Talay also sells seven tons of apples a year (from 5800 square meters of orchard), and the family grows their own potatoes, wheat, berries and vegetables.
Over lunch, of mutton stew, homemade bread, honey and jam, the family explained that their oldest daughter is a medical doctor. The second daughter is studying economics and the third is at an institute for foreign languages. The two youngest children are boys. Talay wants to give the farm to the older of the two, and then retire on the farm. It seemed like long-term planning, since the boy was only ten.
â€śWhat if he doesnâ€™t want to be a farmer?â€ť someone asked. Â â€śHe has already shown great interest in it,â€ť Talay says, drawing the boy near.
I envied that little boy more than his successful sisters or anyone else in the room. It is no wonder that the family farm survived collectivization. The farm and the family are well suited to each other, like the bees and the apples.