Episode 738: The Russian Rodeo : Planet Money Russia's latest ambition: To build a steak empire. On today's show, a fourth-generation American cowboy teaches Russian ranchers how to make American-style steaks. Some things get lost in translation.
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Episode 738: The Russian Rodeo

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Episode 738: The Russian Rodeo

Episode 738: The Russian Rodeo

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

Lots of kids dream of being cowboys, but Shawn Weekes always knew he was one. His mom put him on a horse before he could talk.

SHAWN WEEKES: I'm actually a fourth generation cowboy. That's my family history.

WARNER: As Sean is talking - and it's kind of hard to hear on the tape, but he is lassoing a stack of square hay bales. It's a kind of dummy bull, and he's just like - throw, sinch, repeat. This does not at all distract him from the interview.

WEEKES: A rope was actually my first toy, you know? (Laughter).

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

But even for an experienced cowboy like Shawn, it is harder to find work these days. America has fewer cattle than it has at any time since the 1950s, and cowboy crews are smaller and more specialized.

WARNER: And so Shawn Weekes found himself traveling farther and farther to find work, from Idaho to Nevada to Texas.

WEEKES: There's a couple of times that I took a step back 'cause I wasn't having enough time with my family and moved to town and drove a truck and hauled cows. And I actually spent less time with my family (laughter), and so I just went back to being a cowboy.

VANEK SMITH: And then a couple of years ago, Shawn got this call that he could barely believe. A recruiter from a cattle ranch offered to pay him double what he was making. There was one catch. This ranch would be a bit farther east.

WEEKES: The only thing I really knew about Russia is just from what little bits of information that I heard growing up.

WARNER: But Shawn was ready for a change and maybe a chance to put something real away for his family. So three months after that phone call, he filled a suitcase with his warmest clothes and the saddle his dad made for him. And at 44 years old, Shawn Weekes flew to Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Gregory Warner.

WARNER: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, cowboy ex-pats, beefsteak oligarchs and the amazing story of the first Russian porterhouse steak.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I feel free, and I feel high over the rainbow.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Support for this podcast and the following message come from TransferWise, the cheap, easy way to send money between the U.S. and more than 50 countries, including the U.K., Germany and Brazil. With TransferWise, you pay a small fee and get the real exchange rate, like the one you see on Google. Join more than 1 million people using TransferWise by visiting transferwise.com or downloading the award-winning app.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) And let me shine.

WARNER: When Shawn got to Russia, he found himself on a ranch in the southwest, near the Ukrainian border. It's a ranch owned by a massive Russian meat company.

IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: The company is called Miratorg.

WARNER: Reporter Irina Zhorov at WHYY has been digging into this company.

ZHOROV: Miratorg - yeah.

WARNER: They're one of the biggest Russian suppliers of pork and chicken.

VANEK SMITH: Everything they do seems to be really huge.

WARNER: But in 2010, they got even bigger. They bought up a bunch of land in the province of Bryansk to do cattle ranching and make American-style Angus steak.

ZHOROV: So this fall I went to Bryansk, and I visited a couple of these ranches. And they're enormous. Sometimes it can take hours to get from one farm to the next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

WARNER: Each one of these ranches has a hundred times more cows than the average American ranch.

ZHOROV: And there's 60 of these farms, and they're all owned by this one Russian company.

WEEKES: I've never seen anything grow this fast ever. It's huge.

WARNER: Shawn also says that this ranch did feel weirdly familiar, like he'd seen it all before.

WEEKES: You know, the way this horse acts...

WARNER: He points to the horse that he's riding right now.

WEEKES: This horse is Jack.

WARNER: Jack, he thinks, is an old American racehorse, which is actually very possible because all of the horses on this ranch are American ex-pats like Shawn.

ZHOROV: They had to import everything.

WARNER: Not only did Miratorg import 500 American Quarter Horses and 500 saddles, but 100,000 American cows.

ZHOROV: They imported grass from Europe, parasite killers for the animals and vaccines for them, 60,000 units of bull semen to artificially inseminate the cows and 10 ultrasound machines to check when they're pregnant.

WARNER: And then, of course, they recruited American cowboys like Shawn Weekes to teach the Russians how to care for the cows, how to move them from pasture to pasture.

WEEKES: My first day - pretty stressful, really.

WARNER: His Russian students were totally new to all this equipment. They were new to these kind of horses. They'd never dealt with this breed of cattle.

WEEKES: They're nervous. They're scared, and there's nothing wrong with that. You just get learn how to control it.

WARNER: Shawn figures, OK, he'll start with the basics, like how to tie a lasso knot and when to show up for work in the morning - you know, sun-up.

WEEKES: Especially in the summertime, it gets hot in the afternoon. Cattle and horses don't do well in the heat.

WARNER: But Sean says that his Russian students still just didn't seem to get the whole cowboying thing.

WEEKES: There's a lot of things that you just - you see and you really don't even want to believe yourself.

ZHOROV: So what's your, like, favorite story to tell.

WEEKES: (Laughter) I had a deal last summer. I got asked to go to a place where they were pasturing a bunch of steers.

WARNER: So Shawn tells this story where 600 steers that had to be moved from one pasture to another, which to him was like no big deal...

WEEKES: OK. What's the problem?

WARNER: I mean, he was thinking - why can't the Russian cowboys just do that themselves?

WEEKES: So I got there, and me and two other guys were moving them across the pasture. And these cattle started getting real nervous. And I was - what the heck? Why, all of a sudden, I hear this ching-ching, ching-ching (ph). And - what in the world? And I turn around, trying to find this sound. Here comes two guys riding over the hill behind us on bicycles with the little handlebar bells on them. They thought 'cause they ride around on bicycles all the time that that would be the way to do things, which scared them. They scared the cattle. That turned into a bad fiasco.

VANEK SMITH: I love herding cows with a bicycle bell. That's amazing.

WARNER: And, you know, Stacey, every American cowboy on this ranch seemed to have some story like this, with the Russians getting creative about their cattle duties in ways that the Americans couldn't even dream up.

VANEK SMITH: So I have to say, Gregory - I mean, I grew up in Idaho. My parents owned a cattle ranch. And being a cowboy - it's not a job that is like any other job. I mean, on any given day, you might be fixing a fence or pulling a thousand-pound cow out of a gulch or you're helping a cow give birth in the middle of a blizzard at 4:00 in the morning.

WEEKES: You know, we look out there and see something that needs to be done. We go do it.

VANEK SMITH: And not only is it incredibly hard work - I mean, you're dealing with big animals and big machinery - but it's dangerous.

WEEKES: I've got a tore-up body to prove it. You know, I've broken pretty much every bone in my body riding those horses and dealing with cows. And you commit your mind, body and soul to this.

WARNER: This passion - this romantic idea of the cowboy that a lot of Americans grow up with - this was not how Miratorg, the Russian company, was approaching it. Back when Irina visited these ranches, she found that they weren't even calling them cowboys. They called them operators.

ZHOROV: At every ranch that I visited, I saw these posters - these laminated sheets of paper with instructions on them. And it's instructions for things like how to fix a fence, how to load cattle into a trailer, how to rope a steer. I think there were even illustrations, which, like - you know, I used to report on ranches in the States. You would never see anything like that.

WARNER: And all of a sudden, it seemed like this whole Russian operation, which, remember, was bigger than any single ranch in the United States, was also like an IKEA version of a cattle ranch - shipped over, assembled, with instructions.

VALERY SAMOYLOV: Not everyone can work with cattle. It's difficult.

WARNER: That's the Valery Samoylov. He ran Miratorg's beef operation from farm to slaughter house, he says. And he says the cowboys were the biggest challenge, by far. They kept hiring Russian cowboys and firing them.

SAMOYLOV: Yes, yes. You're right. It's a challenge.

WARNER: And all the Miratorg executives, including Valery, were trying to figure out why. Was it the work ethic? Or was it the job skills? Or was it some kind of personality thing or comfortability with animals? And it was all of those things, but if you asked Shawn Weekes, he'd say it was something beyond all that because being a cowboy is more than a job.

WEEKES: The more cattle and the more weight that I produce, the more money I make at the end of the year, but it's also a pride issue with me. I want good-looking, nice cattle.

WEEKES: You know a porterhouse steak - I mean, one of the reasons it's a luxury product is 'cause you're not supposed to have to do much to it in the kitchen, right? All the preparation has happened on the ranch. When Shawn takes pride that his cows are well-fed, it's because everything that happens to them under his watch in some way goes into the taste. And the culture of cowboying has grown up around that, which is making me hungry.

VANEK SMITH: You brought food.

WARNER: Yeah, we're going to have a snack break here.

VANEK SMITH: You brought food.

WARNER: This is some Russian beef, but it is not - it is not a steak.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh, this is so interesting.

WARNER: Yeah, because the thing is Russians don't make steak. What they make - this is golubtsi - stuffed cabbage - which - I have a Russian home, so this came - this is homemade.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my gosh, really?

WARNER: Yeah. Stacey, why don't you just cut in there?

VANEK SMITH: OK. Do I try it yet, or is there, like, a thing?

WARNER: Yeah, you can put some sour cream on it.

VANEK SMITH: I will always put sour cream on anything.

VANEK SMITH: Mm (ph).

WARNER: Is it good?

VANEK SMITH: Mm-hmm (ph).

WARNER: Look, the beef that's in this dish - you know, it's prepared in a very, very different way than a steak. It doesn't even taste the same.

VANEK SMITH: No, no. It doesn't. No. I mean, it tastes like - it tastes very savory and salty and delicious, but it doesn't taste like beef. This could be - I mean, it could be chicken or pork or anything.

WARNER: Yeah, because one of the things about traditional Russian food is that if the recipe does call for beef, it's boiled, or it's stewed, and sometimes for a long time. Like this - these cabbages - I think the recipe calls for boiling it for two and a half hours.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) That's a long time.

WARNER: And the reason is is because Russians have traditionally farmed dairy cows, and dairy cows are their meat. It's not fat, like Angus cattle. They're kind of tough and lean.

VANEK SMITH: They definitely don't fatten up in the same way, and they're also a lot more docile as animals. They're a lot easier to raise.

WEEKES: Dairy cows and these cattle are two different monsters (laughter).

WARNER: Shawn says that actually nothing about raising dairy cows, which the Russians have done for centuries, prepares you for raising black Angus cattle.

WEEKES: The dairy cattle are used to being around people all the time. These cattle - they're raised out in the open, and so they're borderline wild. And so you have to learn how to handle them. And if you don't handle them right, it turns out ugly (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: So, Gregory, my question is this - I mean, having just eaten your delicious stuffed cabbage, why make American steaks in Russia? Why not just stick to dairy cows?

WARNER: Well, if you think about how cattle farming started in America, it was because we had all this land in the American West. Russia sees an opportunity. They have all this cheap land. They want to use it to create a beef industry that not only can export beef to China and the Gulf states, but maybe potentially create thousands of new jobs in Russia. And the Russian company Miratorg also has an important ally in this fight, a horse-riding, tiger-hunting, steak-eating president.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I think I know who you might mean.

WARNER: And Vladimir Putin very much wanted this Russian beef industry to succeed. In fact, the Russian government helped clear nearly $2 billion in low-interest loans, plus a bunch of subsidies, and Miratorg is buying more land. They're building more ranches. They say their herd will top 1 million cows by the end of the decade, when Miratorg promises the beef industry will finally be profitable.

VANEK SMITH: But they have to figure out how to solve this cowboy problem. How do you squeeze 150 years of cowboy history into a decade?

WARNER: Well, Miratorg says it has found a way to teach their Russian workers the very spirit of the American West. They have imported one more signature aspect of American cowboy life - the rodeo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COTTON-EYE JOE")

REDNEX: (Singing) Where did you go? Where did you...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: OK, so here we are at the Russian rodeo. It is the third annual rodeo that Miratorg has hosted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

ZHOROV: And everything here is really similar to what you'd see at an American rodeo, but just a little Russified. So there's the same events - barrel racing, roping, trailer loading - and the songs that the teams enter to are patriotic like in the U.S., but here they're about the mightiness of Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Russian).

ZHOROV: Or there's another song about how America should give Alaska back to Russia. And the chorus is something like - don't be an idiot, America (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP FOOLING AROUND")

LYUBE: (Singing in Russian).

ZHOROV: The rodeo the U.S. didn't used to be this like big affair. You know, now the rodeo championships happen in Vegas. It's very flashy, but it started out in a very similar way.

WEEKES: My cowboys are better than your cowboys. My horses are better than your horses.

ZHOROV: It's just like a way to show off and build camaraderie.

WEEKES: That honestly is a big help, you know, especially if you get somebody your own age, and you're competing against them, trying to learn to be better.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

WEEKES: I'm about to go into battle.

(LAUGHTER)

WEEKES: Let's go rope something, boys.

WARNER: Shawn is here at the rodeo. He's coaching a team of Russians, and he says that this spirit of competition - this helps turn a job into a passion. It makes you want to master all these really tough skills and keep working at it.

ZHOROV: Shawn, how's your team doing?

WEEKES: What's that?

WARNER: Sean's team is not doing so hot.

WEEKES: They're doing OK.

ZHOROV: You trained them up pretty good.

WEEKES: They can do better than that. And they know it, and I know it, too.

WARNER: When Sean got to Russia, he was frustrated because he wanted the Russian cowboys to measure up to the Americans. Now he just wants them to measure up to themselves and to the other Russian teams. When Shawn's contract expires the end of this month, he can go home knowing that he will leave something behind. Russian cowboying culture - maybe it's going to be a thing.

ZHOROV: Maybe, but they're still struggling, either in skill or motivation or just the cowboy-ness (ph).

WARNER: But Irina says she did meet this one guy at the rodeo - a guy who she first kept walking by because she assumed he was American.

ZHOROV: He was dressed like an American, which is why it confused him. He had a cowboy shirt on and jeans and this, like, camouflage vest and button-up shirt and boots and everything. And he just had this, like, aura about him. Like, he kind of stood with his arms on his waist and, like, looked up, and his hat would be tipped back a little bit. You know, he just had a way about him. And so when I heard him speaking Russian, I was like - oh.

SERGEI SHILAN: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: This cowboy's name is Sergei - Sergei Shilan - and he's bashful.

SHILAN: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: He only approximates the American cowboy, as if he knows he's a kind of a counterfeit copy. And he tells Irina that on his first day on a saddled horse - that was three and a half years ago - he almost fell off. He got really embarrassed. He nearly quit, only his wife convinced him to return to the ranch and keep trying. And now...

ZHOROV: He feels himself fully a cowboy. He - at some point, he got offered a position as a manager, and he said no 'cause he wants to be around the animals. Everything about it has become very dear to him.

SHILAN: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: And as he's explaining this, he tips his hat. It's wide-brim black felt.

SHILAN: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: He says this hat was gifted to him by an American cowboy named David (ph) after he lassoed his first steer. And the boots he's wearing - they were present from another cowboy, Kurt (ph), for his teamwork. It's as if Sergei's entire outfit was assembled piece by piece, merit-badge-style, as he himself became something new.

ZHOROV: Yeah.

WARNER: And he believes in the future of the Russian cowboy?

ZHOROV: Oh, for sure. Yes. So he has a four-month-old son, and he's already planning to train him up as a cowboy, too.

WARNER: But one thing still separates Sergei from the American cowboys. He's never tasted a steak. In Russia, a Miratorg porterhouse costs more than he makes in a day. He hopes sometime soon he'll get a chance to try one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN, RUN, RUN")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run.

WARNER: If you enjoyed this episode, we want to tell more stories like this, and we need your help. I'm working on a series here looking at what happens when people take ideas or businesses or just themselves to a new place and try to make that work. It could go well or go terribly awry. If you've heard a story like this recently, then email us at planetmoney@npr.org.

VANEK SMITH: Or reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter.

WARNER: Thank you to Irina Zhorov, who brought us this story. Her original version aired on a show called The Pulse on WHYY. You can find the link on our blog, npr.org/money. Her trip to Russia was made possible by the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food And Farming Journalism Fellowship.

VANEK SMITH: Our episode today was produced by Jess Jiang.

WARNER: If you're looking for another podcast to listen to and you speak Spanish, there is a podcast at NPR called Radio Ambulante. The show takes a look at Latin America and U.S. Latino communities. It brings you stories you might not otherwise hear - punk rock in Cuba, stolen books in Colombia, junk bonds in Puerto Rico. You can check out Radio Ambulante on the NPR One app and npr.org/podcasts. I'm Gregory Warner.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks for listening.

WEEKES: My mom had race horses when I was growing up. And one of my uncles - well, who do you think the lucky bugger was who got to exercise those runaway, miserable pot-lickers? Me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN, RUN, RUN")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run.

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