By Janie Southard
ST. HENRY -- Dairy nutritionist John Wenning said he would probably volunteer to go back to Siberia, but he can't really say why.
Wenning, a Coldwater resident, spent 17 days last year as a volunteer for Agricultural Cooperative Development International/Volunteers for Overseas Assistance (ACDI VOCA), a private nonprofit organization that promotes economic growth and society development in emerging democracies worldwide.
During the trip, Wenning provided nutritional advice on the feeding of animals on two large Siberian dairy farms. This was his second trip to that country. The first was in 1999.
"ACDI VOCA's motto is 'if we teach them, we don't have to fight them," Wenning quipped to an audience of about 40 at St. Henry High School Thursday night.
His presentation in St. Henry was sponsored by Rural Life Conference, a volunteer committee of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The committee advocates stewardship of land and preservation of the family farm. The country and the Siberian farmer's clothing both appeared to Wenning on his first trip as only various shades of gray, very drab. But on this second trip, he found more color, which he attributes to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Wenning said, even though he was there in February, temperatures were fairly comfortable -- 30 to 35 degrees most of the time. However, the cold is noticed more indoors.
"They don't heat their houses during the day, so you have to wear a coat inside. And, most of the men really do wear those big, fur hats outside, like the ones you see on television," Wenning said. Wenning accompanied his talk to the group with slides of the trip.
The animals on the two farms he visited in February totaled more than 2,000 cows and about 400 horses, he said. Although it's always a man in charge of operating the farms, all the others heading farm management areas are women.
"A big reason for that is the women are generally sober. When you visit Russia, you immediately notice the men chain smoke and drink a lot of vodka," Wenning commented.
Laborers' wages on the first farm he visited were $1 per day. A bottle of vodka costs between 60 to 80 cents.
"There's no such thing as a half-full bottle of vodka, Wenning said. "It's either full or empty, or in the process of being emptied. There are a lot of toasts when they get together and they always toast all the women. That means they're (often) drinking upwards of 20 shots. I finally let it be known that my limit was eight shots."
"Still, there are a lot of good people over there," said Wenning.
Drinking is just one factor in the life of Siberian farmers.
The second farm he visited on this trip was more prosperous and the workers there made $2 per day.
"Money is an issue in that area of the country. I stayed at a residence for three days and when I left, I gave the lady of the house $60, which was my $20 per day allotment for housing. The lady was so appreciative because that represented about two months pay," Wenning said, adding the woman went right out and paid back someone she owed money.
Wenning also visited the capital.
Moscow (Mock Ba in Russian) is a city area of about 12 million people. The housing, even brand new apartments, consists of one large room with a kitchenette and sleeping areas and a bathroom. Eight to 10 people may live there.
"The wealthy people in Moscow primarily work in the arts as actors, composers or musicians. These are the ones who have the better living conditions usually living in apartments over stores. The stores, by the way, are in the basement of the building," Wenning said.
The nutritionist, who works locally for Land 'O Lakes and Mercer Landmark, told the audience the trip was not a vacation and volunteer work overseas is not for everyone.
"It's hard going for 10 days with no bath or shower. But the hardest thing is that the only person you have to talk to is your interpreter because no one speaks English, and two nights out of the week my interpreter was out drinking vodka," he said.