Armenia’s richest and most fertile province, Ararat, covers 2,096 square kilometers (810 square miles), facing the twin-peaked Biblical mountain from which it gets its name. It can be said that Ararat province, by its agricultural significance, is the heart of the republic.
The 197,000 people of the province living in 93 rural communities are the driving force that helps advance local agriculture, despite obstacles to their effectiveness. The population numbers make a strong point about the value of villagers in the life of the country. From villages averaging less than 2,000 residents each (not including the 20,000 population of the provincial seat, also named Ararat) come the fruits and vegetables that end up feeding much of Armenia’s population. Produce from these communities is mainly taken to Yerevan markets, and in autumn is also sold to processing plants.
Ararat Governor Edik Barseghian speaks reverently about the province’s hard-working population, noting that people in Ararat—claiming a blood line that flows back to Noah himself—are bound to their land.
According to the Agriculture and Environment Department at the Ararat Governor’s Office, 94,600 tons of grapes were produced in the province in 2011, which is 1,281 tons more than the previous year.
“We negotiate with processing companies about volumes and prices. As a result, this year  we’ve had a good result,” says the governor.
Barseghian highlights the fact that the villagers’ entire harvests were sold—last season for 130 drams (about 30 cents) per kilo, a slight increase over previous years.
“One hundred and thirty drams is not much. Growing grapes is a costly process involving weed killers and pesticides, fertilizers, large amounts of irrigation water and diesel fuel. All measures should be taken for further raising the wholesale purchase price for grapes,” he says.
The year for the province proved favorable also in terms of crop production. A total of 281,000 tons of vegetables were produced, which was 12,000 tons more than during the previous year. Fruit production profited most from 2011’s better weather than the previous year, yielding 75,500 tons, compared to an alarmingly low 24,600 tons in 2010.
Last year saw a 26,300-ton yield of apricots and a 22,000-ton yield of peaches; seven tons of apricots were exported to Russia. Farmers have an opportunity to store some 20-24,000 tons of grapes in the province’s refrigeration facilities.
The Ararat province is rich in greenhouses in Masis and Artashat. There are more than 2,800 such greenhouse farms there. In the Masis area there are also 133 fish farms, which annually produce more than 4,000 tons of fish. Nearly 400 tons of fish are exported to Russia.
The governor also links the increase in production with the installment of anti-hail stations in the province. In previous years, hail would sometimes damage up to 30-40 percent of yield.
Ararat installed 48 anti-hail stations last year and, by the end of this spring, hopes to have 12 more. “The entire province will be protected,” says Barseghian.
The governor links the increase in crop production also to the work done within the framework of a United States aid program, Millennium Challenge Account.
In 2009-2011, the province saw the cleaning and reconstruction of 329 kilometers (204 miles) of its drainage networks, 32 artesian wells, and seven deep wells. Pumping stations in Ararat were rebuilt. Water pipes were installed in 16 communities of the province with a 15-percent co-funding from the communities. A total of about $108,000 was spent to carry out the entire work.
Selling the produce, good but not good enough
But while measures have been taken to increase and secure production, little has been done to facilitate direct-to-market selling, creating a condition in which villagers see potential profits lost to middlemen.
Selling the produce remains a big problem for villagers today. The provincial governor says that re-sellers at retail markets in Yerevan are eager to get Ararat produce, but the villagers themselves have no place to display and sell their own produce in the markets.
Barseghian says he’d like to see a wholesale market set up in a Yerevan suburb, designated for Ararat villagers to sell their produce.
The governor says, too, that nearly 11,000 acres of land remains uncultivated. The reason is that owners of the land have left—most likely for Russia—or else the available land is not irrigated.
Like in all Armenian provinces, in Ararat, too, there is also a problem with agricultural machinery. The few Soviet-era tractors that still run in villages are worn-out. This year, the state provided two communities, Aygestan and Noramarg, with one tractor each, with the provision that the community would pay it off over time.
The governor says that they have made a request to the government for another 10 tractors. But the problem is that many communities are unable to pay for these tractors at a cost of $20,000 even within several years.
The shortage of chemical weed and pest killers and fertilizer is also a problem for the province. Besides being expensive, they are of low quality.
Barseghian says that, together with governors from other regions, he has turned to the Office of the President to ensure that imported fertilizer is provided to farmers with a state subsidy.
“In our province there is a demand for 500 tons. If the government provides a subsidy, a villager will be able to get a 50-kilogram sack for $15, but now one such sack is sold for some $30,” he says.
Governor Barseghian considers it a great assistance to rural farms that the province was provided with 197 tons of seeds for the autumn sowing campaign as part of the “2010-2014 Wheat Seed-Growing and Seed Production Development” program.
Overall, Ararat communities annually receive a subsidy of more than 2 billion drams (some $5.3 million), which often together with local budgets is still not enough to cover all expenses.
The village of Mkhchian in the Ararat province is about 11 miles from Yerevan. The agricultural year there does not end in autumn. The work in the village’s greenhouse farms goes on all year round.
In 2011 Mkhchian was recognized as the best rural community in Armenia and received a $2,600 award from the government.
Mkhchian’s annual budget is $41,000. Every year the village receives $147,000 from the state as a subsidy. The village has a kindergarten, which works throughout the year and is attended by 100 children. A secondary school with 700 students, and a local music school enrolling 100. There is also a culture house, and an outpatient clinic. All facilities are supplied with heating systems.
Mkhchian’s house of culture and kindergarten were repaired from the State Social Security Fund. The community covered 10 percent of the expenses needed for the repairs of the house of culture and 20 percent of the expenses for the kindergarten. A 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) drinking water supply pipe was reconstructed in the village due to funds from the Asian Development Bank.
Mkhchian community leader Ashot Isajanian says his village resembles a little power plant, as it is always working.
“The whole village is under glass and cellophane greenhouses and people work within. You will not see an idling Mkhchian resident. There is a good saying—they say, look for your future wife or daughter-in-law in Mkhchian, but don’t give your daughter in marriage to a Mkhchian man, because she will have to work too hard,” says Isajanian.
The village that was founded in 1872 has 1,500 households today. The ancestors of 5,200 residents came here from the Khoy and Salmast provinces of Iran. Nearly 500 families have left the village in the past 20 years, as they have found it difficult to adapt to new socio-economic conditions.
“During the years of hardship, darkness and cold, when life ground to a halt, it was very difficult to go on living. But Mkhchian pulled itself together and recovered. Now I can say that a dozen new houses are built in the village every year. While in the Soviet period the village had 300 cars, today the number of cars reaches 700,” says Isajanian.
During Soviet times Mkhchian was known as a “flower village,” a tradition that continues today. In greenhouse farms villagers grow carnations, gerberas, chrysanthemums and Anastasia flowers. They also grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
There are five farms in the village growing gerberas. One of them belongs to Susanna Grigorian, who has grown flowers for at least 37 years. During the Soviet period, she grew carnations for 17 years, and in the past 20 years she has grown gerberas in a greenhouse area of 14,500 square feet.
“I have always been satisfied with my greenhouse farm, but after the rise in the natural gas prices it became very difficult. In wintertime we are happy if we can at least not work in the red,” says Susanna.
Susanna sells a bunch of gerberas including 30 flowers to florists for $21. In winter months she sells eight or 10 bunches every fourth day. In summer the same 30-flower bunch is less than $3.
Susanna says that they begin to use natural gas in large quantities beginning from October and do so until May, depending on the weather. She says her gas bill for the 2010-2011 season was $17,500—about 830 bundles of gerberas.
“We only manage to balance our revenues and expenses,” she says.
Mkhchian’s Roman Petrosian grows white carnations in his greenhouse. He has been in the business for 10 years. Petrosian, too, complains about the price of natural gas.
“I sell one carnation to a retailer for 25 cents. I monthly burn natural gas worth $525. But we hardly pick 50 carnations a week, when in winter the flower opens late,” he says. Still, Petrosian has to keep the greenhouse in operation during the lean months, for a chance at better results in spring and autumn when his return is not cut by gas bills.
His greenhouse revenues, he says, go mostly toward land tax—on property he privatized, but has not cultivated.
Village head Isajanian says that such lands—some 890 acres in the village—are a problem for villagers today.
“In the 1990s we became the owner of the land and were very happy about that, but we did not consider such problems as the lack of agricultural machinery, expensive irrigation water, costly and low-quality pesticides and fertilizer, problems with selling our agricultural produce,” explains Isajanian.
The local leader says the village made a request to the Ararat regional administration for new tractors to be provided to their community. Isajanian says the community is ready to buy them with its own means.
Isajanian says that despite the typical problems of rural life, the people in Mkhchian try to overcome them and stay attached to their land.
“The state ought to turn its attention to rural areas and villagers, support them, provide subsidies, and extend a helping hand. If villages become empty, no one will need the capital city,” says the Mkhchian leader.
The leader of Ararat province’s Taperakan village, Mihran Manaserian, speaks with regret about those natives of the village—about one-fourth of the population—who left the community over the past two decades or so.
“It even hurts to say how many have left. At this moment we have 4,500 villagers. Were it not for emigration, their number would be around 6,000. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR and the switch to new economic conditions, our village failed to make that transition easily,” says Taperakan’s mayor.
Taperakan was founded by 11 families who emigrated from Van during the Armenian Genocide. In the past it was named after Soviet Bolshevik leader Sergei Kirov. It was renamed Taperakan in 1991.
Unlike in other villages, the educational level of Taperakantsis is fairly high. This was also the case during the Soviet times, and the majority of the village population had jobs in Yerevan, which is only 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the village.
“People had no connection to the land,” Manaserian says. “But beginning in the 1990s many of them became land owners. During those years everything was on the decline; now, thank God, those who remain in the village are solid and moving forward. Taperakan has been recovering little by little,” says Manaserian.
Taperakan’s vineyards have been well known since Soviet times. But during the transition period many of the villagers chose to dismantle them, replacing them with vegetable gardens.
“Such plants do not grow well in clay soil. And so there was a lot of painstaking effort and little result. People again returned to grape growing,” says Manaserian.
Presently the village has 617 acres of vineyards, but it once had 1,000 acres.
Processing enterprises, namely Yekaze, Tavinko and Van-777, operate in Taperakan. There is also a flour mill and two bakeries.
The Van-777 company was founded by village leader Manaserian in 1995.
“During those years everything in Armenia was being destroyed and ruined, and I began to build,” says the Taperakan mayor, who is a professional winemaker. “The establishment of such an enterprise is a blessing for farmers, because they have some place to sell their produce.”
Van-777 employs 50 people. The wine and brandy produced there is fully exported to Russia. In 2011, the company purchased 596 tons of grapes at a price of some 30 cents per kilo.
“The annual production volume makes 250,000 bottles and more. We already have contracts, whereby, beginning this year, up to one million bottles will be produced and the entire production will go for export,” says Manaserian.
The village has an outpatient clinic, and house of culture—both of Soviet-era, but well preserved and clean.
A kindergarten is under re-construction, paid for from the local budget. A three-kilometer (1.8 miles) water supply pipe was constructed through the funding of the Asian Development Bank, while another 2.5-km section (1.5 miles) of the pipe was built with the community’s funds.
Manaserian supports the idea of collective farming—a system that was in place during the Soviet era, and that would seem to have merit among struggling single-family farmers today. “No consolidation of scattered farming takes place. Lands remain unused in the hands of their owners. In this economy revenues should be divided among the people,” Manaserian says.
For the development of Taperakan, Manaserian first puts requirements on himself, and is troubled that about 100 families in the village continue to live in clay-block houses built in 1931-35, so-called “barracks.” Manaserian says that he constantly looks for ways to solve this problem.
There are three types of grapes in Suren Baghdasarian’s refrigerating facility -- Van, Hayastan and Padarka.
Baghdasarian lives in Yerevan, while his business is in the village of Kanachut, about 25 kilometers away.
“Here I fit up to 5-6 tons of grapes, keep them at a temperature of +2, +3 Celsius (35.6-37.4 F) until March-April,” he says, giving a guest a tour of his enterprise. “In spring I sell them at a price of 400 drams (a little more than $1) per kilo.” During warmer months, he would get about one-fourth that price. Baghdasarian says that from a vineyard of 4,000 square meters he got 10 tons of grapes, of which he sold four tons in summer, and stored the rest.
Many in Kanachut have refrigerating facilities where they store grapes, pears and apples to sell them in winter at higher prices. But still the locals complain about their returns.
“During Soviet times agricultural markets were for farmers. But now go to the Gum market (a major bazaar in Yerevan) and see whether you can find any villagers among traders there. Now it’s only resellers from the city who have made retail a trade,” says Baghdasarian.
At the market near Yerevan’s railway station, wholesale buyers purchase apples from him at a price of 45 cents to $1.05 per kilo and later resell them at a price of $1.80- $2.10 per kilo.
This year Kachanut farmers produced a total of 1,000 tons of peaches. Resellers bought the yield from them at a price of 80 cents to 90 cents per kilo, selling it later at $3.90-$4.70 per kilo.
Levon Asatrian, who has been the mayor of Kanachut since 1996, also speaks about problems with selling agricultural produce. He says the problem is particularly acute for the village where fruit growing is the main occupation. In recent years, new peach, apple and plum orchards have been planted, but selling the yield remains a headache for the local farmers.
Kanachut has 360 households, in which a total of 1,450 people live. Asatrian says that 24 acres out of 481 acres of privatized land in the village remain uncultivated.
Among the main difficulties, the local mayor mentions a lack of machinery. The village has some tractors that have survived from Soviet times, but they hardly run.
“The government is offering new tractors worth $23,000 each, but by ourselves we cannot afford to buy them for our community,” he says.
And Baghdasarian says that it is not easy for farmers to pay $131 to hire a tractor every time they want to plough one hectare of land. And after plowing, there is the matter of tending. A tractor spreads 100 liters of pesticides and weed killers for about $4, and each treatment takes some 500-600 liters.
“I’m not complaining but, in any case, the villagers’ situation is very bad. Let them [officials] come and take a tour of the village, let them ask if there is a single tractor,” says Baghdasarian as he puts his 25-liter-capacity sprinkler on his back and starts sprinkling his orchard.
Kanachut’s annual budget is $45,000, another $31,600 is a state subsidy. The village has a house of culture and an outpatient clinic. The local school is attended by 150 pupils; the kindergarten has 20. The house of culture was renovated under a state social program ($105,000, was spent).
Mayor Asatrian says fertilizer and weed and pest-control chemicals are too expensive for most farmers. One liter of pesticides costs $80-$105. A 50-kilogram sack of fertilizer that villagers say is of low quality costs about $23. So before a seed is dropped, a villager is looking at a few hundred dollars’ overhead (considering plowing, fertilizing, etc.)—a significant sum for those operating on credit and hope.
“Don’t the authorities know what is happening in the village? Here’s the reason why farmers are unable to pay taxes,” says the village mayor.
And Baghdasarian says that villagers get disappointed with their work when at the end of the year processing plants buy up their produce for pennies. And in his description of the producer-retailer relation is revealed a common perception by villagers that they are being taken advantage of; a perception that may be rooted, yet, in painful lessons about how a free-market economy works.
Asatrian names one plant that is believed to be owned by the family of a government minister. “The company purchased tomatoes for 5-7 cents per kilo. Why? Is this what it costs to grow them? Every year grapes were purchased for about 20 cents a kilo. It is good they sold for about 30 cents a kilo this year. They bought peaches for 10 cents a kilo, while half a liter of peach juice is sold for about $1.50. Isn’t that a shame?” says Baghdasarian.
The Kanachut village head worries that unless there is more pay off, his village will soon have fewer people working the land and more people leaving it.