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Armenia: Harsh Winter Wreaks Havoc On Agriculture

Armenia's struggling agricultural sector is reeling after an unusually harsh winter that took a heavy toll on picturesque vineyards and orchards across the Ararat Valley, the country's main supplier of grapes and other fruits. The area's agricultural output is expected to shrink dramatically this year, dealing a blow to many of its low-income farmers. The cash-strapped Armenian government has already pleaded with Western donors for assistance. But there is little that local farmers can hope to receive. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from the Ararat Valley in southern Armenia.

Ararat Valley, southern Armenia; 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Farmers in this fertile valley stretching along the Turkish border are no strangers to poor weather conditions affecting the fruits of their labor.

But few remember conditions as calamitous as those experienced this past December, when temperatures fell to subzero levels unheard of in the Ararat Valley, Armenia's warmest and sunniest region.

The frost lasted for only a few days, but its grave effects will be felt for years to come. The Armenian government estimates the total damage at about $45 million, a substantial figure by Armenian agricultural standards.

Manvel Poghosian is a farmer in the village of Bertik, some 30 kilometers south of the capital, Yerevan. Standing amid his 2,000-square-meter vineyard, Poghosian laments his bad luck.

"I am 52 years old, but I don't remember seeing such a frost before," Poghosian said. "Our elders say the last time it was so cold was in 1933."

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 to Poghosian's peach and apricot trees -- his family's only other major source of income -- is even worse. None of the trees 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."

This is the question currently nagging at tens of thousands of farmers across mountainous Armenia's only plain, famous for its abundant fruit crops.

Khachik Mirzoyan, an 80-year-old farmer in the village of Verin Artashat, said: "The damage has been great. The frost killed 50 percent of my vines. They've dried up. 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.

The Armenian Agriculture Ministry estimates the country's grape output will tumble this year to 20,000 metric tons, or less than one quarter of typical harvests. Apricot, peach, cherry, and other fruit crops are expected to see a similarly sharp decline.

Earlier this month, the Armenian government formed a special commission to investigate ways to alleviate the situation. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian appealed to foreign donor states and agencies for urgent aid for the hardest-hit farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already promised to deliver $100,000's 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 official at the Armenian Agriculture Ministry, says the aid can only go so far: "Whatever the volume of the aid, it can only partly compensate the damage. It is the villagers, the landowners who will bear the brunt of it."

Landowners do not anticipate much in the way of support from the state. Armenian farmers have seen little government assistance since the agricultural reforms of 1991, which saw the dismantling of the Soviet-era collective farms and privatization of agricultural land. The Soviet collapse and the economic slump that ensued put an end to lavish government subsidies for agriculture, plunging many farmers into poverty.

Government spending on agriculture is projected at less than $30 million this year. Of that, only about $600,000 is set aside for what the 2003 state budget defines as "fruit protection." State assistance to the wine-growers has essentially taken the form of brochures explaining how to treat 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 no longer have the money to pay for. Many also feel that any aid to come from abroad is more likely to feed government corruption than the beleaguered farmers.

Many farmers have taken the drastic step of cutting down their vines and fruit trees and growing wheat or vegetables in their place. On a recent sunny afternoon in Vosketap, a village some 45 kilometers from Yerevan, Yevgeni Grigorian and his uncle were doing just that. Wheat, they explained, requires less care than vines, and can be sold as early as this fall.

Officials in the government and Armenia's wine-making industry are alarmed by this trend. Agriculture Minister Petrosian urges the country's farmers to be patient: "It is really possible to overcome these difficulties. They should never think about destroying the vineyards because with a skillful and professional approach they can be revived within a short period of time."

Armenian wineries have grown rapidly in recent years and need a stable grape supply to further expand exports. The biggest consumer of grapes is the Yerevan Brandy Company, owned by France's Pernod Ricard liquor group, which alone planned to purchase 15,000 tons of Ararat Valley grapes this year -- a target that now seems unrealistic.

The wholesale price on grapes set by the wineries -- the equivalent of just 14 cents per kilogram -- is not much of an incentive for the average grape-growing household, which typically harvests less than 5,000 kilograms of grapes a year.

The prices are so disadvantageous that many grape growers no longer deal directly with wholesale buyers. One, Khachatur Hovsepian, says he is better off swapping a kilogram of his grapes for a kilo-and-a-half of potatoes:

"We don't need anything [from the state]. Not fertilizers, or any other chemicals. Just let them pay a normal price for our grapes, and we will take care of our own problems."