Decoding the Aloe: Armenian farmer tries to grow desert plant for commercial purposes

Despite the late fall outside, the greenhouse of Karen Avagyan is full of spring mood. Avagyan is the only farmer in Armenia who is growing aloe, adapting the originally desert plant to Armenian conditions.

A geological engineer by profession, he says that two years ago when he first decided to engage in the cultivation of aloe, he pledged to “decode” and understand this representative of the cactus plant family and develop its production in Armenia.

“The plants usually bloom, bear fruit, ripen, and that’s all. Aloe does not have harvest time. When you are engaged in the cultivation of this plant it seems that year, month, date, time stop. You are not able to comprehend whether it is the beginning, the middle or the end. The aloe code is associated just with time,” says the 42-year-old resident of the village of Gai in Armenia’s Armavir province (some 25 kilometers to the west from capital Yerevan).

Prior to aloe cultivation, Avagyan was engaged in the cultivation of roses and alstroemerias, and later decides to get engaged in the cultivation of the plant that no one has yet tried to grow in Armenia for purely commercial purposes.

“I was interested in that problem, how I could solve that problem, what the secret of the plant was. Now it’s me that sells the plant’s seedlings, gives advice, let it spread out in Armenia, let we have our own,” says Avagyan.

He explains: from the age of three aloe leaves are becoming mature and can be plucked. Usually a greenhouse of 1,000 square meters gives 10 tons of aloe leaf, and a greenhouse of 800 square meters should give 8 tons each year for 40 years.

“But it does not give 8 tons from the very beginning. You plant seedlings, the plant begins to grow, and its roots start to spread in the soil. A few years later, there will be roots almost everywhere in this soil. It sets up solid foundation for a 100-year-long life.

In the third year it gives 2 tons, in the fourth - 3 tons, only then it gradually rises to 8 tons, and keeps giving that 8 tons,” he explains.

He tells about how he conducted a survey in pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies to understand what plant is in demand. It turned out that aloe was in the greatest demand, because whatever cultivation of aloe there was ceased after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“I had an Iranian-Armenian friend, who said that he could bring the seedlings from Iran, where aloe is cultivated in large open fields. For a few months I was reading books about it, I surfed on the Internet to gather information about the plant’s cultivation. I realized that I was going to spend at least three years at first and only after that I would get a long-term, sustainable profit for the next 40-50 years,” says Avagyan.

In 2013, Avagyan presented a plan called “Aloe Vera Cultivation in Greenhouse Farms” to “Community Agricultural Resource Management and Competitiveness Project” organized by the Armenian Agriculture Ministry with the World Bank’s support, and won a grant of $16,000.

“I have paid $9,000 dollars for seedlings alone, the greenhouse is heated with natural gas, we are still to heat this year. I also have spent $11,000. Now I have a contract with one of the pharmaceutical companies. I will sell a kilogram for $3. The interest towards the plant is great. It is multifunctional: it is used in the production of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, juices. If I had more funding, I would have one more greenhouse. But now it is difficult, I still have to get profit,” he says.

Avagyan will have his first harvest next spring. He admits that to some extent he took a risk by investing in aloe cultivation. There is a demand, but it is a new thing, so it needs time for people to get used to it.

“We offer seedlings to the local juice manufacturers, but they are afraid of starting its production. They import juices from Germany, Korea, and China. The price of one liter of aloe juice ranges from 17,000 to 20,000 drams (about $35-40). The proportion of aloe and water in the juice sold here is one to seven. I must say that as Armenian fruits and vegetables are of high quality, so is aloe grown by us has much better quality,” says Avagyan.

Like a doctor he explains: the plant is used for the diseases of the gastrointestinal system, inflammatory diseases of eyes, oral cavity, as well as for prevention of heart attacks.

“The plant is wild and weird. Do to it whatever you want, it keeps growing, very survivable, constantly gives stalks, has an interesting energetic effect, regulates the inner program of a person. I have understood only 40 percent of this plant, but I will still discover it,” he says and shows 6,000 one- to eight-year-old seedlings, which are to be sold at 700-1,200 drams ($1.45- $2.48).