Planting Seeds and Pedaling for Progress: ATG sees great yields for Armenian farmers

Andranik Hovakimyan, 42, from the village of Aygepar in Armenia’s Tavush region talks about his wheat fields and of the burden they have tolerated along with the rest of the country.

{ai107901.jpg|left}“After the collapse of the Soviet Union and after the Karabakh war our region became isolated from advances in agriculture observed in other parts of the country. After land privatization we were left alone facing the problems of land.”

But now, too, Hovakimyan looks at his high-yielding crops and has a better report:

“All this was left behind when we met the Armenian Technology Group (ATG) NGO.”

Hovakimyan says that they didn’t have seeds, fertilizers or other items needed for land cultivation. Local seeds had lost their quality. Random merchants would bring and sell whaterver seeds they could find, and as a result, the crops were no better than the means of producing them.

“Before the emergence of ATG (www.usatg.org) we didn’t know who to trust, but now we get amazing results,” he says.

ATG was established in 1989 through the efforts of American-Armenian veterinary Andranik Hazarapetian. During those years with several specialists (agronomists, veterinarians) they visited Armenia.

“Earthquake, blockade, war, unemployment, ruined rural economy. After seeing all this we decided to contribute to Armenia’s economic development by creating necessary conditions to address all that, emphasizing the agricultural sector,” says ATG Executive Director Varuzhan Ter-Simonian. “We began to import wheat seeds, at that time 80 percent of Armenia’s wheat seeds had already been coming from abroad,”

With U.S. Government assistance the organization began to import seeds. Before the distribution of seeds they organized lectures to keep farmers aware of how to treat it before planting.

“We organized lectures also after planting, and generally three times a year. We selected farmers according to their abilities and according to demand. Five of our specialists came from the United States and went to different regions of Armenia – Syunik, Gegharkunik, Tavush, Armavir and Shirak. The goal was to live with a farmer side by side and help him. During those years more than 100,000 farmers were retrained,” says Ter-Simonian.

Beginning in 1995 ATG decided to organize seed production locally. They began to cooperate with international organizations, such as the International Maze and Wheat Improvement Organization (CIMMYT).

Ter-Simonian says that they have tested more than 250 varieties of wheat in Armenia. Due to ATG’s activities, the country’s wheat seed production increased by 30 percent. Armenia’s Selection Achievement Experimental Protection and Seed Quality Control Center licensed seven varieties of ATG wheat in Armenia.

In 1998, ATG Foundation established the Seed Producers’ Support Association (SPSA) NGO for the local farmers to continue this work with their own efforts.

About 100 farms representing the republic’s nine regions are members of the union today. These farms are mainly engaged in producing wheat, fodder crop and potato seedings.

Hovhakimyan says farmers got unlimited assistance from ATG. “ATG’s professional advice, new high-quality wheat seeds and new technologies have made us competitive on the local market today,” he says.

In addition to its seed-producing initiative, ATG also organizes bike-a-thons (marathon races on bicycles) and all proceeds received from them are used for implementing their agricultural projects.

Ter-Simonian says that for Diaspora Armenians, Armenia should not be limited to Yerevan only. And a bike-a-thon brings people to Yerevan, and then takes them to the country’s different regions. “We contribute to the development of our adventure tourism, investing the revenues from this into the rural economy,” he says.

With the funds of the first bike-a-thon held in 1999 a grape nursery was established in Karabakh. The nursery established in a territory of 1.5 hectares in the borderline village of Khramort today already reaches 8 hectares. Here local grape varieties are vaccinated against phylloxera, a disease eats the grapes’ roots.

{ai107902.jpg|right}Four milk cooling tanks were bought from proceeds of the second bike-a-thon held on August 21-27, 2004 and placed in four regions.

The proceeds from this year’s bike-a-thon, held on August 21-27, 2005 will be invested into the establishment of a diagnostic laboratory for use in cattle breeding.

“Armenia has no such laboratory. The one preserved from the past diagnoses two diseases, and the new one will make it possible to diagnose six at a time,” says Ter-Simonian. “If animals are healthy, then a farmer’s business does not suffer, people’s health is not endangered, and finally Armenia can freely export its agricultural produce to the international market.”

The republic’s veterinaries today take a special examination at the Ministry of Agriculture to work in the future diagnostic laboratory center. Construction will begin by the end of this year. One million dollars of the required five will be invested by the Armenian Government, the rest will be provided by the U.S. Government, ATG Foundation.

According to the executive director, 14 people have already applied for participation in next year’s bike-a-thon.

“The help of participants in the Bike-a-Thon effort is invaluable to our projects. It is also a wonderful occasion to visit Armenia’s rural areas and contribute a little to the economic development of villages,” says Ter-Simonian.