''I am constantly criticised that it is Putin’s plan, his administration makes cheese instead of me''

How the head of Almetyevsk asked the Moscow symbol of import substitution to share his cheese making startupers

It seems that famous Russian farmer who became a symbol of import substitution Oleg Sirota can be a company for Marat Muratov who became famous for his imitations of Italian cheesemongers. Head of Almetyevsk District Airat Khairullin talked to the first man and his Russian Parmesan cheese factory in December. Realnoe Vremya talked to Sirota and found out how he was going to help Tatarstan with attracting young cheesemongers, why he did not manage to launch the production of Russian Parmesan and why his cheese factory was called the Kremlin's project.

''Look, we will provide you with the main aid, we won't bother you''

Oleg, where does your hankering for cheeses come from?

To start with, I was born in the Moscow suburbs. I went to Rzhev with search teams after school. I saw how Soviet soldiers were buried. I saw how the Russian village was dying. It was one of the strongest impressions in my life. Later I decided that it all needed to be changed somehow. And I went to an agrarian university to study zoo engineering. When I was a third-year student, I understood that there were not any perspectives. And I gave up everything and switched to IT, which was actively developing in Russia at that moment (Russia is one of the leaders in this sphere now).

It was my cup of tea. I had a company with about 30 workers. There were offices in Moscow and Minsk. In general, everything was good, but agriculture attracted me. However, I could not make a decision, I could not understand whether I would succeed. I did not have a feeling that I needed to do it. I was about to purchase a parcel, launch a cheese factory many times. But something lacked. Something constantly failed (I paid for land twice).

Why did cheese factory attract you, not another production?

I just love cheese much. I can live without many products, but without cheese – no (laughing). Probably it is the main reason.

''I sold everything I had. Now everything is in the cheese factory and the barrack where I am sitting now and talking to you.'' Photo: parmezan.ru

When did everything change?

Everything changed within one day – on 6 August 2014 when Russia imposed tit-for-tat food sanctions. I just could not believe what was written on the screen, you know. At that moment I understood that my project was possible and that I needed to give up everything and rush to make it. Then I started to talk to functionaries and ask for help with the project. I came to the head of our municipality with the description of the project. I honestly said I had money to start the project but no money to purchase land. They helped me with land for the project and said: ''Look, we will provide you with the main aid, we won't bother you. You are welcome to fulfil the project.''

When I understood that the state started to help, turn its face, I began to gradually sell all my property: flat, car, business. I sold everything I had. Now everything is in the cheese factory and the barrack where I am sitting now and talking to you. While the land was registered, I went to study cheese making in Germany and Switzerland. I understood that it was not what I needed even if I knew how to make cheese somehow.

At the same time, I was writing in a public community Anti-Maidan that I was dreaming of opening a cheese factory in Russia. My friend and business partner Sergey Nedorezov reacted to it. He wrote: ''Look, I am a cheesemonger and teacher at a cheese making school in Germany. Let's do it together. I did not believe my happiness. Then we met, and I understood it was true. So I brought him here. He left warm Germany, and I left my warm and comfortable office.

We built a cheese factory. I have already started to build a cowshed. So cheese was gradually produced as a result. It was Bergkäse cheese that German experts could not distinguish from cheese produced in the Alps. It means that we are succeeding in import substitution. It was a big joy for us.

I was constantly criticised, and still I am, that the project is unique. And it is Putin's plan, the Kremlin's job, the president's administration makes cheese instead of me and helps to make everything. But they are mistaken. According to the results in 2016, I can say there are over 100 such projects, they appear every week. One can look at fairs: in summer, we had over 30 cheesemongers with production, they already totalled 60 in autumn in the Manezhnaya Square. Now the New Year fair has over 80 participants. I can tell you that more than 200 cheese factories will have appeared in Moscow and Russian markets by the end of the next year.

So cheese was gradually produced as a result. It was a cheese that German experts could not distinguish Bergkäse from cheese produced in the Alps

''Russian Parmesan is like the Olympics in the cheese world''

How is your enterprise doing now? What do you produce and how much?

Now we are making 100-120 kg of cheese per day. There are 10 types: semi-hard and hard cheeses. Golden Ruble, an analogue of the German cheese, is an import substitution. We also produce Weinkase, which is a wine cheese, and Bergkäse – a beer cheese. Governor's Cheese is our own invention. We launched Moscow Honey Cheese recently. It is Medovukha-soaked cheese. We thought that Germans have a beer cheese, which is soaked in beer, French have a wine cheese, and Medovukha is our national beverage. We tried, and it seemed we did it. It has a very interesting taste. Now it is the most expensive cheese we have. We also make cheese for frying, a bit Feta. Unfortunately, we are making it from cow milk. We have an awful deficit of sheep milk. And we constantly work on new types of cheese. I think next year we will build several new cellars and increase production volumes and the amount of cheese.

Why did not you manage to launch the production of Russian Parmesan?

We did not do it, unfortunately. It is impossible without our own milk. In general, we had big feedstock problems. The cheese factory was about to go bankrupt last year because of a deficit of milk, and cheeses were bad. Thank God I found a milk partner. He is Swiss who has a farm in Kaluga Oblast. He left cosy Switzerland, moved to Russia, and he is breeding cows here. Moreover, he deals with usual Soviet cows and has been doing it for 10 years. He increases the quality – milk yield, productivity, protein.

He has very decent milk that we use to make our cheese. Unluckily, it doesn't suit parmesan at all. It is necessary to work on diet. This is why we will have to build our own cowshed and completely change the work for our own milk for hard cheese of long-term keeping to prepare Russian Parmesan. Russian Parmesan is a high goal, you now. It is like the Olympics in the cheese world. One needs to prepare for it. It is real for us to win a victory there.

It is impossible without our own milk. In general, we had big feedstock problems. The cheese factory was about to go bankrupt last year because of a deficit of milk, and cheeses were not bad

Where can one find your products? Do you have a chain?

The major sale takes places in the village in the factory. It is 60 km far from Moscow. More than a half of the sales is done through the Internet. The scheme worked out: people purchase a product, we deliver it to Moscow where they get it at pickup points. In Moscow, one can buy them in different fairs that the mayor of Moscow helps to organise at times.

A small producer or farmer should not go to the chain. Chains will leave us with nothing. They were created in the whole world to leave people like us with nothing. Russian chains are not an exception, unfortunately. I know several people who went bankrupt because of cooperation with chains. Entering a chain will kill everything now: delays will begin, fines, hearings with them…

During the recent Direct Line, Vladimir Putin mentioned that Russian farmers are against lifting tit-for-tat food sanctions. Do you support the same position?

I agree, we can't lift the sanctions. Huge volumes of cheese, which are simply absent now, left the market after sanctions were imposed. We all saw a possibility to start making goods. Now our cheese production and dairy breeding are reviving. Lifting will be the greatest blow.

We are not ready to compete with a western producer. They have crazy grants. A German farmer has €400 per ha. He leases at 0%. He has a loan at 1,5%. And I have to compete with him somehow. It is not correct. I won't be able to compete, of course. We will need to develop many things, then raise the duty somehow. Only then we will be ready for their appearance in our market. Now it is just a typhoon that will sweep us all. We should soberly understand it.

Visit of the head of Almetyevsk

Oleg, head of Almetyevsk District of our republic visited you recently. Could you tell us how did you decide to meet? What an agreement did you come to with Airat Khairullin?

To tell the truth, Tatarstan boasts about its highly qualified administration and good support programmes. Many regions can't offer such conditions that Tatarstan does. I have heard a lot about the republic from my colleagues who started to work there. I was interested in talking to somebody from Tatarstan. One day Airat Khairullin called me and said he also wanted such projects as mine in the republic.

He came and said: ''I understand that probably it will be difficult to lure you. But some startuper maybe wants to come here. I know that people who want to open their cheese factory come to you''. He told about advantages of your region, his district, in particular. He said he would help with everything: ''We will develop it doing our best because we need it. It is necessary to develop cheese making and raise import substitution.''

I understand well that such projects as mine start with a municipality. If you were not lucky to have a good head of your district, neither some head of the region nor Putin will help. Airat perfectly understands problems of producers and difficulties. He knows how to help. To be honest, if I did not have any running cheese factory, if I were not attached to the soil, I would go to Tatarstan, of course. It is out of the question. I want to support this movement much, so that cheese factories will appear in the republic, people who want to make cheese and dairy breeding will come. I will say it to everyone who comes to me.

''To be honest, if I did not have any running cheese factory, if I were not attached to the soil, I would go to Tatarstan, of course. It is out of the question.'' Photo: instagram.com/khayrullinayrat

I want other regions to follow the example of Tatarstan very much. Next year I want to visit the republic very much and see everything with my own eyes and help the projects that will want to be opened there. We will cooperate with the republic in terms of information support: I will send investors who want to give money there, they will help with making up road maps. I assure it is enough because other parts for success are present. If I had known about these advantages, I would have fulfilled the project in Tatarstan.

By Lina Sarimova. Photo: vk.com/sirotaoleg