Working in the vineyards

ICARE’s Agribusiness Research and Education in Armenia Expanding with Ecofarm

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WATERTOWN — International Center for Agribusiness Research and Education (ICARE) director Arthur Grigoryan was in the United States recently, during July, on a fundraising trip. ICARE (http://icare.am/), he explained, has expanded greatly since its establishment in 2005 from education in agribusiness and marketing to encompass training in wine production, greenhouse crop production and soon, an ecofarm. It also conducts various types of research, going as far afield as aquaculture.

Arthur Grigoryan (Aram Arkun photo)

It all began as a joint project with Texas A&M University to provide a certificate program in agrobusiness and marketing in Armenia. The graduates would use their newly acquired knowledge in applied economics and business to further Armenia’s food and agriculture production. Grigoryan said, “I am a graduate of that program too, so I grew from being a student and faculty member, to doing development at ICARE, to being a director. That program was and is very successful.”

Graduating students at ICARE

Today there are about 100 students at ICARE, and many of them are enrolled in this program. ICARE expanded, Grigoryan said, from providing education at the undergraduate level to including the master’s level. It initiated various practical certificate courses.

Working in the vineyards

Vinification and Teaching Skills for Employment

Grigoryan said, “We realized some years ago that as the wine sector was beginning to grow in the mid-2000s, we need to prepare good winemakers, and wine businessmen and business women.” Diasporan and local Armenians were establishing modern wineries but needed winemakers with the requisite modern knowledge. These were not available locally so they had to bring them from France, Italy and elsewhere, which was very expensive. Instead, ICARE founded EVN (like Yerevan’s airport code) Wine Academy, which by now has 60 graduates.

At the EVN Wine Academy laboratory

Three of them, Grigoryan said, have established their own wineries, including one called Alluria (http://alluria.wine/). He said, “I am especially proud of it because it produces non-mainstream wines. It is something similar to biodynamic — it is not really biodynamic but it is wild fermentation. Alluria is trying to move towards wild dynamic wine production.”

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A second one is called Aparteni (https://www.facebook.com/aparteny/), and the third was established by ICARE itself to allow its students to practice and learn to prepare their own wine. Later this month, the third batch of 1,300 bottles of EVN wines will be bottled and then sold in Armenia. Eventually, Grigoryan hopes that they will produce enough quantities to export too. One of the EVN graduates is an experienced winemaker who supervises the work of the students. After studying, during the evening hours, the students press the grapes and participate in all the consequent processes.

Working in the vineyards

Grigoryan pointed to this as a good example of ICARE’s work, exclaiming: “So the greatest impact of ICARE on Armenia is that we help Armenian youth to develop their knowledge and skills so that they can find good employment in Armenia. Thus, they don’t have to leave to find a comfortable living for their families. With the education that we provide, they are able to take the jobs that otherwise would taken by the international experts who would be invited to Armenia. That is our greatest achievement.”

Statistically, more than 80 percent of ICARE graduates now work in Armenia and over 90 percent of graduates find work within two months. Furthermore, many who leave to other countries for higher degrees later return and teach at ICARE, while many who went to banks and other parts of the financial sector after graduation returned to agribusiness two to three years after graduation, according to Grigoryan.

Other Certificate Programs

ICARE graduates have been trained to try to differentiate their products, innovate, and find a competitive advantage. One graduate, for example, established dried fruit production, and began to produce dried applies with cinnamon. Everyone already produces dried apples, Grigoryan noted, but it is the cinnamon and presentation that helps make the product distinctive.

A package of dried apples with cinnamon prepared by an ICARE graduate (Aram Arkun photo)

The greenhouse crop production and management certificate course, an eight-month program, is mostly for practitioners already in the field. Classes are organized after 6:30 p.m. so that, as in the EVN Wine Academy, it does not interfere with daytime jobs. A similar certificate program is also offered in geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing (RS), jointly with Texas A&M University, which integrates technological innovations with agriculture, so that students can analyze satellite imagery and use the necessary software. For example, Grigoryan said, they can create maps of vineyards and understand problematic areas, so that the data can be used by the manager to find solutions.

Students working in a greenhouse

Ecofarm and Agribusiness

The newest effort to give students hands-on experience is the ecofarm. The goal, Grigoryan said, is to establish it within a five-mile radius of Yerevan so that it would be easy for students to work there after their classes finish at the ICARE center in downtown Yerevan. The winery will be moved there too eventually. Students will be able to produce wine, dried apricots and other dried fruits. Grigoryan said that ICARE will try to establish a blueberry garden. There will be a winetasting facility, and it could turn into a place for tourists. A small vertical farm is being built there as a room.

Grigoryan worked at an American farm school in Thessaloniki, Greece, for five years, which had different production units, for dairy and milk, lettuce, greenhouses, etc. He said this model of adding production and commercial activities was a good one. This way, students will not only learn production, but also design packaging, do promotion, and in general attain the skills to be an entrepreneur by the time they graduate. The ecofarm can also serve as an agribusiness business incubation center for novel ideas.

Grigoryan pictures the ecofarm as an agricultural TUMO. Unlike the TUMO Center, providing free afterschool lessons in digital media in Armenia and elsewhere, the ecofarm has a commercial component so that students will be able to sell whatever they can produce.

There is a second reason for locating the ecofarm near Yerevan besides closeness to the ICARE downtown center. As Grigoryan explains it, Armenian is a one-city country in reality, and the people in that city, Yerevan, who have money think of the IT sector first when they are looking to invest money. Grigoryan said, “What we want to show to those who live in Yerevan and have the money to invest is that agriculture organized in the right way, if you grow the right varieties and prune correctly, can be highly profitable.” Youth from rural areas will be brought too, but for the ones from Yerevan, he said, “We want to show them that when they grow up they should use their family capital to invest in agriculture.” They can then go to rural areas and establish an orchard to employ the local population.

Grigoryan added that only investments in agriculture could keep villagers where they are. Once they go to urban centers for work, it is hard to get them to go back.

When asked whether the scale of agriculture now being practiced was a problem in Armenia, he agreed, but only for industrial agriculture, where big plots of land allow synergies to reduce costs. It is not that big an obstacle for high value agriculture and family businesses, because you can focus, he said, on a specific market, like herbs such as mint or basil. A small plot of one hectare could supply the entire Yerevan market for these herbs. Similarly, the preparation of dried fruits can be conducted in a small production facility and the fruits bought from various farmers.

Grigoryan explained also that the reason why vegetables are imported from Turkey and Iran which also are grown in Armenia was lacking of proper planning by Armenian producers and greenhouse owners. Gaps in harvests for items like tomatoes and peppers allow importers to take advantage, though their imports are not particularly cheap. Grigoryan said this situation can be rectified in the future.

Research and Fisheries

ICARE in addition to education and training provides economic research, such as the seasonal price analysis of different crops, value chain analysis, qualitative and quantitative assessments, feasibility analysis, and due diligence. It produces papers and publications which are openly accessible on its website to the public.

Students studying food safety

ICARE has carried out one successful research program somewhat outside its strictly agricultural focus, thanks to a USAID Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research grant. It is called Sustainable Fisheries to Enhance Water Resources in Armenia, and its goal was to support fish farms in the Ararat valley, primarily Armavir and Ararat. Underground water resources in the Ararat valley are being depleted, largely due to the inefficient use of water by fish arms, which are growing rapidly in Armenia. ICARE analyzed their operations, said Grigoryan, developed a special water recirculation system model, and applied it at one fish farm. This project was so successful that a presentation was made to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who liked it and asked to see the final report with its recommendations.

Fundraising and Institutional Relations

ICARE began with US Department of Agriculture financing, which the US Agency for International Development continued. Grigoryan declared, “Our goal is to shift to the model of modern academic institutions which depend on an endowment fund. We would like to develop an endowment fund for ICARE and we would like to see a commercial component so that we can produce certain products that we can sell. ICARE itself of course is a nonprofit foundation established in Armenia and governed by its own board.”

Many Armenians in the US and elsewhere in the diaspora already have become firm financial supporters of ICARE, and Grigoryan is hopeful that further funding will be raised for endowments to provide ongoing support for ICARE’s various projects, like the ecofarm.

ICARE maintains its academic relationship with Texas A&M University, which provides certificates for graduates of undergraduate or graduate programs. As the latter cannot provide diplomas outside of the state of Texas, ICARE has a joint agreement with the Armenian National Agrarian University, which provides Armenian state diplomas. Certain programs are conducted jointly with other institutions. For example, the wine program is done together with Geisenheim University in Germany, so joint certification is given to graduates from both institutions, while food safety programs with Pennsylvania State University and Virginia Tech follow a similar protocol.

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