Sowing Seeds of Profit : Russians Team Up With Saticoy Firm in Joint Agricultural Venture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After scrutinizing a dozen seed-cleaning, sorting and packaging machines, visiting Russian agronomist Vladimir Patsuk gave a hearty thumbs-up to the notion of re-creating the high-tech operation in his native land.

"No problem," he said in Russian. Then, he reconsidered: "No problem today--but maybe we'll find some problems tomorrow."

With the help of the Saticoy-based Petoseed company, however, Patsuk might also find some solutions.

Backed by an $898,000 federal grant, Petoseed--a world leader in breeding and producing hybrid vegetable seeds--has set up joint ventures with private ranches in Russia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The goal: to boost agricultural production in the former Soviet Union by introducing cutting-edge technology and new strains of hearty, disease-resistant seeds. And, in the process, to turn a profit.

Petoseed's partners in the year-old Russian venture, Patsuk and Mikhail Beletsky, on Tuesday toured the firm's spacious Saticoy headquarters to get an up-close glimpse of the equipment they will be receiving over the next few years. Their 10-day California visit also included field trips to several Ventura County farms and some recreational gawking at the Hearst Castle.

"Everything's good here," Patsuk said, beaming broadly. "The people are good, the technology is good and most of all, the agriculture is good."

Even the wine the Russians taste-tested in a Northern California vineyard compared well with their own Black Sea vintages, Patsuk said. But he still favored vintages produced by his farm's winery, including the romantically named Black Eyes, sold under the logo of a woman's sultry stare, and Southern Night, bottled with a star-and-moon-studded label.

As directors of a 15,000-acre produce-and-seed ranch in Krasnodar, on the Black Sea coast in southern Russia, Patsuk and Beletsky said they were thrilled to hook up with California partners. Krasnodar's climate and growing seasons match Ventura County's, although the two regions face different pest problems. And the per-acre Russian crop yield stands at less than one-third the typical Ventura County harvest.

In addition to growing produce for fresh fruit and canning, the farm also produces several vintages of wine.

"We don't have any of this equipment now," Patsuk said during his hourlong tour of Petoseed's whirring, clicking, rattling machinery. "But if we could get some of it, we could produce and preserve seeds for all Russia."

Actually, the Russian farm already has some cutting-edge drying and washing equipment, which Petoseed sent over last year. Soon, the company will ship more cleaning and packaging equipment. And in the program's third year, the Russians and Americans will exchange genetic material and begin breeding hybrid seeds suitable for Black Sea farming.

"This is why joint ventures are great," Patsuk told his American partner, Petoseed Vice President Richard Edsall.

Petoseed's government grant, from the Agency for International Development, pays for shipping and training costs for all three joint-venture operations in the former Soviet Union. The grant also funds frequent trips for the Russian, Ukranian, Moldovan and American partners to visit each other's countries.

But Petoseed will ante up $3.6 million worth of machinery for the former Soviet Union, where infrastructure remains so weak that astounding quantities of produce rot in the fields or in poorly designed granaries.

To recoup its investments, Petoseed received all the seed the Russian farm produced last year, and then sold it domestically and abroad. Ideally, Edsall said, the Saticoy firm will at least break even after three years of selling its Russian partners' seeds.

"We hope to make a profit," Edsall said. "We'd better."

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