Garbis: The Farmer and the Vendor in Armenia

YEREVAN—The summer sun bakes the bare back of the farmer, who tends to his irrigation channels in the fields by blocking tributaries with mud in areas where the water should not flow.

Meanwhile, the city vendor strings up a shade of a wide, sky-blue plastic sheet over her vegetable stand to keep the spoiling heat away from the produce that the farmer grows.

Farm scene on the road to Karabagh (Photo by Tom Vartabedian)
Farm scene on the road to Karabagh (Photo by Tom Vartabedian)

Both of them have their own particular difficulties in making a living that are not all that dissimilar.

Virab Malkhasyan of the village of Khor Virap located in the Ararat region works all day and into the night running his agricultural businesses. He cultivates over 10 hectares of farmland, orchards, and vineyards and sells most of his crops to local factories.

He claims that the apricots growing from his own orchards are some of the best in the valley, large and golden, dripping with juice when split in half by hand at the seam. Virab also owns several cowsheds for keeping cattle, and from the cow’s milk his wife produces excellent cheeses and yogurt that he sells to the locals.

Yet, he is unhappy that he works so hard to eke out a living for his family. Virab has two sons in their mid-20s who do not have their hearts in the business and do not put in as much effort as he would like them to.

“I’m working long hours and I’m getting tired, even bored from working so much,” Virab said. “If I have two Sundays off a month to rest I am lucky. I have two sons, but they don’t work as hard—my oldest barely works.”

Virab has no formal agricultural training and is self-taught. By presenting a program to an organization based in the U.S. that provides agricultural assistance to farmers in Armenia, he was able to secure brand-new John Deere tractors. Then an Italian organization provided him with modern devices that sow seeds evenly and accurately rather than by hand.

“The other farmers in the village—those who bother to cultivate their land—don’t know that they can apply for assistance to foreign organizations by applying with a concrete proposal. So they’re left behind,” he said.

He complains that others living in the village do not bother working their land. “They either sell it or they just don’t bother. The land goes to waste and they don’t care,” he said.

“Then after you toil with everything you’ve got to produce a superior product, the firms don’t pay you what the crops are worth,” he continued.

The expenses associated with farming have skyrocketed in recent years. The price of a 50-kilo load of fertilizer virtually doubled from 4,000 dram in 2008 to 8,000 dram this year. Electricity, which is essential for farmers pumping water from artesian wells, has also increased since last year from 25 dram to 30 dram per kilowatt. The cost of water has gone up by approximately 30 percent. And to have one hectare of land tilled with a hired plow, a farmer is obliged to pay up to 45,000 dram for the job.

There have been times when local governing authorities have put pressure on Virab by extorting bribes.

“They would shut off my electricity and cut off the water supply, so I’d pay them off to keep going,” he said. “The government doesn’t let you work, they don’t want to see you take more for what you’re giving to the land, for what you’re producing while breaking your back, for your own livelihood. They want a slice of the pie, too.”

He is not alone. Other farmers throughout the Ararat valley face virtually the same dilemma. Misak Seropyan of Vosketap, a village about five kilometers south of Khor Virap, has likewise been paid prices lower than the actual market value for his crops, which are also high in quality. He has been farming his land since 1995.

Along with Virab, he uses modern farming techniques and applies both fertilizers and bug repellants to dramatically reduce spoilage while growing the tons of tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers, and cucumbers, most of which were sold to the Ardashat cannery in the past. The company sells its products on store shelves under the “Artfood” label.

“But they pay me far less than what my crops are worth,” he said loudly in a frustrated tone. “Part of that is due to other farmers taking whatever they’ll get for the produce they are giving the factories.”

The canning factories, rather than the farmers themselves collectively, are setting the prices on grown crops. There is no government regulation that stipulates a minimum market value price. As a result, farmers such as Misak end up with low profits after working tirelessly to grow the quality of crops that other farmers cannot manage to produce due to a lack of resources and skills.

“In the end I was getting paid the same price as others regardless of our pre-agreement,” Misak said. “And the factories know very well what kind of crops I’ve been raising. In the end they say, ‘Look, this is what we’re willing to pay and that’s it. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else or dump it.’ This is not a country.”

In Misak’s experience the factories seem to have a strategy that they follow to deceive farmers.

“They would say up front that it would be possible to pay, for instance, up to seven cents a kilo for a crop, but at the time of handing it over they would claim that the value dropped because of the abundance on the market,” Misak explained. “Instead they pay four or five cents, something like that.”

Factories are notorious for being late on their payouts to farmers. Although they consent to giving a pre-payment, they forfeit the agreement by not paying by the set date. Farmers find themselves in the same situation even after their crops are handed over to the factories.

As a result, a farmer cannot pay his own employees who are working in the fields picking crops. Not only are the businessmen themselves being deceived, they in turn are essentially forced to betray their own workers. Both Virab and Misak have had to endure these dilemmas and consequently, their reputations in their own villages were damaged for having been unintentionally dishonest to their employees.

At age 60, Misak—who is a mechanical engineer by training—has a weak heart. This year he decided to only grow 10 hectares of high-quality wheat and has abandoned the summertime crops that were the bread-and-butter of his business. He had leased 10 additional hectares from the government, which was privatized a few years ago and sold to other profiteers, only to be turned over to Misak once again for cultivation.

The wheat Misak grows is government certified as Grade A, and it had been purchased in recent years at fair prices by the Ministry of Agriculture as seed that was distributed to hard-luck farmers situated in other regions of Armenia.

But before the end of the year, Misak will sell most of his land and retire from the farming business for good.

In Yerevan, Mgo sells mostly peppers, onions and, especially, cucumbers, piled in four rows about two-feet long at his stand behind the Gomidas Street market. The fruit and vegetable merchants sell their produce in the lot behind the building, which is now used mainly by vendors selling various products made of dried fruit.

The Russian cucumber variety sells for 300 dram—or 81 cents at the current 370 dram-to dollar exchange rate— which Mgo buys for 180 dram. The Armenian sort that he buys at 350 dram from a village nearby Etchmiadzin sells for 400 dram. He insists that it is top quality.

“Business is very bad this year,” he says while frowning. “It’s due to the bad weather. This year there weren’t many cucumbers. I’m managing but barely.”

Anahit sells various vegetables along the sidewalk in front of the Gomidas market. Whenever anyone walks by she entices them to buy her eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, all of them plump, fully ripe, and glistening.

“I buy tomatoes for 150 and I sell them for 200. Cucumbers that I buy for 250 I sell for 300,” she says disappointedly. “By the end of the day I’m left with between 2,000 and 3,000 dram in my pocket, that’s all. It’s tough.”

Nelli from Gavar, a town situated on the west side of Lake Sevan, sells only potatoes at 100 dram per kilo. The crops from her area won’t be ready for harvest for another 10 days, so she sells some grown in the Ararat valley in the meantime.

“Business is good. For the 300 kilos or so that I sell throughout the day I make around 1,500 dram,” she says smiling with gleaming gold-capped front teeth. “This is how we live. That’s life.”

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Christian Garbis

Christian Garbis is a writer and experimental filmmaker born and raised in Greater Boston. He received his BA in English and Certificate in Film Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been contributing to the Armenian Weekly since 1994 and has served as an assistant editor for the paper. He lives in Yerevan with his wife and son and maintains two blogs documenting his impressions: Notes From Hairenik and Footprints Armenia. His first novel is partly based on his experiences in Armenia.

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