Connecting Lives with Agriculture
Farmers of Tomorrow
“Blueberry farming was new in our village. People were doubtful when we started. But now, as they see our field blooming, they feel much keener to follow our example,” “says Tengiz Mikeladze from the remote village Buturauli.
Mikeladze is one of those people who were born to be farmers. He used to grow potatoes, but now is passionate for blueberry farming. Acidic soil, high in organic matter, well drained yet moist is a first step for high berry yields, he explains. The blueberry which he runs together with his cousin – Zviad and Gela, lies in mountainous Ajara, one of the most densely populated regions of Georgia, where steep slopes and lack of farming land hinder sustainable agriculture development.
But Mikeladze’s agriculture cooperative is now more confident since they are among of 6,000 farmers in Ajara alone who regularly benefit from face-to-face, SMS and online consultation in agronomy and veterinary within the European Union Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD). Rolled out in 2013, this programme aims to boost the agricultural potential of Georgia, increase food production and eradicate rural poverty. Agriculture extension service and farmers’ cooperatives – profit oriented small farmers' unions, and are in the focus of the programme in Ajara, where ENPARD partners with UNDP.
Does Cooperation Work?
“Agriculture is the main tool to tackle poverty, improve the livelihood in rural areas, develop eco-tourism, and achieve economic security of the country”, says Juan Echanove, agriculture attaché at the European Union Delegation to Georgia.
Georgia has a long tradition of farming, however, over 80% of food products are now imported, and the share of agriculture in GDP does not exceed 10%. Such modest results are especially awkward as over 40% of the population lives in the rural areas and names farming as their primary occupation. Small plots, deranged infrastructure, poor connections with the markets, overall lack of skills, knowledge and access to modern machinery make successful farming quite a challenge.
"Small farmers by themselves in the marketplace do not have as much success as farmers in a business-oriented group. In cooperatives, farmers pool their resources for greater benefits and economic efficiency,” Echanove says.
Agriculture cooperatives are a common practice around the world. The majority of big or small farmersin the European Union are members of at least one cooperative. Coops generate new employment opportunities, help to consolidate production and increase potential for product realization and export – an increasingly topical issue for the countries like Georgia.
In 2013, a new law offering substantial tax redemption for small farmers’ cooperation was adopted in Georgia. Two years later, figures speak volumes: 870 profit oriented unions founded in total and 41 within ENPARD Ajara, the Mikeladze’s blueberry farm among them.
Knowledge vs. Poverty
Productivity and sales are the ultimate goals of every farmer, and access to new technologies is an essential pillar. Prevailing lack of skills and specialised training decreases the chances of individual farmers or farmers’ group in Georgia to succeed in a competitive world of modern agriculture.
“Extension and advisory services are a way out. They bring small-holder farmers closer to knowledge, agricultural innovations and market opportunities,” says Shombi Sharp, UNDP Deputy Head.”Extension services can bridge existent information gap."
The Agriservice Centre in Ajara is one of such bridges established by ENPARD with joint efforts of UNDP and local authorities. Along with its five branches all over the region, this is the place to learn best farming practices, better manage resources and access modern machinery. Extension specialists working there are regularly trained andtextbooks and informational campaigns are tailored to specific farming sectors: vegetable and fruit gardening, food crop production, veterinary. Newly set-up demonstration plots, citrus nurseries, greenhouses invite rural population to modern methods of farming.
“We run a number of plant nurseries and greenhouses to cultivate citrus, grape, blueberry and many other saplings from China, Japan, Turkey and Greece. We also help most promising agriculture cooperatives to get hold of modern agriculture machinery, such as hydroponics for grass growing, honey packaging tools, and live fish transportation vehicles,” says Gocha Beridze, Head of the Agriservice Centre.
After signing the Association and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union, doors to the markets for goods and services of 28 European countries are gradually opening for Georgian farmers. But the country still has a lot to do to meet the demands of more than 500 million European consumers.
“Better cooperation, better skills, better technologies– that is how Georgia can achieve its goals,” according to Juan Echanove, agriculture attaché at the European Union Delegation to Georgia.