- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 May 16, 2003 

Sour Forecast: Seventy percent of fruit crops lost to rage of winter; concern rises for winemakers

Mesrop Abisoghomonyan walks among lifeless branches of grapevines that should be blooming but instead are a gray reminder of the worst winter in recent history.

"This vine is damaged and this one is damaged too," the farmer says. "Look, here the bud bursts. You must keep the one with buds and cut the rest."

Abisoghomonyan's vines in Oshakan village are typical this year and forecast a diminished harvest for fruit farmers throughout the republic.

According to official data, 70 to 75 percent of grapevines and 70 to 90 percent of peach trees, fig trees and cherry trees of Armenia were frostbitten during December when temperatures reached 27-32 degrees below zero (-16 to -25 Farenheit).

The Ministry of Agriculture has estimated loses at 15.5 billion drams (about $26.5 million). It is expected that no more than 30 percent of crops will produce fruit this season. Hardest hit was the low-lying Ararat Valley.

Agro-businessmen and wine makers are most concerned about vineyards, fearing farmers would dig up vines and plant a different crop.

During the past 12 years many villagers, blaming excessive work and low profits, replaced grapevines with other fruit plants. In Soviet Armenia there were 36,000 hectares of vineyards. Now, according to official data, there are only 12,000. Specialists put the number at only 9,000 hectares.

Seventy-three year-old Knarik Arsenyan remembers only one winter so cold, just after World War II.

Derenik Sardaryan, a researcher for the Center of Horticulture, Viniculture and Winemaking says Armenia's vineyards suffered similar freezes three previous times over the past 70 years, but that damage was much less than this year.

"The reason is that in Soviet times lower parts of vine were covered with soil," Sardaryan explains. "These days only 20% of vineyards were covered. The reason is that villagers have no possibilities to carry out soil-covering process because of the low purchasing prices (of grapes)."

Abisoghomonyan says he had not covered his vines in the previous three years, as the winters had been mild.

His neighbor Hrachik Hambardzumyan's vineyard stands out against a background of widespread lifeless monotonous vines. His plants are a wealth of green buds, as he was one of the few farmers who insulated (with soil) his crop.

" 'Master to property, father to son.' If you don't master your property and don't sweat over it, then you'll lose it," Hambardzumyan says. "But not everybody can do so much work."

Through a joint project of government agriculture agencies, specialists are visiting regions to consult and advise farmers.

"Vine roots aren't frostbitten. I mean, vines will be restored. The problem is to provide this year's crop," says Sedrakyan. "We offered a method of acceleration of vines' fruit-bearing process. Seventy percent of vineyards are cut down from the lower part, and then sleeping buds start to produce new shoots. The greater part of these shoots yields overgrowth. Then after appropriate processing (fertilizers) 30 percent of the vine will be restored and next year there will be normal crop."

Sedrakyan's method of restoring vines was published as a booklet and distributed among villagers and has been demonstrated on television.

Farmer Mesrop Abisoghomonyan says he'd be happy to get at least 20% of his usual harvest.

"There were people who found themselves in a desperate state. But when I show them this photograph they are getting excited again," says Sedrakyan, who holds in his hand a photograph of vine with plentiful bunches grown by him in 1964 using his method.

However, not everybody uses that method. Abisoghomonyan says that maybe it will have a good result, however it requires a lot of work and many villagers can't afford the fertilizer.

Abisoghomonyan now expects only 10 percent of a normal yield.

The expected demand for grapes, price increases and prospects of gardens' restoration have already cleared up all the worries that villagers would start destroying their gardens.

"Last year I sold grapes for 80 drams per kilogram to Oshakan wine factory but later I regretted that," says Hambardzumyan. "Several days later people came and asked me to sell grapes for 100 drams per kilogram, but I hadn't gotten any grapes by that time. If grapes will be taken for 130 drams then everybody will be involved with grapes."

This year Oshakan wine factory (Ashtarak Wines Ltd.), a business partner of Great Valley brandy factory, expects to sign a contract with villagers (initial price for grapes is 100 drams per kilogram but prices fluctuate depending on the market) and make prepayments for purchasing insecticides.

"During the last years they used to hoard, not to pay, to be late and that's why many people destroyed their gardens," says deputy director of the factory Sanasar Poghosyan. "There are no gardens left in Ujan. Now we are going to sign three year contracts with more than 500 farmers so that they could be confident that their production would be purchased. This year we also want to supply insecticides."

Last year Oshakan factory purchased 1,000 tons of grapes. But it's not clear yet how many tons they are going to purchase this year. Poghosyan says that in future it is expected to purchase 6,000 tons per year.

The largest amount of grapes is purchased by Yerevan Brandy factory. The factory has been working with farmers since 2001 on a contract basis.

Vines that should have blossomed are gray with damage.

According to contract the factory provides farmers with insecticides, and the cost is deducted while purchasing grapes. This year fertilizers will be provided on the same conditions as well. According to the contract the price for grapes is expected to be 95 drams per kilogram. However price can change according to market demands. Last year the brandy factory signed contracts with 3,200 farmers and purchased 9,300 toms of grapes.

"This year we haven't prepared a concrete quantity target yet," says president of Yerevan Brandy Factory Pierre Larrech. "The market will show the trend of developments. But we would like to purchase at least 10,000 tons."

According to Larrech, official data about freeze damage isn't reliable, as the government has no means of checking all the republic's vineyards. The brandy factory has a group of five agriculturists who constantly check conditions of the republic's whole wine-making process.

Last year, according to official data, 105,000 tons of grapes were produced. But the brandy factory says the number was 65,000 tons. (Forty thousand tons were used for making wine and brandy).

"In advance I can tell that this year there won't be more than 20,000 tons of reprocessed sorts," Larrech says. "The rest will be clear later."

As the freeze damage became known, there were reports in the business community that Yerevan Brandy factory would be importing grapes this year.

No so, says Larrech.

"We came to Armenia to produce Armenian brandy and not just a brandy," he says. "If it is necessary we will decrease the work content but we will never bring the raw material (grape spirits) from other countries."


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  Photo of the week
  Click to enlarge.
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Dr. Lord George

He is already a Lord, and Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And as of Wednesday George Robertson adds an honorary doctorate from the French University of Armenia. Following ceremonies at the university Lord Robertson spoke with students and media.



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