Photograph by Ryan Bell
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Rahimzhanov Zhumabai stands near a tree that grows out of the rubble of his abandoned boyhood home. It was once a part of a collective farm town called Chilinka Sovkhoz in Kazakhstan.
Photograph by Ryan Bell
The Plate

Ranching May Offer Soviet ‘Ghost Farms’ of Kazakhstan New Life

On the steppes of northern Kazakhstan, a collective farm town called Chilinka Sovkhoz crumbles, abandoned. The 250,000-acre farm was once home to over 60,000 livestock (mostly sheep, but also cattle and horses), and an embodiment of the USSR’s plan to feed the Soviet people with food grown on the Kazakh steppes. Today, Chilinka is one of many former collective farms that litter the countryside.

To an outsider like me, Chilinka looks like a dream turned nightmare. But for 42-year-old Rahimzhanov Zhumabai, who was born and raised there, he can look past the ruble and see Chilinka’s former grandeur—a point of view that in this moment, entails looking past a large tree growing in the middle of his childhood home.

At the base, the tree trunk is about 10-inches wide. If Zhumabai cut it down and counted the rings, it would date to 1999—the year his family was among the last to leave Chilinka.

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Rahimzhanov Zhumabai and a friend look down a track where a water pipeline was dug up after the collective farm on the steppes of Kazakhstan failed. Photograph by Ryan Bell

At some point since then, looters tore of the roof, doors, windows—anything that could be sold on the black market. We climb through a hole in the wall that used to be the kitchen window and continue Zhumabai’s stroll down memory lane.

This building, he says, was a House of Culture, where he danced as a teen. That was the banya, where he took steam baths on weekends. Over the ravine, across a bridge that is no longer there, was the farm’s administrative center. And stretching to the horizon in every direction was Chilinka’s pastureland.

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This used to be the bath house in Chilinka Sovkhoz. Photograph by Ryan Bell

I’m reminded of the ghost towns of the American West: Bodie, California; Bannock, Montana; St. Elmo, Colorado. Yet, there is one big difference between them and Chilinka: they were mining boomtowns that went bust when the gold ran out. In Chilinka, it wasn’t like the steppes ran out of water or grass. The story of how a 250,000-acre farm became abandoned holds clues for understanding why 34.6 million acres of agricultural land—an area the size of Wisconsin—sit fallow in Kazakhstan. It might also hold the secret for how Kazakhstan can put at least some of it back into production.

For much of the 20th century, Chilinka was a tiny outpost on the steppes. Zhumabai’s family was among its first settlers. They built a home out of adobe brick, dug a hand-crank water well, and subsisted on a mixed herd of of sheep, horses, and cattle.

Moscow’s Drive for Virgin Lands

In 1979, when Zhumabai was six, the USSR’s central planners in Moscow chose Chilinka as the location for a new mega sheep farm. Nearly overnight, the population grew by 500 people, along with a huge investment in the town’s infrastructure. Zhumabai remembers envying the new kids in town because they got to live in the tract houses built for the new workers. Unlike his adobe home, theirs were made of interlocking concrete slabs, a technology that looked futuristic to him.

When the farm layed 15 miles of pipeline, connecting Chilinka to a distant reservoir, its homes were the first to get running water. The same for electricity, when powerlines were strung along the new two-lane highway. A new bus service connected Chilinka with the rest of Kazakhstan.

This growth came on the heels of the Virgin Lands Campaign, a program launched in the 1950s by then-Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev. At that time, the USSR had widespread food and grain shortages, and Khrushchev believed the expansive steppes of northern Kazakhstan would be the Soviet Union’s savior. Under Moscow’s orders (and funding), Kazakhstan ploughed up over 60 million acres of native grasslands for planting grain. Soon, Kazakhstan was growing more spring wheat than Canada and Australia combined, according to the FAO.

With Chilinka, it became clear that even the most remote steppe lands were being put to use for supplying food and wool for people across the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan had become the Soviet Union’s giving tree.

Few people realized that Chilinka Sovkhoz’s prosperity relied on enormous sums of money trickling down from Moscow. When Kazakhstan declared its independence on December 16, 1991, that supply was shut off. Life changed quickly in Chilinka: paychecks didn’t arrive, diesel stopped being delivered so the tractors couldn’t operate; internal problems at the powerplant and reservoir caused electricity and water to be shut off in town. Zhumabai’s adobe home was equipped to survive the armageddon. Not so for the concrete community across the ravine. One by one, families packed up and left. And as was happening on collective farms across Kazakhstan, Chilinka Sovkhoz ground to a halt.

In hindsight, some analysts believe that the great fallowing of Kazakhstan may not have been all bad. While it presented extreme hardships for the Kazakh people, it did the steppe a favor, allowing the fragile ecosystems time to heal. The Virgin Lands Campaign was overzealous, putting fragile ecosystems at risk, planting crops on land that was marginal farmland at best. Now, through benign neglect, it has converted back into what it was valued for in the first place: pastureland.

A Second Chance for the Steppe

Today, Kazakhstan is starting its cattle industry almost from scratch. It’s an exciting opportunity for investors like Serik Ospanov, who owns around 200,000 acres in the foothills of the Altai Mountains, on the country’s southeast border with China. There, he runs 2,000 Black Angus cattle imported from Australia. Because the land has sat fallow for 20 years, the meat produced on Ospanov’s ranch would qualify as certified organic.

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Investor Serik Ospanov hires workers to build on former abandoned lots he owns. Ospanov is developing an organic cattle operation in Kazakhstan . Photograph by Ryan Bell

Right now, organic food production is a small industry in Kazakhstan, with only 30 companies having gained international certification. They grow mostly grains and fruit (wine) on a combined 750,000 acres of agricultural land. In 2014, Kazakhstan exported $5 million in organic food products, a small sum given the size of the world’s organic food market and the number of fallow acres that would qualify for organic food production.

Last November, President Nursultan Nazarbayev gave the burgeoning industry a boost by signing a law to regulate organic certified food production. Soon, consumers will know which “bio” and “certified” products are the shelves are genuine, and which are green-washed.

There are other ways Ospanov has learned to used Kazakhstan’s fallow years in his favor. With the help of an American ranch engineer, Jake Schubert, he’s repurposed materials scattered across Ospanov’s ranch to build barns and corrals. And so that people won’t forget the period Kazakhstan has just been through, he left an old collective barn standing as a “living” museum.

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A Kazakh herdsman rides on Serik Ospanov’s ranch in southeast Kazakhstan. Photograph by Ryan Bell

So far, no Kazakh businessman has come to invest in Chilinka. The town has fallen victim to looters who’ve torn up anything metal—including the water pipeline—and sold it on the black market. Chilinka is stuck in a state of apocalypse on pause.

But Zhumabai’s life has come full circle. After leaving Chilinka, he worked construction in Astana, 100 miles away, where the Kazakh government was building a new capital city. Then, he worked in a gold mine. Last year, however, he heard about a young Kazakh man who was investing money to turn Chilinka’s neighboring farm, known as King’s Gates during Soviet times, into a livestock ranch.

Now he works as a herdsman again, spending his days herding horses, cattle, and sheep. The ranch isn’t fenced, so on occasions when animals get loose, they often wander over to Chilinka. Zhumabai comes to round them up, and he feels the grandeur again of what it was like to be a shephard on Chilinka Sovkhoz.

Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, travelling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project #ComradeCowboys. Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Get updates about his work at Storify.