Farmer of Tomorrow
His Blueberry Days
“Fresh air, smell of soil and seasonal harvest are everyday joys of a farmer,” says Tengiz Mikeladze from the remote village Buturauli.
Tengiz is a type of a farmer who was born into farming; who listens to his seedlings, and tirelessly removes the weeds for better harvest. Every new leaf makes his heart swell. Not long ago, he teamed up with his cousins and now is a proud owner of the 3000 square meter blueberry farm.
Tengiz’s home village is in mountainous Ajara, one of the most densely populated regions of Georgia. Except a narrow Black Sea coastline, the territory consists of hills, rocks and forests. High population density, steep slopes, lack of land creates serious obstacles for sustainable agriculture development.
“We used to grow potatoes but our yields never exceeded 400 kg. Now we shifted to blueberries, which I believe have an outstanding growing potential,” says Tengiz.
The shift was mainly inspired by the European Union Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD). Kicked off in 2013,it aims to boost the agricultural potential of Georgia, increase food production and eradicate rural poverty. ENPARD lends a helping hand to the small farmers via assisting them to establish profit oriented unions and get access to consultation.
More than three out of 40 million Euros of the overall ENPARD budget are allocated to Ajara Autonomous Republic where the programme partners with UNDP.
“Let’s face it–successful farming today is all about modern technology, education and business skills. That’s why we focus on advisory, consultation, extension services to local farmers,” says Sophie Kemkhadze, Deputy Head of UNDP in Georgia.
In the framework of ENPARD, the Mikeladze family land plot was subjected to soil analysis to measure its fertility and acidity. Then they were provided with the seedlings and assisted in arranging a proper irrigation system. On a sunny meadow, 1,000 blueberry seedlings promise the Mikeladze family high yields– up to 5 tons of the berries.
The Mikeladze blueberry plot is one of the first attempts in Ajara to set up an agricultural cooperative. With assistance from ENPARD, local farmers are trying the idea weighing the risks and benefits.
Agricultural cooperatives are a common practice worldwide. In this set-up, farmers can pool their resources for greater benefits and economic efficiency. Cooperatives can be created for different types of activities, such as input supply, marketing or production, depending on the needs and goals of farmers.
The small farm holders share, therefore reduce their input costs and gain more profit. Unified approach also guarantees access to stable product markets and cost-effective wholesale purchases. Agricultural cooperatives allow lower transaction costs in getting loans, and better access to information. Plus, farmers enjoy substantial tax exemptions.
In 2013 the law on Agricultural Cooperatives was introduced in Georgia. One year later, there are already 86 officially registered unions, and many in the process.
“In Georgia, there still exists a prejudice towards cooperatives as the rural people often identify them with the “Kolkhozs” of Soviet times,’’ says Juan Echanove, agriculture attaché at the European Union Delegation to Georgia, ”The cooperatives are radically different. Such communities are founded voluntarily and governed by democratic principles.”
Agricultural cooperatives generate new employment opportunities, help to consolidate production and increase potential for product realization and export.
“Why work alone when you can get more benefits by joining the others?“, says Tengiz Mikeladze from Buturauli. “One head is good, but two and three are better. I believe that hard work always pays back and our joint efforts will soon bring real results.”
Georgia had a long tradition of being a leader in agriculture. Climate, fertile soil, and long growing season – all promise high yields and diversity of crops.
Despite glorious past, 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 (2014 Census) and names farming as their primary occupation.
Small farming plots, deranged infrastructure, poor connections with the markets, attachment to the traditional farming, overall lack of skills, knowledge and access to modern machinery are thought to be the reasons behind such low productivity.
“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.
After signing association and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union in June 2014, Georgia will have freer access to the markets for goods and services of 28 European countries. But the country still has a lot to do to meet the demands of more than 500 million European consumers.
“Better knowledge, better skills, better technologies– that is how Georgia can achieve its goals,” Juan Echanove says.
Inga Gaprindashvili has 30-year experience in agronomy. Now she is handling fruit processing at the Kobuleti branch of the Ajara Agriservice Centre, the main provider of consultation and advisory services for farmers established with joint efforts of UNDP and the Ajara Government.
The centre in Kobuleti is tailored upon the needs of the local farms. It introduces best farming practices, assists in resource management and helps fight post-harvest losses. Freezing and drying of apples are the main focus this year. Inga is proud to demonstrate her working area – modern premises and brand-new equipment.
“We get a steady supply of raw material. Now we are waiting for a new batch of apples”, she says while demonstrating how fruit processing works.“This is a great opportunity for farmers. We relieve burden of investing time and money in the process.”
The Agriservice Centre owns a number of plant nurseries and greenhouses to cultivate orange, mandarin, lemon, grape, blueberry and many other saplings from China, Japan, Turkey and Greece.
“70-year old citrus breeds will be replaced with younger seedlings not prone to diseases, which deliver early crops and are more profitable for export.We are able to reproduce thousands of seedlings to later deliver them to local famers at an affordable price,“ says Gocha Beridze, Head of the Agriservice Centre.
Productivity and sales are the ultimate goals of every farmer and the extension advisory services are essential pillars. Since its establishment in 2011,the Agriservice Centre has developed a network of branch offices and consultations sites all over Ajara and now serves thousands of small farmers in the region.
According to Sophie Kemkhadze of UNDP: “It is all about creating opportunities, promoting knowledge and supporting cooperation for the benefit of all.“