Echmiadzin — Wheat Farmers Reap Record Harvests

Echmiadzin -- Wheat Farmers Reap Record Harvests

November 2, 2003

by Andranik Michaelian

Echmiadzin, Province of Armavir, Armenia — One of the most important items in many Armenian homes is a spike of wheat, often kept in a small container with several pomegranates to ensure the abundance of bread in the household. Each summer, many Armenians make a special trip to ripening wheat fields to snip off a few stalks for their home.

The fields around the village of Artimet are a particularly apt setting for such a pilgrimage. In the distance looms Mt. Ararat, the symbol of Armenia. In the foreground, the dome of St. Gayane juts into the horizon. St. Gayane is one of the many churches of Echmiadzin — the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Farmers in Artimet and the other villages near Echmiadzin appreciate the meaning of their land and their work. Since 1994, they have been working with the Armenian Technology Group (ATG), a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of Armenia’s agriculture, to produce some of the finest wheat crops in the country.

ATG stepped in at a time when agriculture in Armenia was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Wheat farmers were deprived of high-quality seed, and were forced to turn to low-grade varieties that were generations removed from the “mother” seed (known as “super elite”) on which they had come to rely. Yields dropped as crop blight increased. In cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development, ATG began testing several varieties of American wheat in Armenia. The Stevens variety, which produces a soft, white wheat, proved successful in the fields surrounding Echmiadzin.

In the autumn of 1995, ATG planted several acres of Stevens seed in the fields of Artimet, a village bordering Echmiadzin, and the nearby village of Aratashen. After the 1996 summer harvest, ATG began supplying farmers with the resulting “elite” seed. The distribution of seed laid the foundation for ATG’s seed multiplication program in the area, in which farmers are provided with seed and repay ATG after harvest. In Aratashen, Valodya Khachatryan became one of the first participants in the project.

New wheat variety wins over farmers

Khachatryan saw immediate success with his first planting of Stevens. He was especially impressed with the quality of seed provided by ATG. “I only needed to plant 150 kilograms per hectare (134 lbs. per acre), instead of 300, like before,” Khachatryan said. His first yield, close to six metric tons per hectare (2.4 metric tons per acre), was double his previous yields. “When you receive seed from ATG, you know where it came from, the generation of the seed, everything,” he said, noting that each sack of seed provided by ATG is labeled and certified by Armenia’s Ministry of Agriculture.

In the autumn of 2002, Khachatryan planted Stevens seed from ATG for the seventh consecutive year. His 2003 harvest was seven metric tons per hectare (2.8 metric tons per acre). “Stevens is the perfect variety for the fields of Aratashen,” he said. “I won’t even consider planting another variety.”

A friend of Khachatryan, Vahram Harutyunyan, was so impressed with Khachatryan’s harvest that he decided to postpone the planting of a new vineyard, sowing his fields instead with the Stevens variety. “I want to work with ATG,” Harutyunyan said. “I have never seen wheat look this good, this clean.”

Khachatryan takes pride in achieving the highest yields possible. He carefully rotates his crops to keep the soil in prime condition. “I love the challenge of farming,” he said. “It isn’t always easy to find good, clean land. I grow potatoes and other vegetables, which nourishes and prepares the land for growing wheat.”

With the profits earned from growing wheat, Khachatryan recently bought seven hectares (17.3 acres) of land near Aratashen and has been able to expand the hothouse behind his home. “I have said this on television,” he emphasized. “ATG is a great organization. Mkhitar Grigoryan, Roger Culver, Gevorg Gabrielyan…all of them.”

Good seed results in a good harvest

In nearby Artimet, Arshak Mirzakhanyan grew Stevens for the second year in 2003. A native of Isfahan, Iran, Mirzakhanyan moved to Armenia with his family in 1948, and has lived ever since in Artimet, where over one-third of the population is from Isfahan. Mirzakhanyan’s harvest in 2003 was a record eight metric tons per hectare (3.2 metric tons per acre). “I grew wheat for ATG in 2001, and harvested an excellent seven metric tons per hectare (2.8 metric tons per acre). Unfortunately, I applied too late to obtain seed for the next fall planting. This won’t happen again. I want to continue working with ATG.”

Mirzakhanyan invests special care to produce clean seed. He owns an SM4 cleaning machine, which he uses to clean seed from his own fields, as well as for other Artimet farmers. The first stage in producing clean seed, according to Mirzakhanyan, is to keep weeds to a minimum. “When I see other wheat fields with weeds, I know the yield will be low, and the seed less clean,” Mirzakhanyan said. In April, he applies the herbicide Phenagon to his fields. “The timing is important,” he said. “The weed has to be a certain height, almost four centimeters (1.6 inches) tall, and the wheat plants cannot be very tall, so the crop isn’t damaged.”

In the dry plains of Echmiadzin, irrigation is also vital, especially the timing, Mirzakhanyan stressed. In the fall, a thorough irrigation is needed to make sure the winter wheat seeds germinate before cold weather sets in. “I am careful to irrigate at least three times a year,” Mirzakhanyan said. “But, the fourth irrigation can add one ton to the year’s yield.” The last irrigation, Mirzakhanyan said, ensures the roots of the plant are deep enough to nourish it during the ripening of the stalk. “Sometimes farmers delay their final irrigation because of a spring rain, but this is a mistake. Rain cannot take the place of a proper irrigation.”

At harvest time, Mirzakhanyan and the other Artimet farmers are forced to use an old combine. “The harvest can be lower if the combine isn’t cleaned often, especially when changing varieties,” he said. Mirzakhanyan wants to use part of his income earned from growing wheat to buy a new combine. “A new combine would help all Artimet farmers,” he said.

For more information about how you can help Armenia’s farmers, contact the ATG office at (559) 224-1000 or by e-mail ( 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.