In Lori, the naturally rich northern province of Armenia, villagers quote their compatriot, writer Hovhannes Tumanian, who died in the early 20th century, when asked about their living conditions: “All we want is a piece of dry bread, and even that’s over there—hanging from the sky.”
Lori residents are known for their straightforwardness and simplicity, and speak with resignation when they say they can recall only a few random years when crops in their fertile province were not subject to heavy rains, hail, frost or drought. Lori covers 12.7 percent of all Armenia and is home to 281,700 residents, 115,800 of whom live in villages. After Syunik, it is the second largest of the 11 provinces.
Like some Tumanian tale of patience versus adversity, living off the land in Lori is a mixture of blessing and curse. The soil is fertile, the climate is more humid than in other provinces and, generally speaking, there is more natural irrigation as the rivers Debed, Dzoraget, Martsaget and Pambak provide water supply in years when rainfall or snow are normal. But its climate and water supply also attract forces of nature that drier regions are usually spared.
The 105 rural communities of Lori are involved in almost all facets of agriculture, according to the specific resources of the area. Grains are a primary crop, along with potatoes and cabbage. Bee farming (apiculture) thrives on the lush natural vegetation of several herbs and wildflowers that require no tending. Cattle breeding prospers from the many alpine meadows providing grazing for production of dairy products. “Lori” cheese has long been a trademark of the province.
But for all its natural assets, Lori’s farming resources are not being properly or sufficiently exploited, according to regional governor Artur Nalbandian, who estimates that only half of all arable lands are under cultivation—a claim that is substantiated by the local head of the Department of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, Vazgen Ohanian.
According to Ohanian, there are 111,000 acres of arable land in Lori. In 2001, about 86,000 acres were farmed; however, in 2011, only about 57,000 acres were worked. Potato cultivation—the most common crop—is an example. Ten years ago, Lori farmers worked about 22,000 acres of potatoes, but in 2011, less than 9,000.
“The worst part is that nothing is sown or planted on those lands as a replacement; they are just left uncultivated,” Ohanian says.
Why? Primarily two reasons . . .
The first represents a widespread condition slow to be addressed and far from being remedied—worn-out farming equipment. Not only is it not uncommon but, in fact, typical, to see tractors, plows, combines and mowing machines at work in fields across Armenia that have been in use since they were distributed to collective farms during the Khrushchev era of the Soviet Union.
“Agricultural machines in provinces are 40-50 years old and are almost non-functional,” Governor Nalbandian says. “There are not enough machines, and the existing ones are in bad shape, which leads to extra expenses.”
The governor says that whereas years ago a tractor owner would charge around $65 to cultivate 2.5 acres, the cost is now more than $100. “The prices for diesel fuel have gone up and so has the cost of tractor parts, which frequently break,” says Nalbandian.
Discussions are underway, Nalbandian says, on providing low-interest, long-term loans for villagers who need to buy or repair equipment.
The other crucial cause for the down-turn in land use is more complex. Simply, due to massive emigration during warm-weather months, there is a shortage of workers—plenty of farmland, but no farmhands—as most men leave their homes in Lori to go to Russia for seasonal labor.
Officials estimate that in some villages up to 80 percent of young-through-middle-aged men leave from spring through autumn for jobs in Russia—primarily construction. Some may plant crops before leaving; however, the bulk of the farm work is left to wives, children and elderly.
Labor migration is more common in Tashir and villages near Alaverdi and Vanadzor and in villages where the land is not irrigated for farming. Residents in those communities used to work in factories. But since the factories closed, they leave for construction work in Russia. Migrant workers send home an estimated $200-400 per month from spring through autumn.
“There is both emigration and labor migration here,” says the governor. “In our case, labor migration is more large-scale than emigration, because people are simply looking for temporary jobs abroad and it’s quite common. This situation is a little more acute in Tashir, because the number of labor migrants from that area reaches a disturbingly large scale. In summer, spring and autumn, 80 percent of the population are women and it certainly makes it difficult to do the kind of agricultural labor that’s commonly done by men.”
Summarizing the state of things in Lori, Nalbandian expressed a strong belief that if villagers return home and “grow attached to their land” and start working, they will not have the sort of social problems that cause them to spend most of the year in Russia.
Man-made economic problems that result in emigration may be years away from fixing, but Lori villagers are frustrated that a natural affliction with a proven remedy is not being speedily addressed: Hail.
According to data collected by the local government of Lori, in 2011, more than 2,450 acres of cultivated land in seven communities suffered $1.2 million damage because of hail.
Two anti-hail stations have been installed in Lori, but their effectiveness has not yet been tested, as they were installed last fall, in the villages of Dsgeh and Odzum. According to Dsegh village head Garnik Hovsepian, one station can cover about 200 acres, shooting acetylene gas some six miles high to turn potential hail into snow or rain. Governor Nalbandian has asked the state to provide at least six more such stations for his province.
While the province is blessed with rivers, making use of the water can still prove difficult, especially using irrigation pipes that are as old as those tractors.
In 2011 improvements were made in three villages where the Millennium Challenge Fund Armenia repaired more than three miles of irrigation channels. In 2010 the same fund built the 3.7-mile sector of a channel in Nalband village, as well as the head hydroelectric unit of the same water channel. A spray-irrigation system was built on nine acres of land in Karmir Aghek community. Irrigated arable lands in the villages increased over the past three years, from 2,433 acres in 2009, to more than 5,000 acres in 2010.
Although the total area of arable lands being used has decreased as compared to previous years, Lori province officials are satisfied with last year’s harvest, and so are villagers, whose production figures show cause to be pleased.
In 2010, Lori produced 13.6 tons of potatoes, but in 2011, 16.2 tons. In 2010, 13.2 tons of cereal grain were harvested; in 2011, 20.8 tons.
Villagers say the increased production was due mostly to better weather conditions as compared with the previous year. However, it was also a year that saw state assistance in providing better-quality seeds for at least some of the province.
Last year the government gave out 160 tons of high-quality spring-planted barley seeds to Lori province, as well as 30 tons of spring-planted barley seeds of standard quality and 11 tons of seed corn. According to the local government data, elite reproduction barley seeds were given out to 44 communities of the province, and seed corn to 25 communities. Further, as part of its “Development of Seed Breeding of Cereal Grain Crops” project, 15 farmers in Lori were given 63.1 tons of top-caliber wheat seeds for fall-planting. The task for the recipients of the free seed is to produce more quality seeds. In addition, last year, the government allotted to Lori 291 tons of seeds for wheat fall-planting, which was distributed among 35 communities.
Still, villagers complain that not enough seeds are provided by the state, as the local government had submitted a request for 500 tons of standard barley seeds. Villagers, too, complain that the seeds were not fairly distributed, claiming that village heads supervising the distribution process often acted upon their own will and gave seeds to their relatives rather than to socially vulnerable families.
Lori is also in need of seed potatoes and fertilizer.
“The government will assist in this issue, too,” says the governor. “One sack of fertilizer that villagers had bought for $25 can now be purchased for $16.”
(At the end of 2011 the government approved a state assistance project allotting a one-billion-dram [almost $2.6 million] subsidy from its reserve fund to the Ministry of Agriculture for the purchase of 25,000 tons of fertilizer for 2012.)
Governor Nalbandian believes that villagers still need more education on how to manage their land for optimum output.
“For example, villagers don’t pay attention to climatic changes. In Spitak they commonly plant cabbage, so all subsequent generations continue planting cabbage, never minding any climatic changes. We are really in need of competent specialists who could come and advise our villagers on what changes are caused by climatic shifts. Or, for example, there are villagers who complain of low fertility of their orchards, but when asked when they last pruned the trees, the answer is ‘I don’t remember.’ There is a need for that knowledge,” says the governor.
Tashir region: success story of a model family business
In Tashir, known for its alpine meadows, the Harutiunian brothers have been able to combine their professional knowledge and the area’s dairy potential to create a cheese-producing company, Dustr Melanya (Daughter Melanya). The company, founded in 1996, processed one ton of milk in its first year, and now has the capacity to process 2,500 tons annually.
Cheese maker Ruben Harutiunian and his brother, Asatur, imported modern technologies to create their successful company. But the early years were not easy.
“The start-up period was long and difficult,” Ruben says. “In those years people could hardly deal with utilities and everyday problems, let alone start a production workshop. We used to work with light from batteries (light bulbs were connected to car batteries), used electric-power generators and different kinds of fuel. Things were not like today, so no matter how much people complain now that they are having a hard time, I cannot agree. What’s worse than having electricity, water or gas for only an hour a day or not at all?”
Dustr Melanya has 19 employees and a production assortment of seven or eight kinds of cheese. Around 60 percent is exported to Russia and the United States, and the rest is for the local consumer—sold either at markets or at a small stall right next to the dairy. Their most popular cheese variety, known as Alashkert, was created by the brothers. Ruben Harutiunian is satisfied with his export business and says that the state has facilitated the process by exempting export from value added tax (VAT), and customs documentation can now be done even by phone.
Harutiunian believes that the main issue now is to create a single Armenian cheese brand in the international markets.
“There is a company called Armenian Cheese which is a well-thought idea but the company has to be able to unite everybody and, rather than presenting different companies’ products separately in the market, do so under a single brand as ‘Armenian Cheese.’ Cheese producers should present their products for consideration to that company and introduce them to international markets. Otherwise we are just taking our products to Moscow where various Armenian brands compete against one another. Why? Because each thinks about their own brand. I offer my price, somebody else offers a lower price, the third one—even lower… If one organization becomes in charge of export, it’ll also set the prices,” says Harutiunian, who, despite the tax breaks, is critical of government methods for motivating small and medium businesses in cheese production.
“It’s unacceptable when a company selling less than around $144,000 worth of products in the market doesn’t pay 20 percent VAT, but those selling just a little more than that have to pay the tax. This literally stops development. For those working on a small scale the conditions are destructive. The government should assist small and medium cheese-producing businesses with low-interest loans, more favorable tax inspection conditions, state programs, whatever else, other than creating these unfair conditions for us in the market,” says the dairy businessman.
He also stresses that the “astronomical increase” of prices for milk in 2010 practically put his production in the red last year.
Generally speaking, 2010 was a disastrous year for nearly everyone who relied on agriculture production for their livelihood. But specifically concerning milk-based production, overhead cost increases were conditioned by the price of wheat and other grains that had skyrocketed yet the previous year when Russia, from which Armenia imports most of its cereals, suffered a severe drought that decimated harvests. Dairy production businessmen now complain that even though the reasons for the increase in the cost of raw milk have since disappeared, prices have not lowered.
“During all of the recent years we used to buy a liter of milk for 26 cents, but today we buy it for 52 cents. Cheese makers are on their way to bankruptcy, they are releasing cheese for the same price as milk. Here is how I calculate: the minimum price for milk is 46 cents per liter. I multiply it by the normative and see that, for example, the production of Lori cheese [a locally popular variety of Armenian cheese] would cost about $4 per kilo. My release price is a bit more than the $4 which covers the milk price. Ok, we pay for the milk, and then what? How about the production costs, value added tax, electricity, salaries, and so on, and so forth?” asks Harutiunian.
Harutiunian’s younger brother, Asatur, studied agro-business and has been able to realize his dream in his home town, where he started a pedigree cattle-breeding farm.
Hybrids of Armenia’s native Caucasian Grey cattle and American breeds are kept in three-wall open-air barns throughout all four seasons, and Harutiunian assures that they are plenty warm, even in the bitter Lori winters.
Harutiunian developed the farm himself and now has 50 cows, 36 heifers, 30 calves and a few steers.
Three people besides Harutiunian work the farm. Asatur says his kind of farm is designed for one-family maintenance and doesn’t need more hands. The farm breeds heifers, the third or fourth generation of which is thoroughbred cattle. When he reaches a saturation of the hybrid cattle, Harutiunian hopes to produce 3,500 liters a year from one cow, whereas the Caucasian Grey produces about 2,000 liters annually.
Harutiunian also sells pedigree cattle. “But I sell them for a higher price, since this stock grows up quicker, and I spend more on their care. If somebody wants a cow for $2,000, I’ll sell; sometimes they pay as much, sometimes they don’t,” he says.
Great Parni and Gargar communities
In Great Parni barley was cultivated and grown in Soviet times, but villagers stopped sowing it during the past several years because of a lack of seeds. Due to last year’s state assistance project when barley seeds were distributed, villagers started sowing again. Village head Hrayr Yaghubian says they are satisfied with the crops—1 hectare yielded about 40-60,000 pounds, which took care of fodder and next year’s seeds.
Besides barley, they also plant potatoes and sow wheat in the village with a population of 2,400, located next to Gyumri-Vanadzor central highway. Yaghubian, who has headed the village for 15 years now, says that living is generally hard, and success means only making ends meet.
He says the village suffers from shortage of agro-machinery.
“We are somehow getting along with worn-out machines. The village has six combines, but they are 20-30 years old and rental rates aren’t affordable. I keep suggesting that a centralized truck-tractor park be created so that the prices aren’t that high, and to create competition for private owners to make them drop the price. As of now it’s way too costly—$53 and 40 liters of diesel fuel for working 1 hectare of land, whereas before 27 liters were enough. They say because the machines are rundown more fuel is used,” Yaghubian says.
Great Parni is also known for its potato production and the village head says they don’t have difficulties selling either their potatoes or wheat grains—both have a market and high demand.
“There was a time when we had trouble selling potatoes; some three years ago, we literally ‘threw them into the water’ (meaning sold really, really cheap) but the prices have stabilized now. In autumn people are able to sell their produce for 39-42 cents per kilo,” says Yaghubian.
His village, too, would like to get anti-hail stations.
“Forty percent of the families in our village have three-hectare fields (about seven acres) and when hail destroys the crops from those fields, that family goes bankrupt,” Yaghubian says. “I have been the head of this village for 15 years and have seen only two years when hail didn’t strike. We have been promised that an anti-hail station will be installed in our village. That’s our hope for salvation.”
Yaghubian also believes agricultural insurance should be introduced: “But no insurance company is taking the risk and it won’t until we have the anti-hail stations in place. We work, work, work and then with one strike all is gone,” he says.
In Gargar village with its 1,500 residents, people mostly grow wheat, potatoes and other vegetables, but very little livestock, due to limited grazing land. None of the village land is irrigated.
“With our hopes in God alone, we are unable to achieve anything,” says village head Karen Zalinian, who is hopeful that an irrigation system will be built in the nearest future. “Repairing an existing system is one thing; building one from scratch is another—it costs a huge amount of money.”
He also says that villagers are facing increasing hardship.
“Isn’t it absurd that prices for agricultural produce keep growing and the percentage of un-worked lands keeps growing, too? The reason is that people are unable to work the land when everything is so expensive,” says Zalinian, showing the pricelist of agro-machinery offered within from a Russian company manufacturing agricultural machinery. “A wheat grain combine costs $78,000. How many years will it take a villager to pay it off? A collecting-compressing machine costs $17,000, a plough costs $3,500. Villagers cannot produce enough to be able to save for purchase of machinery.”
Nonetheless, the village head speaks with pride about Narek-1 seed breeding collective farm that unites several farmers, including the village head himself. This farm holding is growing high productivity varieties of potato, as well as non-traditional vegetable species.
“We import species from Peru, Poland, and Germany. There is a variety from Peru that worked here (meaning they planted and it yielded crops), it is a good-quality red potato, with high tolerance to drought and resistance to diseases and pests. It has high productivity but our people are not used to red potatoes yet. They have this rooted belief that the red variety is only for fodder, but that’s not true, and little by little people are getting used to it,” says Zalinian. “We are cultivating non-traditional varieties every four-five years for diversification purposes—broccoli, kohlrabi, red cabbage, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, etc., which are highly valuable and healthy.”
According to him, people’s interest in these expensive crops keeps growing. “For example, when buying first hand from us, a kilo of broccoli costs $5-6,” he says, adding that mainly embassies and supermarkets purchase those.
The downside with the listed vegetables, Zalinian says, is that they don’t last and lose their qualities quickly.
“We have turned to PIG (project implementation unit) at the agriculture ministry, asking for a deep freezer. If we are able to deep freeze 5-10 tons, the part that’s not sold can be preserved for further sale,” says Zalinian, hoping that this year the ministry will grant their request.
“Twenty years [of independence] is not such a long term for us to be able to make grounded judgments, but those two decades have shown that we are on the right track; the only thing I’d like to say is that we should have carried out the reforms in agriculture much earlier,” says the village head/farmer. “Any hard-working villager who treats his land as treasure is well-off, which is, of course, relative since villagers have never been rich and that’s not even possible, because agriculture is not a mining industry.
“But we know full well that we have the capacity of providing our domestic market with agricultural produce and improve villagers’ welfare, and create such conditions that villagers don’t get detached from their land. I understand that a villager cannot be rich. But a villager can never be starving. That’s unacceptable to me.”