Meghrashat -- Shirak Farmers Embrace Seed Program
December 1, 2004
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Meghrashat, Province of Shirak, Armenia — Armenian folklore tells the story of Gor, a golden-haired boy who lived in Moush, in Old Armenia. Gor was loved by everyone, because he protected the wheat fields of poor villagers by watering them during drought, battling locusts, and turning hail into rain by standing with his back against the storm. The boy was so modest, he never asked for bread, even when he was hungry. One day, word spread that a monster had appeared on a tall mountain, and was going to devour Armenia’s wheat fields. Gor promised to destroy the monster, and left for the mountain with his pitchfork. The villagers waited and waited. When Gor didn’t return, they started chanting, “Gor, Gor, Gor-Gor.” After that, the mountain was called Gor, or Gorgor. It is said that Gor is still on the mountain battling the monster, and that the folk song “Gorani” was dedicated to the heroic and unselfish boy, as the people’s way of calling him home….
In the high mountain fields of Shirak, along the border with Turkey, Harutyun Arakelyan farms wheat, apples, and potatoes on his plot of land near the village of Meghrashat, where he was born. His grandfather was from Akrag village, on the legendary plains of Gor’s Moush. He left in 1914 and, by way of Constantinople, came to Meghrashat, where he farmed wheat as he had done in his place of birth.
During the Soviet era, farmers in Meghrashat were well known for producing high quality wheat, supplying the entire region of Amasia, which included the villages of Meghrashat, Voghchi, and Gyulibuzag. “Here, in Lower Amasia, the climate and soil are ideal for growing wheat,” Arakelyan said. “Yields were high. We could always depend on receiving fertilizer, fuel, and fresh seed, which guaranteed healthy wheat and high yields.” At the time, Arakelyan also worked as an area representative for the Soviet Armenian Ministry of Agriculture, directing farming operations for the region.
ATG projects ease transition
In 1992, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused shockwaves in rural Armenia, including Meghrashat and the surrounding villages in Lower Amasia. Farmers were cut off from markets that were part of the Soviet network, and no longer received seed, machinery, and other materials needed in their operations. Wheat yields dropped to near two metric tons per hectare. “In Meghrashat, there was no bread,” Arakelyan recalled. “Our future was bleak, without hope.”
Then, in 1994, while working for the Agriculture Ministry, Arakelyan came in contact with agronomists from the Armenian Technology Group (ATG), a California-based organization dedicated to strengthening the economy of rural Armenia. “That summer, I met Gagik Mkrtchyan and Mkhitar Grigoryan, who were conducting experiments with new wheat varieties in Shirak,” Arakelyan said. “I was impressed with their work. The next growing season, I started planting wheat provided by ATG.”
As a program farmer, Arakelyan was supplied with seed and allowed to repay ATG after harvest. “My first year, I planted Weston and Nellie, new varieties offered by ATG,” he said. “On my land in Voghchi and Gyulibuzag, I planted alfalfa.” Compared to the low yields Amasia farmers were receiving with Bezostaya, which had been the only variety available, Arakelyan harvested four metric tons per hectare. “For rain-fed fields, a harvest that high was unbelievable,” he said. “And, without a damaging hailstorm, the yield would have been much higher — between 5.5 and 6.5 metric tons.”
That autumn, Arakelyan had similar success with his alfalfa harvest, which yielded 800 kilograms per hectare. “This was a high yield for our area,” he said. “After we had cut the alfalfa the fourth time, we sowed winter wheat on the same land, which was in great shape after growing alfalfa.” A knowledgeable farmer, Arakelyan makes a practice of rotating crops, and never plants wheat on the same ground two consecutive growing seasons. “This is especially important when growing for seed, to keep the varieties from becoming mixed,” he explained.
Seed association plays key role
In recent years, Arakelyan took his seed to ATG’s storage shed in Akhourian to be cleaned and treated. “There, Tomik Hakopyan, who operated the shed, always made sure the cleaning and treating processes went smoothly,” Arakelyan said. “We always worked well together.” This year, Arakelyan and Hakopyan have been accepted as growers for the Akhourian chapter of the Seed Producers’ Support Association (SPSA), a government-certified organization founded in 1998 by ATG. In the program, SPSA growers will produce high quality first generation seed and guarantee Armenian farmers access to this seed. To ensure the success of SPA, only farmers known to produce high quality seed are chosen as SPSA growers. According to Gagik Mkrtchyan, who acts as liaison between SPSA growers and individual wheat farmers, Arakelyan has a solid reputation in Lower Amasia for producing good seed. “Harutyun is one of the most consistent growers I know,” he said. “We have worked together for 10 years. He pays his debts in a timely manner. Our relationship has always been positive.”
This growing season, Arakelyan will sow wheat for SPSA on his six-hectare plot in Meghrashat. “The land is in prime condition,” he said. “Everything starts with seedbed preparation. The soil has to be ready.” Every year, to ensure the seed is evenly planted, Arakelyan levels the land with a leveler provided by ATG. The leveler is one of several built in a project sponsored by ATG.
Credit union, warehouse benefit Lower Amasia In Meghrashat, varieties are planted which have been proven to withstand dry growing conditions. This year, Arakelyan plans on planting Dadash or Bezastoya. “I know I can count on ATG agronomists to provide varieties suitable to the rain-fed fields in Lower Amasia,” he said.
Arakelyan’s land in Meghrashat extends into a protected border zone, reaching the border with Turkey. “Our collaboration with ATG is very important in keeping this and other border areas strong,” he stressed.
For the past two years, Arakelyan has directed the Akhourian office for the Center for Assistance to Water Users Association. “I have been to every village in Shirak, from Amasia to the villages of Artik in the south,” he said. A trained accountant, Arakelyan was recently elected to serve as accountant for the credit union of the Akhourian chapter of SPSA. In a program initiated by ATG, the credit unions will give SPSA farmers the opportunity to borrow money during the growing season, giving the means for the timely application of fertilizer, herbicide, and other materials. “The credit unions will be a tremendous help to area farmers,” Arakelyan said.
With income earned from growing wheat for ATG, Arakelyan has started construction on a new warehouse on his land in Meghrashat. “It will be large enough to treat, clean, and store seed,” he stated proudly. “The warehouse will give a needed boost to the economy in Lower Amasia.” “We have made much progress the past 10 years, working with like-minded farmers, and with the professionals at ATG. They have provided us with great advice and fresh seed, ” Arakelyan said, “something we didn’t have before.”
“For me,” he continued, “growing wheat is a way of life. When I enter a wheat field, I want to sit and watch the wheat billowing in the wind. Then, I feel like I’m floating on air. Nothing is more valuable than wheat. Even gold.”
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.
You may also donate to ATG online.