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Sissian -- ATG Wheat Project Finds Success in Mountains of Zangezur


 

August 30, 2003

For additional photos related to this article, visit the ATG Photo Gallery.

by Andranik Michaelian

I have sown wheat
On my high fields.
It has grown
And it shines under the sun.
-- Gorani (Armenian folk song)

Sissian, Province of Syunik, Armenia — For centuries, farmers in the mountains of southeastern Armenia have lived the words expressed in the song Gorani. Every fall, they plant seed that is soon covered by a blanket of snow. Every spring, they wait hopefully as their frozen fields thaw and the melting snow gives way to hardy sprouts of wheat reaching for the sun.

Since 1994, the Armenian Technology Group (ATG), a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of Armenia's agriculture, has been part of this ancient cycle. That year, ATG began working with farmers in the regions of Sissian, Yeghegnadzor, and Goris. As was the case elsewhere in Armenia, farmers there had been hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had been cut off from their source of farm machinery, fertilizer, herbicides, and other supplies. Those growing wheat, barley, and other grains were deprived of high-quality seed, and were forced to turn to low-grade varieties that were generations removed from the "mother" seed on which they had come to rely. Yields dropped as crop blight increased.

ATG helped grain farmers overcome the crisis. With a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), ATG distributed the Elite variety of wheat seed throughout Armenia. The project included seminars and workshops designed to train local agronomists and farmers in the latest techniques of grain farming.

What began as a humanitarian relief effort quickly took root as a long-term development project. In addition to the seed, ATG provided farmers with fertilizer and herbicides, and offered guidance in proper application. In the Sissian region, ATG collaborated with local farmers to shape a broader strategy for the future. Together, they tried sowing new varieties of wheat, such as Eltan, Weston, and Blizzard, that had proved successful in trial plantings.

Sevada Ivanyan (pictured at top) was one of the first farmers in Sissian to join the ATG project. An agronomist and farmer with 25 years of experience, Ivanyan's first harvests of Eltan were nearly 5 metric tons per hectare (2 metric tons per acre), excellent for the high-altitude fields of Sissian. Neighboring farmers, who had been forced to plant low-grade varieties of wheat, were so impressed that they too began planting the new varieties offered by ATG. Ivanyan, who soon formed a partnership with Ararat Tangyan (pictured above, left), also began growing Bezostaya, a Russian variety produced by ATG.

Keys to Success

Sissian, with a population of about 20,000, is located in the heart of the mountains of Zangezur, just north of Goris. The 7th century church of St. Gevorg rests on a hill overlooking the center of town. Poplar trees line the streets, while rugged mountains rise in the distance. The Vorotan River leads past Sissian to the village of Noravan, and to Khundzoresk, near Goris and the Tatev monastery. Sevada Ivanyan and Ararat Tangyan lease land in the fields of Noravan.

By the fall of 2002, Ivanyan and Tangyan had fine-tuned their farming operations. That year, they planted Weston and Dadash, a hard white wheat. As harvest time approached in August 2003, the fields had taken on a golden hue. Both varieties displayed unusually tall sets, with stalks high and thick, indicating excellent soil preparation and timely fertilizer application. The farmers consider the application of potassium important both for straw strength and resistance to disease.

"We carefully test the soil before planting," Ivanyan said. "This enables us to determine the correct rate of potassium to apply." In the Sissian region, wheat and other grains are rain-fed, making the efficient use of water even more important. "Potassium also helps wheat tolerate water stress," Ivanyan adds. "By applying potassium, our fields use the rain water more efficiently."

Another reason for the healthy crop, according to Tangyan, was the application of nitrogen at the time of planting. "We are careful to apply nitrogen after the potassium has been plowed in," he said. "In this way, the head size of the wheat is increased." The previous year, explained Tangyan, the field was left fallow to recover from two consecutive years of growing. "This allowed us the time for proper seedbed preparation, including the application of potassium and nitrogen," Tangyan said.

ATG agronomist Roger Culver, who began working with Ivanyan and Tangyan in 1994 and eventually came to direct ATG's operations in Armenia, was also on hand to inspect the wheat crop. "I've never seen a field this good in the entire region," he said. "It's a good stand -- especially in this area, which can be unusually tough for wheat, due to the region's cold winters and spring droughts."

Producing seed for local farmers

Ivanyan and Tangyan are eager to acknowledge the role of ATG in their success. Since 1994, they have received Elite seed each year, paying back ATG after harvest. In the process, they have increased the acreage they plant and their incomes. "I want to continue working with ATG," Tangyan said. "They are a great organization."

The farmers are now ready to expand their business further. With ATG's encouragement, they are hoping to produce top-quality first-generation seed and sell it to other farmers in the area. In 2003, ATG actually purchased Dadash seed from Ivanyan and Tangyan. "We obtained the seed to plant from ATG," Ivanyan said. "And now we have the opportunity to sell seed directly to ATG." Dadash, widely used to make bread and noodles, is becoming more popular in Armenia, especially in high, rain-fed regions like Sissian.

Maintaining historical bonds

Just south of Sissian and the wheat fields of Noravan, on a plateau close to the edge of the Vorotan Gorge, the 11th century Vorotan Monastery recalls the history of the Sissian Armenians. Built by Queen Santukht of Syunik, the monastery served both as a fortress and a university. Ivanyan and Tangyan, who both trace their roots in Sissian back several generations, maintain a tie to their ancestors, and to the land.

"We live by wheat -- not only financially," Tangyan said. "When we enter a field, by tractor or by foot, it is a great feeling, something sacred."

"It's ours now," Ivanyan continued. "Instead of working for the Soviet Union, we are working for our families, for ourselves...and for our people -- thanks to our collaboration with our friends at the Armenian Technology Group."


For more information about how you can help Armenia's farmers, contact the ATG office at (559) 224-1000 or by e-mail (info@atgusa.org). Tax-deductible donations can be sent to ATG; 1300 E. Shaw, Suite 149; P.O.Box 5969; Fresno, CA 93755-5969.
You may also donate to ATG online.