Gagik Mkrtchyan -- ATG Agronomist Creates Important Legacy
|February 6, 2005
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Yerevan, Armenia — On April 24, 1999, agronomist Gagik Mkrtchyan waited in Bagratashen in the Noyemberian region of northeastern Armenia, for a shipment of seed potato that had been held up in neighboring Georgia. The shipment was part of an important program in which the California-based Armenian Technology Group (ATG) would distribute 22 metric tons of seed potato to farmers across Armenia.
That night, a truck carrying the potatoes arrived. “At the time, the roads in the region were bad,” Mkrtchyan recalled. “At one point, the truck bed slid onto the side of the road, nearly slipping down an embankment. We slept there all night. In the morning, snow fell, but somehow we made it to Akhourian, near Gyumri. Roger Culver, director of our Yerevan office at the time, was there waiting. That day, we started distributing the potato seed. Armenian farmers produced 1,070 metric tons of potatoes from that shipment.”
Gagik Mkrtchyan was born and raised in Yerevan. His grandparents came to Armenia from Iran and Van, a town in Western Armenia. “In Van, my ancestors were farmers,” Mkrtchyan said. “Like them, I love the land. Working for ATG, I have the opportunity to work with the soil, and to play a part in strengthening Armenia’s agricultural sector.”
Seed crisis inspires cooperation
By 1994, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the situation in Armenia’s fields and farms had become disastrous. Traditional supplies of fertilizer, pesticide, and seed were cut off. As wheat and other grains became further removed from the “Mother Seed,” harvests were at an all-time low. Diseases related to poor quality seed were rampant.
In Fresno, Calif., concerned individuals and professionals working for the Armenian Technology Group recognized the severity of the situation and initiated a series of programs designed to alleviate the dire condition in Armenia’s countryside. In a project funded by the U.S. Aid for International Development, ATG took on the responsibility of distributing nearly 3,000 metric tons of wheat seed to farmers throughout the country, in what later became known as the Wheat Seed Project.
On July 25, 1994, Mkrtchyan took charge of the project. “Wayne Halvorson, ATG’s in-country director at the time, called and asked me to direct the distribution of the seed,” Mkrtchyan said. “On my first day at work, I was nearly overwhelmed by what I saw. More preparation to receive the seed was needed in several regions. We still had to find agronomists to help in the distribution to individual farmers. And the shipment was scheduled to arrive on August 8.”
Mkrtchyan went to work. “Agronomists were hired to help distribute the seed,” he said. “Twenty-six land levelers were assembled and delivered to several regions. We worked day and night. Failure was out of the question. Bread was already being rationed. The country was in danger of famine.”
Persistence, dedication yield positive results
The shipment of wheat seed came in two installments, including 1,700 metric tons of two Russian varieties and, in autumn, several varieties originating in the states of Washington and Montana. “We distributed the seed to over 5,000 farmers, who sowed nearly 17,000 hectares of land,” Mkrtchyan said. “We were also able to give fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, and diesel fuel to most farmers in the program.”
Autumn of that year proved critical to the success of the Wheat Seed Project. Along with ATG professionals and local agricultural officials, Mkrtchyan traveled to wheat-producing regions around the country to check the status of the program. “The war in neighboring Azerbaijan was still raging,” he said. “In fields along the border, we often had to run in to look and see how the wheat was growing, and then run back to our cars. Once, we stopped and had lunch at a spot where tank fire had wounded a farmer the day before. We did whatever was needed to ensure the program’s success.”
Mkrtchyan continued, “One day that autumn, Ray Morton, who was directing the program for USAID, called and said he wanted to check the progress of the program in Aparan and in the province of Lori, especially in Spitak and Stepanavan. To complete all this in one day, we left Yerevan at six a.m. By seven, we were in Aparan. There, we met with our area agronomist, Lendrush Asoyan, who invited Ray and me to participate in a seminar the next day in Chknagh village, near Aparan. Then we left for Spitak, where we visited farmers participating in the seed program, and from there continued to Stepanavan, where we visited several villages before traveling further north to Tashir, a region which borders Georgia. Late that night, we made it back to Aparan, and the next day we held a seminar about seedbed preparation in Chknagh village.” Mkrtchyan smiled. “That is how we worked that autumn. But the responsibility we had was huge, almost frightening. We were the only hope for many who were on the verge of famine.”
In spring 1995, melting snow revealed both newly-sprouted wheat and hope for the Armenian people. “To guarantee the program’s successful completion,” Mkrtchyan said, “we had to make sure fertilizer and herbicide were applied in a timely manner. Due to problems at the Georgian border, a shipment of 1,500 metric tons of fertilizer didn’t arrive in Armenia until May 20. The fertilizer had already solidified, forcing us to use special drills to correct the problem. We had just three days to distribute the fertilizer. During those three days, despite bad roads, we took it to nine different regions. If we had been late, the fertilizer would have been worthless.”
The results were outstanding. “After the 1995 harvest, Armenia had enough wheat to bake bread, to feed its people,” Mkrtchyan said. “We had fulfilled our responsibility to those who trusted us.”
Success breeds new associations, collaboration
Gagik Mkrtchyan believes in Armenia’s farmers. “During that crucial time, I was happy to see the skill and dedication our farmers had,” he said. “But above all, the cooperation between farmers was excellent. Anyone who thinks farmers are too independent to work together should have been there in 1995. The next year, with this atmosphere of cooperation and good will, we were able to establish the important Seed Multiplication Program, which would guarantee Armenia’s grain growers a steady supply of good, fresh seed. We couldn’t afford to put ourselves in that position again, to be completely dependent on someone else.”
In 2004, Mkrtchyan continued his work for the good of Armenia’s farmers and their families, becoming executive director of the Seed Producers Support Association (SPSA), an organization founded by ATG in 1998. In the program, SPSA growers produce high quality first-generation seed and guarantee Armenian farmers access to this seed.
“This was a very important year for ATG and for SPSA,” he stressed. “ATG’s Yerevan office, ATG Foundation, progressed toward their goal of producing Super Elite and Elite seed, lessening Armenia’s dependence on imported Breeder Seed. SPSA agronomists worked to achieve ATG’s goal of strengthening our rural economy, especially in remote, outlying regions.
“At SPSA, we work as a team, like family. With Armen Asatryan, our director of operations, and long-time ATG agronomist Vaghinak Kamrastyan, we followed this year’s harvest from the beginning. We visited farmers as they prepared their fields for planting through the time when late-autumn snows arrived, covering their newly-sprouted wheat until the spring thaw. “Together, we established bonds between SPSA growers and wheat producers all over Armenia, and made important ties between our growers and major organizations such as the Holland-based AGRICO, UMCOR, the Mkhitarian Center, and others.”
Mkrtchyan’s satisfaction and enthusiasm were evident. “I enjoy meeting with farmers who have had a successful harvest. I feel good when I have played a small part in a farmer’s success. A man who works with the soil is an honest man. It is impossible to work with the land and be a bad person. I become very anxious as the growing season progresses. I even count the days, hoping nothing will go wrong before harvest.” He smiled as he looked through a photo album of SPSA’s activities over the past year. “Together,” he said, “we have much to do for this country.”
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.