Spitak — Seed Project Strengthens Area’s Future

Spitak -- Seed Project Strengthens Area's Future

January 24, 2005

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by Andranik Michaelian

Spitak, Province of Lori, Armenia — On a balmy, overcast autumn morning, Gagik Sahakyan walked through a field of newly sown wheat, checking to see if the seeds had started to sprout. Kneeling down, he examined several seeds in his hand. “We planted three weeks ago,” he said. “The seeds look like we planted yesterday. The soil is too dry. Hopefully, it will rain soon.” Looking down the hill in the direction of Spitak, Sahakyan continued: “The entire city has been rebuilt,” he said. “But we can’t forget what happened. In just a matter of minutes, nothing was left. The whole city was flattened. We lost 60,000 of our brothers and sisters. It was terrible.”

Before the 1988 earthquake, authorities planned to construct an irrigation system that would bring water to the wheat, barley, and alfalfa fields around Spitak “This would have benefited our farmers tremendously,” Sahakyan said. “But after the earthquake, the project came to a standstill. Now, only broken pieces of pipe remain of the project.”

Then, another blow was dealt to Spitak farmers with the break-up of the Soviet Union. “Our supply of good, first generation seed came to a halt,” he said.

As seed became further removed from the “Mother Seed”, yields dropped dramatically, often less than two metric tons per hectare. Diseases resulting from sowing poor quality seed were rampant. “We had problems with mrrig and rust,” Sahakyan explained. “We can clean mrrig, but rust can be devastating to our crops.”

New collaboration benefits Spitak farmers

In 1992, professionals from the Armenian Technology Group (ATG), an organization dedicated to promoting the independence of Armenia’s farmers, began working with wheat farmers in Spitak. They provided new, improved varieties of wheat and other grains and organized seminars teaching new techniques in wheat production. “In 1997, I attended a seminar led by Roger Culver, director of ATG’s Yerevan office, and Roger Benton,” Sahakyan said. “They did a great job explaining how to organize seed production.” That year, Sahakyan was accepted as a program farmer in ATG’s Wheat Seed Project, planting five hectares of Meridian, the seed provided by ATG.

Sahakyan’s first harvest, in the summer of 1998, was a resounding success, with a yield of nearly four metric tons per hectare. “This was double the yield Spitak wheat farmers had been harvesting,” he said. “A great yield for rain-fed fields.” That autumn, Sahakyan planted Weston, Stevens, and Eltan, new varieties that had proved successful in Spitak and in fields further north in Lori. “The harvest ranged from four to five metric tons,” he said. “This was unbelievable. And, the seed sold well, especially Weston, which makes excellent lavash.”

The next growing season, Sahakyan planted potatoes, in a project organized by ATG, and alfalfa, a new variety that ATG had grown on experimental plots in Lori. “I remember well the day we sowed the seed,” he said. “We were using a wheat planter, but the alfalfa seeds were too small for the machine, so we stopped planting. ATG agronomist Gagik Mkrtchyan, who was in Spitak that day meeting program farmers, came to my field, and we worked until dark, planting the seed by hand. I will never forget what he did for us that day. And, the seed was so good, we are still planting fields using the same seed, seven years later.”

Sahakyan continued to work closely with ATG agronomists, including Mkrtchyan and Vannik Simonyan, ATG’s representative in Lori. “Vannik helped me form a seed association, based on the model used by ATG,” Sahakyan said. “We were all saddened when he passed away. One of the best agronomists I have ever met. [He was] a fine man.”

The seed association, which strengthens the bargaining power of area wheat farmers, is an important step in the recovery of Spitak’s agricultural economy. “ATG has always worked for the progress of our farmers,” Sahakyan said. “Their professionalism and close attention to our needs made a great impression on me.”

This autumn, Sahakyan sowed second-generation seed, harvested from seed obtained from ATG. “I planted Bezostaya and Stevens, varieties well-adapted to the soil here in Spitak,” he said. “The quality of the seed was excellent.” To maintain high seed quality, Sahakyan never plants wheat on the same land more than three consecutive growing seasons. “After the third season, the harvest decreases, and the seed mixes with other varieties,” he explained. “And, the quality of the seed always suffers.”

A meticulous farmer, Sahakyan carefully cultivates the land before planting. “We don’t use a land leveler, but obtain good results with proper cultivation,” he said. “But first, we make sure the field is carefully burned after harvest.” When planting, Sahakyan checks the depth of the seed to ensure the proper depth. “If the seed isn’t deep enough, frost can make the root detach,” he said. “But, if the seed is too deep, a late sprouting can result in a weak root system, especially harmful in cold winters.”

Cooperation boosts area income, aids recovery

In Soviet times, wheat farmers in Spitak used cannons in their struggle against hail, a major problem in the production of wheat and other grains. “By firing into storm clouds, we were able to scatter the clouds and, in most cases, prevent hailstorms,” Sahakyan explained.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the cannons were taken away, leaving farmers vulnerable to hail, which can be devastating to ripening wheat. “Three years ago, a hailstorm destroyed most of my crop, just days before harvest,” he said. “Seeing the damage, ATG not only delayed repayment of my debt, but provided seed for the next planting.”

In 2000, a drought in Spitak and much of Armenia forced wheat farmers to abandon their fields, leaving most without seed for the autumn planting. “Again, ATG gave us seed, harvested from fields in Stepanavan, the only area in Armenia untouched by drought,” Sahakyan said. “I appreciate ATG’s help during difficult times. Without a doubt, it kept me in business. [It is] a great organization.”

With income earned from his collaboration with ATG, Sahakyan was able to build a house, on the spot where the family home was destroyed in the 1988 earthquake. “For the past three years, I rented land above Spitak, where I have planted both wheat and potatoes,” he said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without ATG. The extra income has been a tremendous help as we rebuild our lives here in Spitak.”

Love of land, farming guides farmer’s dreams

In mountains high above Spitak, Gagik Sahakyan farms wheat, alfalfa, and gorungan, a type of animal feed used as a rotation crop in years when wheat isn’t sown. Driving along a winding, rocky path, Sahakyan pointed to a small, cultivated area near the base of a mountain. He smiled. “That’s the spot Gagik Mkrtchyan and I planted alfalfa seven years ago,” he said. “[It was] a great day.”

A shepherd tended sheep and cattle at the edge of the field. “This year, I planted Bezostaya on that field,” he said. “Last week, rain finally fell, and the seeds are starting to sprout. It looks like a good year is ahead.”

Sahakyan stood near a precipice overlooking Shenavan and Hartagyugh villages and the river Chichkhan, which leads south to Shirakmoot, epicenter of the 1988 earthquake. “From here, we can walk to Chichkhan Monastery,” he said. “It will take us two hours. Every year, we go there on pilgrimage. It is a very old monastery.”

He continued: “My father was a carpenter. He was good at his trade. But as I grew up, I knew I would become a farmer. I love working with the land. When I enter a wheat field, I feel I am standing across from bread. When the crop is ripening, I feel I’ve done my job for Armenia. I feel my work is sacred. As we harvest, I know I am fulfilling my responsibility for my people. I want the lives of our people to improve, and become secure, so all Armenians who have left can come back. As Armenians, we need to maintain our traditions, and stay close to the land. With hard work, and continued collaboration with our friends at ATG, I know we can accomplish all this. Now, here in Spitak, we can look to the future.”

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