Once a successful Dagestan entrepreneur Mr. Ruslan Umalatov decided that he got fed up with the constant hustle and bustle of a business that brought profit but no pleasure. Now he spends most of his free time in the village where he picks strawberries with his own hands.
Mr. Ruslan Umalatov: “I started with agriculture, launched a hatchery and got engaged in poultry farming. After that, I was in oil and in trade. I would be trading even now but eight years ago, I got an idée fixe to do aeroponics, growing plants with their roots in the air.”
Having done a sufficient study, Ruslan grew his first crops right in the hatchery: he built a system from barrels in one of the departments and set up automation.
“I took mineral salts, made solvents and planted lettuce without soil or light, right in the chamber,” recalls the entrepreneur. “In 25 days, I had huge green leaves and the roots were about half a meter long. I was shocked!”
After the successful experience, Mr. Ruslan Umalatov tried the same technology with tomatoes and peppermint and it turned out well too. “I grew seedlings and gave them to my mother. She shared with the neighbors and they were shocked at those huge bushes.” That is how Ruslan decided to grow cherry tomatoes. He had fine crops but it was not that easy to enter the Dagestan market. The entrepreneur recalls how he packed red and yellow cherry tomatoes in boxes, 250 g each, placed them in crates and went to the market of Makhachkala, where all wholesalers do their business. “I placed the produce on the car hood. Some women approached and started asking if those were cherry plums and how they were different from regular tomatoes. The wholesalers are afraid to take new produce; they prefer working with familiar goods.” After the failure at the market, Ruslan returned home with the desire to forget about aeroponics for good. Luckily, that did not happen as he got an idea to grow strawberries.
Mr. Ruslan Umalatov’s greenhouse complex is located in Endirey village in the plain area of Dagestan. The unusual strawberry beds are nine meters long and occupy three thousand square meters. These are custom made plastic pipes with round holes for strawberry bushes in them. The entrepreneur made almost everything with own hands. “I recalled that I have a piece of land and suggested my brothers build greenhouses there. They supported me and that is how it all began. First, I had to master the job of a geophysicist as the land plot needed some leveling. Then I became a welder, me, a person who hardly ever did anything with his hands. I am more comfortable with giving orders and managing. But in this case I realized that I was pressed for money and I thought I would save on welding. I called for professional assistance but was not happy with the quality, so I took the equipment and asked one of the welders to show me how it is done. In a couple of days, I was sitting and beavering away in 40-degree heat. And it took me 28 days to make a proper framework for the greenhouse. It was a matter of principle to do it myself.”
After that, the grower started working on the heating. “It appeared that strawberries are sensitive creatures, unlike tomatoes or cucumbers. If you buy suspicious planting material, no matter how much effort you put into it, there will not be any crops. One mistake and one can lose a whole year of crops. Planting material should be clean.” In the beginning Ruslan ordered strawberries from Italy, later he started growing the seedlings himself. He chose the Albion variety, beautiful berries without sourness. “Several strawberry varieties cannot get along well within one greenhouse, so I had to choose. My strawberries can be picked from the bush and eaten right away, they do not need to be washed,” shares the grower. “I do not use any chemicals, no watering. Mineral salts is all the fertilization they get.”
All the processes in the greenhouse are automated now, the pump doesn't have to be switched on and off manually. Ruslan makes corrections to the process depending on the temperature and humidity in the greenhouse. The ideal humidity level for strawberries is 65% and the temperature should be at the level of 25 degrees in the daytime and 16 at the nighttime. The berries need sun at least 12 hours a day. “I struggle a lot in summer, when the outside temperature reaches 40 degrees. Everything dries up quickly and berries overripen. Last autumn I went away for a short while and my whole plantation died within two hours! I got angry and tore it all out. Winter was too close… there was no sense it trying to regrow it. And it is too costly to grow strawberries in winter period, bearing in mind that I do not have any gas. And electricity would cost a fortune.”
Ruslan’s family live in Mahachkala. He only sees his wife and children in the weekend. The rest of the week he lives and works away from home. Sometimes the relatives help pick the berries. Most crops are collected with the help of Ruslan’s brother and two hired associates.
“Currently, I can pick 50 to 100 kilos of fresh berries a day. Next year, I want to reach 150-200,” shares the businessman.
“Aeroponics is a complicated and expensive technology on a big scale”, shares Ruslan. “That is why it mostly interests small-scale experimenters. I often get calls from various cities. I do not mind sharing experience but few succeed as aeroponics is not about ordering the equipment, bringing in specialists and waiting for the crops, it is hard labor every day.”
The produce is mainly delivered to Khasavyurt; the grower could not establish business relations with the capital as supermarkets prefer working with cheaper Egyptian and Turkish produce. “I cannot sell my berries any cheaper as I need to cover all the expenses,” explains the grower. However, private confectionaries and regular customers are happy to buy his produce.
Ruslan is planning to switch the greenhouse off for the New Year and wake the strawberries up in February. During the idle time, the grower plans to add another two departments to the four already existing ones. “Launching all at once is an expensive ordeal so I earn and invest, gradually expanding.” He has already ordered the pipes and now needs to assemble and adjust the equipment. The grower is going to invest several hundred thousand euros in the greenhouses. According to him, the business is profitable but all the profit goes back to the business. He is hoping to start getting real profit in two-three years.
“I used to be a very successful businessman, earned a lot but then I realized that money is not the main thing,” shares the entrepreneur. “It is much more important to do something that brings you pleasure. I enjoy setting targets and reaching them. I do not know what I will be doing tomorrow. Maybe I will wake up one day, switch off the greenhouse and do something else.”