Roger Culver -- American Agronomist Lends Expertise to ATG Projects
March 10, 2004
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Yerevan, Armenia — In the early 1990s, as Armenian agriculture reeled from the effects of Soviet collapse and the resulting shortages of seed, pesticide, and herbicide, farming experts and technical assistants from the Fresno, California-based Armenian Technology Group (ATG) began working with Armenian farmers to assist in the difficult transition to a free market economy. Dedicated to promoting Armenia’s agricultural self-sufficiency, ATG was prepared for the challenges that lay ahead.
Focusing on the severe shortage of wheat in Armenia, ATG began experimenting with new, improved varieties of wheat, with the ultimate goal of providing Armenia’s farmers with a steady supply of high quality seed. In 1994, in a project made possible by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, ATG organized the distribution of Elite wheat seed to farmers all over Armenia. In what began as a humanitarian relief effort, technical assistants accompanied the seed and helped in its distribution and planting.
Oregon agricultural expert heeds call
Roger Culver, an agronomist and farmer from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, had a special interest in Armenia and the former Soviet Union. “I was experienced in the farming of wheat and other grains,” Culver said. “I happily accepted the opportunity to work in Armenia, to assist ATG in their far-reaching endeavors.”
In the summer of 1994, Culver accepted duties in Sissian, a town in southern Armenia in the historical region of Zangezur.
In the project’s first phase ATG was responsible for distributing the seed and seeing that it was properly planted. “I worked closely with ATG program director Gagik Mkrtchyan and regional agronomist Razmik Harutyunyan,” Culver said. “We worked diligently to get the farmers introduced to proper seedbed preparation and seeding rates.” Seminars and workshops were conducted in Sissian, Goris, and Yegheknadzor to train local agronomists and area farmers in the latest techniques in the various stages of the farming of wheat and other grains.
For many new farmers, making the transition from collective, government-backed farms to private farms was difficult. “Some still thought the government should be responsible for supplying herbicides, pesticides, or other inputs,” Culver said. “We had many successes, and some failures, but there was a lot gained by farmers accepting responsibilities, learning good production practices, and becoming aware of what was available for them in becoming responsible businessmen in a competitive, free market economy.”
One of the major successes of the work initiated in 1994 is that there are now experienced farmers in the seed production business who started with ATG and continue as program farmers today. “ATG and I established many friendships and working relationships which remain to this day,” Culver said. “For me, working in the high mountain fields of Sissian was exhilarating. I visit the region whenever I can.”
The project was continued in 1995, with ATGF distributing fertilizer and herbicide provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Culver, who headed the ATG project in the Zangezur region, noted the success of the 1995 harvest. “From yields which had fallen to about one metric ton per hectare,” he said, “farmers saw an increase to three metric tons. This was due to having good, first-generation seed, which they didn’t have after the Soviet Union collapsed.”
Success, hard work lead to new appointment
In August 1995, a year after accepting ATG duties in the Sissian region, Culver was appointed ATG’s director of operations in Armenia. “I gladly accepted the responsibility of leading ATG during this important phase of agricultural development in Armenia,” Culver said.
At the time, ATG looked to expand the Wheat Seed Project and to develop a seed bank, with the goal of providing Armenia’s farmers with a steady supply of high quality seed. “We worked very hard to establish this project, now known as the Seed Multiplication Program (SMP),” Culver said. During Culver’s tenure as director, an association of seed producers was also initiated. “With a core group of farmers trained in the production of high quality seed, the success of this program is now assured,” Culver added. “Locally trained professional agronomists, experts in certified seed production, further guarantee the success of SMP.”
Culver served as ATG’s in-country director until 2000. He now works as a technical assistant in field operations. “We have developed excellent relations with Armenian farmers,” Culver proudly stated. Visiting farmers and farms constantly, ATG places high importance on maintaining personal contact with ATG program farmers. “I am a farmer,” Culver stressed. “I feel it vitally important to meet with farmers on their land.”
New research, projects seen in ATG’s future
As a trained agronomist and grain farmer, Culver sees a continued role for ATG in the fields of marketing and research, especially in the seed industry. “Primarily, the seed industry needs to organize and promote its product to benefit the commercial wheat industry,” he said. “Our support for the Seed Producers Association (SPA), whose farmers produce high quality first generation seed, is critical.”
Besides the need for new equipment, including teaching the proper use of combines and planting drills, new research remains a priority. “For example, it is important to find out which micronutrients, such as copper, zinc, and boron, are needed in the soil,” Culver stated. “No-till grain production, where special drills and different methods of weed eradication are used, should also be researched.”
To further bolster the gains made in Armenian agriculture, Culver urges the Armenian Diaspora to keep informed on both progress and needs in agricultural matters in the Republic of Armenia. “A strong tie between ATG and the Diaspora will help further ATG’s working relationship with the Ag Ministry, creating a stronger bridge between Armenia and the Diaspora,” Culver said. A strong bond with the Ag Ministry assures that the needs of farmers will be understood, resulting in higher standards of agricultural inspection and the protection from unnecessary fees. “The coordination of efforts between farmers and agricultural agencies is vital,” Culver stressed.
Strong bond formed with Armenian farmers, land
In the early autumn of 2003, a small team of professionals from ATG’s Yerevan office journeyed to Sissian to investigate a field of Dadash wheat, a variety in the CIMMYT family now being grown in Armenia. Grown by SMP program farmers, the wheat was unusually tall and healthy, taking on a golden yellow as harvest neared. “Seeing a set this good in the high, rain-fed fields of Sissian was a great feeling,” Culver said. “The farmers did a great job.”
Building on a relationship both professional and personal, ATG is working with Sissian farmers in the development and production of new varieties of wheat that thrive in mountainous regions. “I have known these farmers for 10 years,” Culver said. “They farm in difficult conditions, with long, hard winters and spring droughts. They are some of the best farmers in Armenia.”
A true farmer, Roger Culver appreciates having been able to play a part in the improvement of Armenian agriculture and the lives of farmers and villagers. “My greatest satisfaction is that farmers were thankful for ATG assistance in helping them begin business in a free market economy and to understand agronomic and economic practices,” he said. “It was satisfying that they considered us more than technical advisors and distributors of U.S. aid, but an organization of individuals vitally interested in their personal well-being and progress in the transition to a market economy.”
For more information about how you can help Armenia’s farmers, contact the ATG office at (559) 224-1000 or by e-mail (email@example.com). Tax-deductible donations can be sent to ATG; 1300 E. Shaw, Suite 149; P.O.Box 5969; Fresno, CA 93755-5969.
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