Volga-Donselhozinvest Russia – an agricultural group – farms 450,000ha in Russia. Last week, Richard Valentine Willows outlined the workings of the operation to the R&H Hall conference in Co. Kildare.

Willows – a UK citizen – is head of group sales and has worked in Russia since 1996. The group’s land holding, he explained, covers 450,000ha across the Black Soils and the Volga regions of Russia.

The shear scale of the operation dwarfs the average farm in Ireland, which stands at just 32.5ha; it would take 13,846 Irish farms to match the Russian outfit in terms of acreage.

The main crops grown are wheat, barley, corn, sunflowers, rape and soya. In addition, 2,500ha of irrigated land is used mainly for vegetables, while some soya and corn are also rotated through this.

The group has the capacity to store 750,000t of the 1.2-1.3 million tonnes of crops produced on an annual basis.

“That’s like selling a handy-sized vessel with 25,000t every week,” the former Cargill employee stated.

Wheat is the main crop grown in Russia at the moment. This is because winter planting is becoming more popular.

According to Willows, grain production has increased by 66% since 2005. However, domestic consumption has only increased by approximately 15-20%. This means that exports have increased by 180%.

Exports are at a record high of 43 million tonnes. He described Russia as the new superpower in wheat. In the early 1990’s Russia was still reliant on imports.

80% of Russia’s exports move by rail and Willows said that this is a limitation because the infrastructure is not there to increase exports further.

He described how risk management is important with size, as problems can get very big, very quickly. Controlling the group’s own exports, he said, can help with this.

In addition, the group’s grain is fully traceable from farm-to-customer, he added. However, the decrease in market price was one of the biggest challenges faced by the business.

Even though yield was up by 10-15% this year, he said, the drop in price was in excess of the gain in yield.