Shirakamoot -- Spitak Rebuilds from 1988 Earthquake with Help from ATG Wheat Project
September 8, 2003
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Shirakamoot, Province of Lori, Armenia — Until 1988, Shirakamoot was a bustling village located on the banks of the Chichkhan River near Spitak, Armenia. Local villagers enjoyed pilgrimages to the 7th century Chichkhan monastery, which lies alongside the river. Farmers grew wheat, barley, corn, and potatoes, while others worked in the elevator factory or the railway station linking the nearby cities of Vanadzor and Gyumri.
On the morning of December 7, Albert Baboyan (pictured in front of the mayor’s office of Shirakamoot), a teacher in the neighboring village of Geghasar, boarded a bus to Yerevan. On the way, the earth shook, rocking the bus like a wild horse. Not knowing the severity of the earthquake, Baboyan and the other passengers continued on their way. By the time they reached Yerevan, word had already spread that a powerful earthquake had struck the Spitak region and had completely destroyed the town of Spitak. The passengers immediately headed back home.
The road to Spitak was already closed, but Baboyan and others from Shirakamoot and Geghasar somehow made it back to their villages. “People were crying, screaming,” he said. “I rushed to the school to find my six-year-old son. He was dead.”
Shirakamoot had been the epicenter of the earthquake. The main building of the train station had sunk beneath the river, leaving only the roof visible. Headlines read, “Shirakamoot is No More.” Armenia was in mourning.
Armenians everywhere, along with the international community, helped the residents of the Spitak region rebuild, but the old way of life could not be easily restored. In Shirakamoot, with the destruction of the train station and elevator factory, the economy shifted to farming, especially of wheat and other grain crops.
Even as they recovered from the earthquake, the farmers of Shirakamoot were dealt another severe blow by the break-up of the Soviet Union. Wheat farmers were suddenly deprived of the fresh seed they had depended on to produce abundant harvests. Yields dropped and crop infection was widespread.
In 1992, the Armenian Technology Group (ATG), a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of Armenia’s agriculture, began testing several varieties of spring and winter wheat in Armenia. One of those varieties, “Stevens”, became especially successful in the area around Spitak.
“I started working with ATG five years ago,” Baboyan, said. “I had heard from other farmers about their high yields of Stevens, which was new in the area.” Baboyan approached ATG agronomist Vazken Ohanyan, who supplied him with enough seed for a five-hectare (12.35-acre) plot. “The first year, my harvest was close to three metric tons per hectare, which is good for the fields around Shirakamoot,” Baboyan said. “But I was especially impressed with the green, healthy plants and wide leaves. It is a great variety.”
By 2003, Baboyan was planting fifteen hectares (37.05 acres) of “Stevens” and “Eltan”, another of the varieties introduced to the region by ATG. “With clean seed and timely herbicide application, the harvest is clean and the yield is high,” Baboyan said. He added, “ATG is a great organization. I appreciate working with them. They are always professional when dealing with our farmers.”
After the earthquake, Baboyan authored the book The Grief of Nalband/Shirakamoot. Photographs in the book portray the devastation left by the earthquake. “Our grief was terrible,” said Baboyan, who now serves as the mayor of Shirakamoot. “It still is. But we have to live. I will never forget what happened. My wife was miraculously saved, but we lost our young son.”
Now, Baboyan does his best to look to the future. “We have a new daughter,” he said. “We needed a symbol for ourselves, and for the village. We decided to bring new life into the region, which has seen so much sadness.”
He then added, “I can speak for all farmers here in Shirakamoot, when I thank ATG for their help when we needed it most. Because of them, our farmers, and their families, have hope for the future. We will never forget what they have done for the people of Shirakamoot.”
ATG Success in Metsbarni
In the nearby village of Metsbarni, Khachik Voskanyan, a farmer and builder, has worked with ATG for the past ten years. “After the earthquake,” he said, “the situation in our village was terrible. We lost much of our population. Our three-story school building had collapsed. Life was a nightmare.”
As in nearby Shirakamoot, wheat farmers were forced to plant Russian varieties that were far removed from the “mother seed” that had been specially bred for local conditions. Yields became lower with each harvest. Some farmers stopped growing wheat altogether.
ATG furnished village farmers with both seed and fertilizer. In Metsbarni, Stevens and a variety of red wheat called Weston became especially popular. Yields were high, giving Voskanyan and other farmers the opportunity to repay ATG and sell the remaining seed. “Now our people have hope,” Voskanyan said, adding, “ATG gave us wheat seed when we had none.”
Voskanyan’s work with ATG has been extensive. He grew potatoes provided by ATG in 1999, and alfalfa, which he and Roger Benton, then the Armenia director of ATG, brought from ATG’s warehouse in the neighboring province of Shirak. As a result of his success, Voskanyan became a member of the ATG-sponsored Seed Producer’s Association of Lori, increasing his plantings of wheat and providing employment for some twenty families of Metsbarni.
Andranik Karapetyan, a farmer and businessman in Spitak, also experienced great tragedy in the 1988 earthquake, losing his wife and young son. “I thought life was over,” Karapetyan said. “Nothing was left in Spitak. I don’t know how I continued.”
Karapetyan now operates the Spitak branch of Agro Service, which supplies and rents farm equipment, including tractors, combines, planters, and levelers used in the planting and harvesting of wheat and other grains. Working all over the province of Lori, including the districts of Stepanavan, Gougark, Tashir, and Toumanyan, Karapetyan became familiar with the new varieties of wheat introduced by ATG. “I saw with my own eyes the successes farmers were having with these varieties,” he said.
In his first year working with ATG, Karapetyan planted five hectares of Weston. “The wheat looked excellent,” he said, “and had good, green color. But just a few days before harvest, hail ruined the entire crop.” Karapetyan harvested what he could, cleaned and treated the seed, and replanted. “The weather here is unpredictable. Farming in Lori is very risky. But I won’t give up.”
Karapetyan has roots in the district of Kars, just across the border with Turkey, near the city of Ani. His grandparents are from Baybourt, a village near Kars. He plans a visit there later this year. “My grandfather described their house and mulberry tree. I know I will find it. But my home is in Spitak. My wife and son are buried here. I will never leave Spitak.”
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.
You may also donate to ATG online.