Arevshat -- ATG Helps Further a Sacred Calling
|November 19, 2004
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I will embrace your slopes
— from “To My Homeland,” by Avetik Issahakyan
Arevshat, Province of Shirak, Armenia — In these lyrics, one of Armenia’s greatest poets sings a hymn of praise to the legendary Mt. Aragadz, whose fertile slopes descend to Arevshat village, home to farmer Vahan Barseghyan and his family. Barseghyan grows wheat on the very fields Issahakyan writes about in his poem. As the words reveal, the cultivation of wheat in Armenia is a sacred calling, as farmers like Barseghyan fulfill their duty to their people by providing wheat and bread, as did their ancestors in Issahakyan’s time and before.
In Arevshat, Vahan Barseghyan grows wheat, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, and carrots on 10 hectares of land farmed by family members for nearly 200 years. “My ancestors arrived here in 1828 from Basen, in Iran, following the Russo-Persian War which swept most of Iran and Eastern Anatolia,” Barseghyan said. “They helped build a village on the site of an ancient settlement. All that remained from the past was a sixteenth century church.”
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Barseghyan, like other wheat farmers, grew Bezostaya, a variety well adapted to Armenia’s soil. “Yields were almost always high, ranging from four to five metric tons per hectare,” he said. “The government supplied us with everything, including good seed, fertilizer, and herbicide.” Then, after the Soviet collapse, the supply of fresh seed came to a halt.
“For the first two years, everything was fine,” Barseghyan explained. “Harvests continued high. But as the seed became further removed from the Mother Seed, all this changed. Yields in our village fell to under two metric tons. Most farmers gave up, and even stopped planting. They had no faith in anything.”
By 1994, the situation was dire. In the fall of that year, professionals from the Fresno-based Armenian Technology Group (ATG) organized the distribution of nearly 3,000 metric tons of wheat seed in a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. US Technical Advisors stationed in rural Armenia gave their heart and soul to help the farmers feed their families and their neighbors. The group was headed by then-country director Wayne Halverson, and US agronomists Dr. James Bowder, Mark Goodsen, Roger Benton, and Roger Culver. “These fine and professional individuals lived among the villagers for two years and witnessed the difficulty that rural Armenia was facing. They are the silent heroes that American people provided to Armenia during those early days of independence”, said ATG Executive Director Varoujan Der Simonian. In only one month, ATG agronomists distributed the 3000 MT of US wheat seed varieties to farmers in wheat-producing regions throughout the country, including the village of Arevshat, in the region of Artik in northwestern Armenia.
In Arevshat, farmers were provided with Rely, a variety especially suited to the high mountain fields of the area. “The seed arrived at a crucial time,” Barseghyan said. “We were able to complete our autumn planting on time, before the first snow fell.” Due to an unusually warm winter, the 1995 harvest was less successful than expected. “Roger Benton, who was working as an economist for ATG at the time, came to Arevshat and saw my field of Rely wheat,” Barseghyan said. “He felt bad when he saw the harvest wasn’t good. He made arrangements for me to plant three new varieties — W301, Blizzard, and Weston. These varieties worked out very well, with yields approaching five metric tons per hectare.”
Barseghyan continued working with ATG, planting W301, Weston, and Eltan. “Eltan gave especially high yields,” he said. “A great variety.” As one of the best, most consistent farmers in the region, Barseghyan was given several new varieties for experimentation, including Oklahoma. “On one high field, about 2,200 meters above sea level, I planted ESVD, a variety completely new to our area,” he said. “The wheat plants were tall and healthy, much like Eltan, a variety ATG brought from the U.S. Everybody was shocked when we harvested three metric tons per hectare — a miracle for the extremely high altitude.”
Successes lead to new collaboration
Barseghyan places special emphasis on timing in the production of wheat. “A field has to be properly burned, so the autumn rains will soak into the soil,” he explained. “Then, as soon as the snow melts in the spring, it is important to apply fertilizer, since a late application doesn’t allow the plant to receive the boost it needs. And, if a farmer is late applying herbicide, weeds can get out of control, which takes strength from the soil and away from the wheat plant.”
Noting Barseghyan’s meticulous farming practices, agronomists from ATG’s Yerevan office (ATG Foundation) have continued their cooperation, working with Barseghyan in a successful program in 1999, in the experimentation of new varieties of potatoes. During the summer of 2004, Barseghyan, also a trained accountant, worked with Araik Sukiasyan, president of the Seed Producers’ Support Association (SPSA), in setting up credit unions for SPSA farmers.
SPSA, founded in 1998, has become the focal point in ATG’s goal of providing farmers, who often work in remote, border regions, with high quality, first-generation wheat seed. Provided with Elite seed from ATGF fields, SPSA growers then distribute the resulting first-generation seed to wheat farmers throughout the country. In 2004, SPSA agronomists Gagik Mkrtchyan, Vaghinak Karmrstyan, and Armen Asatryan checked over 1,000 hectares of wheat fields, to ensure the best farmers were chosen to participate as SPSA growers. According to Mkrtchyan, Barseghyan is one of the most trusted and reliable farmers in the region. “Barseghyan’s wheat harvests always produce good, clean seed,” Mkrtchyan stated. “Working with farmers like Barseghyan ensures the success of our program.” As a new SPSA grower, Barseghyan was provided with Bezostaya 1 seed, which he planted on a five-hectare plot near his home in Arevshat. “Next autumn, after harvest, we will work with SPSA to make sure the seed sells at a good price,” he said. “Until now, it wasn’t easy to find buyers for our product. This forced us to sell our seed at low prices. Sometimes, we sold first-generation seed for flour, for far less than the seed was worth.”
Local bonds strengthens area economy
In several villages near Arevshat, including Meghrashen, Nor Gyank, and Saradak, farmers have worked together for years, forming relationships that have given a tremendous boost to the region’s agricultural economy. “Our work with ATG has put area farmers back on a firm footing,” Barseghyan stated. “Now, our collaboration with SPSA has opened new doors. In years when we plant potatoes for crop rotation, we obtain potato seed from AGRICO, a company that has been working with our farmers for years. Several farmers in our region work both with ATG and AGRICO, which makes both organizations stronger.”
As he checked a row in his field where the newly sown seed hadn’t begun sprouting, Barseghyan told about his love of farming. “Farming is a great challenge,” he said. “To look across a ripening field of wheat, knowing you have done your best, is a great feeling.” Pointing out a plot of land near the base of a mountain, he continued: “I remember the year drought nearly ruined my harvest. Gagik Mkrchyan told me to cut the wheat for animal feed, and then took me to Yerevan to meet with Roger Culver, who was head of ATGF at the time. After hearing what had happened to my crop, Mr. Culver agreed to provide me with seed for the autumn planting. I will never forget this.”
Atop a mountain near his home, a small chapel testifies to traditions that have held fast in the region. “The chapel is called St. Hovhannes,” Barseghyan said. “Every year, people walk from Arevshat, all the way to the chapel, on Vardavar and other church holidays.” He continued, “I see my future in farming, working with the land. I give all the credit to ATG for being able to do this. Now, our family has a future in Arevshat.”
For more information about how you can help Armenia’s farmers, contact the ATG office at (559) 224-1000 or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tax-deductible donations can be sent to ATG; 1300 E. Shaw, Suite 149; P.O.Box 5969; Fresno, CA 93755-5969.