The Loss of a Selfless Friend: Roger Benton

The Loss of a Selfless Friend: Roger Benton

April 4, 2011

Roger Benton Born on January 24, 1936 – Died on February 13, 2011

It is with great sadness that we report the passing of one of the Armenian Technology Group’s, (ATG) most dedicated technical advisors in agronomy, Roger Benton. Mr. Benton, a long time University of California Extension specialist at Siskiyou County and a residence of Montague / Yreka, CA passed away on February 13, 2011 in State of Oregon. After his retirement from the UC Extension position, Mr. Benton served over 15 years in Armenia (1991-2007), starting prior to Armenia’s independence, and continuing through – and long beyond – its land privatization process. From the beginning, he devoted himself to guiding the country’s impoverished farmers in western farming methods that would allow them to better provide to their families and, in time, their communities Mr. Benton left beyond his loving wife Mary Benton, his children and grand children.

In 1992, Mr. Benton along with founding members of ATG, which included the late Dr. Arthur Hazarabedian, Dr. Bob Bushnal, Dr. Leon Garoyan, Monte Bell, and Don Tounjes traveled once more to Armenia, to assess with the dire needs of the country and its people. The group’s intent then was to assess Armenia’s Animal Health/Public Health situation, in the hope of establishing a diagnostics laboratory to minimize infectious diseases that are transmissible from plants and animals to humans through the food chain. The experts quickly realized other priorities, however. Not only was there not enough feed to meet the needs of animals, but there was also a major shortage of grain to feed the population. The pre-eminent danger was famine.

Armenia was under an economic blockade by Turkey and Azerbijan as it continues to be. During the Soviet regime, 80% of the grains had been imported from various Soviet republics, mainly from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Mr. Benton, a retired UC extension agent, realized that Armenia was a promising grain-growing country. It could, potentially, produce its own grain and reduce, thereby, the almost unmitigated pressure of feeding its own people. Hence, in early spring of 1992 – under the snow – the group established the first trial plots for evaluating 30 wheat and alfalfa seed varieties. These, they had imported from the United States to Armenia’s Spitak area, the epicenter of the country’s devastating 1988 earthquake.

The purpose of these trial plots were three fold: a) to evaluate and select the best seed varieties suitable to grow in Armenia’s climate b) research and adapt the highest yielding wheat seeds possible to harvest and feed the people in each of Armenia’s seven growing zones, and; c) introduce alfalfa as a rotation crop that would also serve as animal feed and help increase dairy milk production.

For the next 15 years, Mr. Benton devoted his life, his knowledge, and his expertise to help Armenia ’s farmers. In 1994, he recruited other expert in agronomy from across the U.S. These included Mr. Roger Culver of Oregon, Dr. James Bauder of Montana, and Mr. Mark Goodson of Pennsylvania. They settled in rural Armenia, among the villagers, and taught a new class of farmers – people who had inherited newly privatized lands, but were inexperienced – how best to grow their own food. The group’s entire focus was to help the growers feed their struggling nation, so it might survive a time of terrible tribulations. Living among the poor, without electricity, adequate running water, or communications system, Mr. Benton and his colleagues touched the lives of thousands of families, as these learned, gradually, how to trust their advisors and then better their farming practices. The new guidance involved not only demonstrating better basics – such as leveling the land, properly adjusting combines, or more successfully repairing and maintaining old tractors and farm equipment – but also included, importantly, the conducting of extension educational seminars. The agronomists did this practically throughout the country – reaching over 300 villages. The productive results of their efforts continue to this day! Working together, these experts, in time, establish a real private sector seed and grain production industry in Armenia, an industry that included a Seed Producer’s Association, and a seed quality inspection and certification department at the Armenian Ministry of Agriculture.

Such vital achievements in Armenia, by determined farming contingents, can never be forgotten by a grateful nation. The technical assistance provided under the auspices of ATG –through hundreds of seminars and field demonstrations, were made possible with the financial support of the US Government and Diaspora Armenians. Almost 70% of the seed sown in Armenia today has its roots in the efforts of the ATG seed program. The applied scientific research in setting up numerous trial plots for varieties of seeds throughout the country has become an annual practice for ATG staff in Armenia. Whereas the grain producers co-operating with ATG report, on average, a net increase in yield of 350% per acre.

One of the passions that Roger enjoyed dearly, like a hobby, was keeping his tractors in a meticulous and clean condition. He carried that passion from Siskiyou County to Armenia. There, today, the organization that continues to operate, maintains its own farm equipment and maintenance shop.

In addition to his sojourn to Armenia, in 2003 Mr. Benton, along with other members of ATG traveled to Central Asia to apply his expertise in the impoverished Republic of Tajikistan.

The ATG board of directors would like to honor Mr. Benton’s Armenia Legacy, by helping the Armenian farmers replace their obsolete and dilapidated farm equipment left over from Soviet times, and to empower them to lower their operating costs and be more efficient in their operations. This is particularly necessary in these uncertain economic times where food prices are on the rise all over the world.

The following episode, and in the words of erstwhile US Ambassador to Armenia Michael C. Lemmon might best summarizes the results of Mr. Benton’s contribution to humanity.

In August 2000, as a response to emergency humanitarian drought relief efforts, ATG and its network of farmers responded to the US Embassy’s request to assist the Armenian Government’s call for help to supplying wheat seed to Armenian farmers. Within 45 days, ATG and its co-operating farmers were able to harvest; clean, treat and bag the wheat seed generated by the ATG farmers in Armenia, and distribute them to 12,054 farm families — ready for fall planting.

In a letter dated November 8, 2000, addressed to ATG and copied to U.S. Department of State, Ambassador Lemmon wrote: “Roger, your dedication, initiative, and resourcefulness have been exceptional in this project and gives new meaning to the saying that, “when there is a will there is a way.” I commend you for your willingness to devote your time and efforts to “getting the job done.” Ambassador Michael C. Lemmon.

In honor of Roger Benton’s legacy, contributions to carry on the work that he started may be sent to Armenian Technology Group, Inc. (ATG), a California based 501(c) 3 charitable organization, and mail to ATG P. O. Box 5969 Fresno, CA 93755. For more information, you may contact ATG at 559.224.1000.