Aiden Holley

Ancient Traditions to Modern Fruition: International Agriculture Certificate Student in Armenia

The road to Meghri is long and winding. In and out of valleys, up and down mountains, the way is as dizzying as it is visually stunning. I was a little anxious, having heard tales of the snake-infested orchards of Meghri, but mostly excited.

The Meghri region is remote, located not far from the closed borders (two of them) with Azerbaijan and even closer to Iran. Not many Americans venture to this part of Armenia, which added an element of adventure to my trip.

I made the weeklong trip as a part of my internship this summer with the Center for Agribusiness and Rural Development. I went with CARD employees Anna Hovhannisyan and Hasmik Altunyan on behalf of the Markets for Meghri (M4M) development project, which has been implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in cooperation with the CARD Foundation.

My internship is the capstone experience for the International Agriculture Certificate Program, administered by the Office of Global Programs in the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences. This internship program is designed for students to have a fully immersive, practical and cultural experience abroad in the field of agriculture. Indeed, my week in Meghri was very immersive – I was immersed in the warm hospitality of the locals and the immense natural beauty of the region’s surroundings.

While there are many aspects of Armenian culture that I am still trying to figure out, one thing I know for sure is that Armenians love their coffee and tea, and Meghri is no exception. At each house we visited, we were treated to the best that the house had to offer: dried and fresh fruits, candy, nuts, and plenty of tea and coffee.

By the end of the first day visiting beneficiaries of the M4M project, I was overly caffeinated and full of delightful sweets.

Although Meghri is considered by many to be isolated, it didn’t feel as remote as I anticipated. Meghri is full of life; blossoming fruit trees everywhere, sheep, cows … and while the locals may not be used to frequent visits by foreigners, they are very hospitable and, well, just everyday people.

I spent the most time in Meghri with M4M beneficiary Lusine Poghosyan. Like many people in the area, Lusine is involved in many enterprises, from crafting traditional Armenian herbal teas to drying fruits (both of which are incorporated in the M4M project) to selling clothes imported from her aunt in Poland.

Early in the morning on my second day, Lusine took me into the mountains she has roamed since she was a child to collect wild herbs and flowers for tea making. Before the gathering of herbs could begin, however, we stopped at an altar honoring an Armenian soldier.

I am not sure of the details concerning this altar because Lusine and I had limited means of communication—she employed whatever English she knew and I spoke the little Russian I know, charades and pantomiming were also useful—but I knew it was significant and spiritual.

Lusine showed me which flowers and herbs to pick, and when I wandered off too far, would warn me of the possible danger of a “????” (snake). We collected many flowers whose names I cannot remember, but among them was wild rose. Later, we collected pomegranate flowers in the valley.

After preparing the pomegranate flowers for drying by slicing them in half and laying them on metal sheets, I finally got a chance to interview Lusine in-depth about her experiences with M4M, thanks to Anna’s help as a translator. From this interview, as well as several others with beneficiaries of the M4M project, I was able to ascertain some key elements of the project, its impact in Meghri, and outcomes.

Collaboration, innovation, knowledge-sharing, and trust describe the experiences and outcomes of M4M among its beneficiaries.

Collaboration is key. For example, Lusine told me that before M4M she did not collaborate with other farmers in the region. Now she works on an almost daily basis with other farmers—particularly other women farmers—in producing herbal tea and dried fruit products.

Innovation is perhaps the most obvious element of M4M, with electric fruit-driers, greenhouses, and cold storage cited as having particularly positive impacts.

Vital to the dissemination of these innovations throughout the community was knowledge-sharing. “Word of mouth” was one of the most effective ways that locals shared knowledge on the new technologies being adopted by their friends and neighbors in Meghri.

Finally yet importantly, trust was key to M4M’s success. For example, Haykush Hovsepyan, who is also very active in the region’s political life, said her trust in CARD employees is the main reason she has collaborated with M4M.

While the beneficiaries had different stories, a common thread was a sense of pride in Meghri. Anush Gyurgyan, who works at the local agriculture supply store, told me that not even a promising boyfriend could make her leave her hometown. She would rather stay in Meghri where there are increasing opportunities for people to make a living in the agricultural sector. Indeed, Meghri may be “isolated” but it is a rich region with a wealth of history and a unique climate that gives it an advantage in fruits production, both in Armenia and abroad.

On my last day, Lusine’s 10-year-old son, Gor, led me through narrow streets and past old stone houses to the church, which sits atop a hill with a great view of Meghri. Its walls are covered in17th century Armenian frescos; the same frescos that can be seen on the packaging of the traditional teas made by Lusine and other women in Meghri, the same images that will represent Meghri in places as far away as Yerevan, Russia, and Switzerland, where M4M teas are sold.

These old frescos represent the bright future of Meghri, as well as its rich past. In fact, connecting the past and the future is a large part of what M4M strives to do. To combine the ancient agricultural traditions of this beautiful, impressive region with modern-day agricultural technologies is M4M’s mission, which it has achieved through its seven years of effort in this region.

Naturally, there are still strides to be made, the project is not over, but I left Meghri knowing that positive development is under way and its rich traditions remain.

By Aiden Holley (Published July 7, 2016)

Aiden Holley in Armenia

Aiden Holley

Program: International Agriculture Certificate

Host Country: Armenia

Degree: AB International Affairs

I left Meghri knowing that positive development is under way and its rich traditions remain.