University News

WIU Students Experience the Former Soviet Union

June 9, 2004

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MACOMB, IL - Twenty-one Western Illinois University students opted for parkas and snow boots over swimsuits and sunscreen during a spring semester trip to Russia with Western agriculture professor John Carlson.

Carlson, who travels to Russia nearly every year for volunteer agriculture opportunities, and agriculture professor Kevin Bacon hosted the 11-day trip to Ryzan, Moscow and St. Petersburg for students from both WIU campuses. During the trip, the participants visited grain elevators, farms and retail centers for agriculture products.

“This trip has changed my perception of agriculture overseas because I thought every ag producer used the same technology and practices. I found out that is far from true,” said Ryan Lauer, a senior agriculture major from Mt Pleasant, IA. “It was a shock to see that the Russian agricultural practices are about 50 years behind the U.S.”

Carlson said the largest - and often the most impacting - experience for students during the trip to Russia is finding out what life is like elsewhere and how opposite - and yet how similar - different cultures can be.

“The study abroad opportunities the agriculture department offers to Western students is just fantastic,” he added. “The global learning initiatives are crucial for our agriculture students; really for all WIU students.”

Carlson has traveled to Russia at least one to three trips per year for the past 10 years and each time he said he sees a little more improvement in the agriculture sector, particularly in the past two years. John Deere is selling equipment in the country and other agriculture-related businesses and industries are also getting more involved.

“Farmers are also starting to make a little profit now. Five years ago this was almost unheard of,” Carlson explained. “Small private farms still exist and the former collective farms under the Communist regime are finally reorganized, streamlined and doing fairly well. Oil companies, banks and others are finally taking notice and investing in the farms.”

Robin Fisher, a junior agriculture major from Ellisville, said the most enlightening moment for her was to talk one-on-one with a student at an agricultural academy in Russia to learn more about their lives and the industry.

“Growing up in the U.S., I have always taken food quality and safety for granted,” Fisher said. “After traveling to Russia, I realize how fortunate I have been to grow up without worrying about what I'm eating. As a future agriculture teacher, this new understanding of another culture will allow me to share my experiences with my students so they can be better prepared when they enter the working world.”

Sandy Belshause, a senior Board of Trustees Bachelor of Arts degree student from Orion, echoes Lauer's sentiments as she too thought everyone would do things the way the United States did.

“It was almost shocking, that because of the former Communist government's control of farms, farming was considered a 'job' and not much more,” Belshause said. “In our country, farming is more of a way of life passed on from generation to generation. The Russians had ownership of land stolen from them in the early 1900s and it seemed their love for the land was stolen as well.”

Carlson will return to Russia with WIU students in Spring 2006, but in the meantime he is already back in the former Soviet Union working with an agricultural school and a hog farm through Agricultural Cooperative Development International (ACDI) and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA). Carlson is working with a professor at the ag school on teaching environmental standards for a hog facility and is evaluating the operation of the hog farm.

For more information on Carlson's volunteer work in Russia or WIU agriculture department study abroad opportunities, contact Carlson at 309/298-1611 or e-mail

Posted By: Darcie Shinberger (
Office of University Communications & Marketing