By Emil Danielyan
Farmers in the fertile Ararat Valley are no strangers to poor weather conditions that regularly take away the fruits of their hard work. But few remember conditions as calamitous as those experienced this past December, when temperatures fell to sub-zero levels unheard of in Armenia's warmest and sunniest region.
The bitter cold snap lasted for only a few days, but it took a heavy toll on its picturesque vineyards and orchards that yield most of the country’s delicious fruits. The agricultural output of the area stretching along the Turkish border will shrink dramatically this year, dealing a severe blow to many of its low-income farmers.
The Armenian government estimates the total damage at about 26 billion drams ($45 million), a substantial figure by Armenian agricultural standards. Although the cash-strapped government has pleaded with Western donors for emergency aid, there is little local farmers can count on.
“I am 52 years old, but don’t remember seeing such a frost before. Our elders say the last time it was so cold was in 1933,” said Manvel Poghosian, a farmer in the village of Bertik 30 kilometers south of Yerevan.
At least half of his vines were killed in the freeze; most may have to be uprooted. A newly planted vine takes between two and four years to mature. The damage inflicted on peach and apricot trees, the other source of income for Poghosian, his wife and two children, is even heavier. None will bear fruit this year.
“Our family budget this year will make up only 20 percent of what we earned last year. I don’t know how we are going to survive,” Poghosian said grimly, standing amid his 2,000-square-meter vineyard.
This is the question currently nagging at tens of thousands of farmers across mountainous Armenia's only plain and main supplier of grapes, apricots and peaches.
“The damage has been great. The frost killed 50 percent of my vines,” said Khachik Mirzoyan, an 80-year-old wine-grower in neighboring Verin Artashat village. “I’ve also got more than 70 peach trees and they all perished.”
Now, in early April, air temperatures in the Ararat Valley are already climbing above 20 degrees Celsius during the day -- a far cry from the minus-30-degree freezes that gripped the valley as recently as four months ago. Only those farmers who buried their vines underground (a traditional and the most effective way to protect the crop in winter) avoided major losses.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Armenia’s aggregate grape output will tumble this year to 20,000 metric tons, or less than a quarter of what was expected. A similarly steep decline awaits the harvest of other fruits.
Earlier this month the government formed an ad hoc commission to look into ways of alleviating the situation and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian appealed to foreign donor states and agencies to help the hardest-hit farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already promised to deliver $100,000 worth of potato seeds. Armenian officials also expect relief aid from the UN World Food Program and the World Bank.
But Garnik Petrosian, a senior Agriculture Ministry official, admitted that the aid can only go so far. “Whatever the volume of the aid, it can only partly compensate the damage,” he told RFE/RL. “It is the villagers, the landowners who will bear the brunt of it.”
Not that they anticipate anything tangible from the state. Armenian farmers have seen little government assistance since the agricultural reform of 1991 which saw the dismantling of the Soviet-era collective farms and privatization of agricultural land. The Soviet collapse and the ensued economic slump of the 1990s put an end to lavish government subsidies to agriculture, plunging many farmers into poverty.
Government spending on agriculture is projected at less than 17 billion drams ($30 million) this year. Of that only a meager 350 million drams is set aside for what the Armenian state budget for 2003 defines as “fruit protection.” Government assistance to the wine-growers has essentially taken the form of brochures explaining how to treat the frozen vines and trees.
The farmers say what they need is not advice, but material support in the form of fertilizers and water which they do not have the money to pay for. Many also feel that if there is any aid to come from abroad it will hardly reach them because of rampant government corruption.
A drastic solution to which the farmers increasingly resort is to cut down the vineyards and grow wheat or vegetables in their place. Yevgeni Grigorian and his uncle from Vosketap, a village 15 kilometers further to the south, were doing just that on a recent sunny afternoon. Wheat, they explained, requires less care than the vines do and they can sell it as early as this fall.
The government and Armenia’s wine-making industry are alarmed by this trend. “They should never think about destroying the vineyards because with a skillful and professional approach those can be revived within a short period of time,” Petrosian said, underscoring those concerns.
The Armenian wine distilleries have grown rapidly in recent years and need stable a grape supply for further export-oriented expansion. The biggest of them is the Yerevan Brandy Company (YBC) owned by the French liquor group Pernod Ricard. It alone planned to purchase 15,000 tons of Ararat Valley grapes this year, a target which now seems unrealistic.
The YBC chairman, Pierre Larretche, had warned last year that the liquor industry could face a shortage of grapes by 2005 unless the farmers expand their vineyards. But wholesale grape prices set by the wineries -- averaging 80 drams (14 U.S. cents) per kilogram -- are not much of an incentive for the latter. The average wine-growing household typically harvests less than 5,000 kilograms of grapes a year and can barely live off proceeds from their sales.
Verin Artashat’s Mirzoyan, for example, scraped up an equivalent of only $170 from his vineyard last year. He says each of his three sons working in Russia makes more than that in a month.
The wineries, just like most other businesses, simply exploit the extremely low value of labor in the impoverished country. This is why the extended family of Khachatur Hovsepian no longer deals with the wholesale buyers. Hovsepian, also from Vosketap, says he is better off swapping a kilogram of his grapes for kilo-and-a-half of potatoes.
“We don’t need anything [from the state],” he said. “Not fertilizers, or any other chemicals. Let them only pay a normal price for our grapes and we will take care of our problems.”