According to Dmitri Orlov, Russian dachas (cottages outside of cities) helped people make it through the economic upheaval of the 1990s. Apparently, many were able to supplement their diets with food produced on small agricultural plots. Even given long winters, food products could be cured to last until spring.
From the air, the landscape surrounding Moscow is different from anything I've ever seen. Instead of almost grid-like plots covering most of the land, there are clustered houses, arranged organically, surrounded by small gardens. I think these might be dachas (see photo from Google Maps below).
On a recent train trip, I saw what I think were dachas more closely. I wonder if it is typical for them to be located near train lines? The majority had small agricultural plots. The countryside was a mix of cottages, forests, and heavy industry. Many of the industrial sites were abandoned. There were a few decaying cottages, but most appeared to be in use.
The woman from whom I rent my room is a retired chemist who lives at her dacha year round. So I guess dachas must help many pensioners supplement their incomes by renting out apartments in the city. In our place there are two students and a family of five living in three rooms.
Dachas are places for recreation and holidays as well. Their ownership seems less exclusive than summer cottages in the U.S. I'm not sure how they were distributed in the past, but they are very common and apparently not limited to wealthier citizens.
A Washington Post article on sprawl surrounding Moscow mentions the possible threat to dachas posed by expanding suburbs. Maybe people will choose these new developments, and small-scale food production will be replaced by giant agribusinesses. Are dachas to become relics from the past, like some of the industrial sites in the countryside?
With today's economic and ecological concerns, small farms could be part of our future. Hopefully this will happen by choice rather than necessity. It would be tough to establish them on private land, and experience with agriculture is increasingly uncommon. But foreclosed or abandoned properties in rural, suburban, and even urban areas might be used. There's no reason we can't learn to produce food. Not everyone will have time for this, and I don't think global agricultural trade should come to a stop. Still, Russia's experience with dachas appears to show that local agriculture can work.
Credits: Photo of a dacha from Vsam1.ru. Aerial photo of the outskirts of Moscow from Google Maps.