Today (June 5) was Constitution Day and an official holiday. I had nothing to do as my workplace was closed for the day, and I wanted to get out of Yerevan desperately. So I decided to fill 10 liters of “premium” gasoline (you never know what you’re going to get, no matter what grade you choose—it is not uncommon to find gasoline cut with diesel fuel being sold as “regular”) and drive out to the Ararat region. The road that cuts through the Ararat plains is the same that continues on towards Goris and Meghri. Along the highway are a steady string of villages mostly on the left side while driving towards Ararat city, and on the right are hectares and hectares of farmland, reaching out to the Turkish border, which is incidentally only a few kilometers or in some areas only a few hundred meters away.
I was headed for Sergey Minasian’s farm, which is located about three kilometers east from the highway and is situated about 500 meters or so from the Turkish border. His land is under jurisdiction of the village Voskedap, or Shirazlu, its former name by which it is more commonly known. Shirazlu incidentally is the Azeri name for the village, as nearly half of its residents were Azeri until they moved out at the breakout of the Karabagh war. As usual, I drove a couple of kilometers too far and when I hit Vedi I went back to find the turn off. A dirt road connects to the main highway from the fields, but since there is no sign for the village on the highway for some reason, it is easy to miss where you actually are. Along the dirt road I made some wrong turns, as there are forks and unexpected intersections, but I asked a few villagers along the way who pointed me in the right direction.
Sergey had been leasing land from the government—about 22 hectares—for farming purposes. He started with a dry field, with no irrigation, overrun with weeds and even some scattered garbage. Within a few years he was able to turn over the entire area of land and produce enough profitable crops for delivery to market as well as for sale to local canneries. The downside of progress here, however, is corruption and envy. Over the years Sergey had to pay countless number of bribes in order to secure a line for electricity, water for irrigation, and in order to please local administration officials who were pressuring him by threatening to increase his taxes or, even worse, spreading rumors about him, he offered them either some land to cultivate or crops. Then there are taxes, including land and income, as well as costs for water and electricity, which are both measured by a special meter counting his usage. Now Sergey owns 10 hectares of that land; he is still leasing other plots but for the most part local officials and others at auction secured the remaining hectares to serve their own business interests. Powerless, and without the proper funds to purchase all the plots, he could not stop them from moving in on the land he made profitable and the same that local citizens once spat on.
When I finally made my way to their trailer, which is literally only a few miles from the base of Mount Ararat, I found him far off to the left side of his cucumber patch, about 500 meters away pushing some mud around with a spade. He was shirtless and the sun had enjoyed roasting him to perfection. We went back to the trailer and spent most of the day talking about various subjects, including politics, farming, my upcoming wedding, his brothers, apricots, and so forth. Two of his brothers, who also help him on the farm, own a few rows of apricot trees in an orchard, and during the last few days they were busy picking fruit to sell at market or to canneries. Sergey told me to go meet his younger brother Gurgen, who is his right hand man on the farm but was tending to his trees, and to pick up a few kilos of apricots for myself. They ended up giving me three pails full of apricots—fully ripened, rotting, not yet ripe, still green, and smashed—which amounted to a crate full. I managed to lug the crate home incidentally, arriving at about 12:30 am, but I wasn’t able to cram them all into my refrigerator.
Gurgen was busy trying to harvest as many remaining apricots as he could for his own use as well as to give some away, as he had already sold whatever he could. Because the apricots were so plentiful this year, he was only able to sell them for 45 drams a kilo wholesale, or about a dime. At market apricots fetch from 100-150 drams a kilo, or 25-30 cents depending on where you go shopping. He told me that after paying off his expenses, such as for water, transportation, workers, and so forth, he barely broke even. Last year he and Maïs, the other brother harvesting apricots, made a killing at market since apricots were scarce due to a late spring frost that destroyed most of the crops throughout Armenia. In contrast, apricots sold for at minimum $2.00 a kilo.
Gurgen and I ended going up to the grocery store to pick up some bread and chicken legs for barbequing back at the ranch. For the rest of the afternoon and early evening we continued to talk about socioeconomic issues as well as politics. They complained that the government was not doing enough to help farmers earn a profit by, for instance, signing agreements with foreign countries to export fruit—in this case apricots. Armenia does not export any apricots for some unbeknownst reason to anyone growing them, which seems strange considering that the apricot was supposedly first indigenous to Armenia (which I recently heard is false) and that Armenian apricots are the best tasting in the world. I told them that if they expected change they as well as thousands of others who feel the same way need to mobilize and publicly protest the government’s policies, that there is no other way for the government to change what they are not doing but should be. They both told me they were disappointed with political organizations—especially with ARF-Dashnaktsutiun, which they said complained a lot but didn’t do anything about what they were protesting on television and in the press, namely corruption. I told them that I could not blame them for being disappointed. They were convinced that most members of nearly all political parties are accepting or paying bribes, especially for votes, and that the ARF was no exception. I could not find any reason to refute them.
Sergey planted some “sweet apple” trees—the fruit is small, round, and green but not necessarily sweet—and some mulberry trees not far from the trailer, running alongside the water channel, so we walked over to them to pick the fruit. He had planted them to beautify the area and also to provide a shady place for workers to sit and eat lunch. However, quite a few of the tree saplings were eaten by cows that a nearby villager puts to field for grazing. Sergey exchanged some kind words with the guy, at first, about having his animals avoid the trees, as he planted them for everyone’s use and benefit, the fruit could be eaten by all, and so forth, but the guy accused Sergey of being jealous of his cows.
If any readers happen to be in Yerevan and want some free apricots please contact me