Hye Sharzhoom, November 1996, Vol. 18, No. 1
Special to Hye Sharzhoom
by Bill Erysian
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia launched one of the most ambitious land privatization programs of any of the former Soviet states. By 1992, nearly all of the 800 state and collective farms were broken up and more than 300,000 private farms were created.
Building on the potential that now lies in Armenia's farm belt, California State University, Fresno has been awarded a grant of more than $400,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture to provide an extensive program of academic, marketing and technical support to the Armenian agricultural industry.
The CSUF grant is part of a larger project implemented earlier this year in Armenia through the USDA called the Armenian Agriculture Marketing Assistance Program.
The USDA Project was funded to improve the marketing of Armenian agricultural production, both domestically and internationally, with a special emphasis on high value horticultural commodities. The goals are to mitigate marketing constraints in Armenia, improve farm income and promote agricultural exports.
The Project is also designed to strengthen the existing Armenian Extension Service (Agrogitaspiur) and the Armenian Agricultural Academy, especially its agricultural economics and food processing faculties.
As for marketing, the Project will try to develop strategies to assist Armenian entrepreneurs interested in expanding their horticultural processing and export markets. Further support is also being given to the work of the Agrogitaspiur, established in 1992, to develop staff, resource allocation and ongoing farmer education and advice.
The USDA has already created a marketing advisory office in Yerevan, which serves as a clearinghouse for all aspects of the Project. In short, the Project seeks to assist an economy that is in the midst of reform.
"By starting to develop a pipeline of agricultural marketing specialists and educational programs, we can help move Armenian agriculture from the old-style Soviet planned model to a more market-oriented economy," explained Juan Batista, professor of agricultural economics at CSUF, who serves as director of CSUF's role in the Project.
As the lead academic institution chosen to participate on the Project, CSUF is poised to offer a variety of resources and expertise. The decision in favor of CSUF, according to USDA Official Tim Grosser, was an easy one.
"Fresno was the natural place to go for the USDA because the university was a good fit with its worldwide reputation in agricultural research and education," he explained. "Additionally, there is a large local Armenian community, many of whom are involved in agriculture. CSUF has a long history of cooperation with the local Armenian community and an ongoing relationship with the Armenian Agricultural Academy, as well as a notable Armenian Studies Program that can provide the socio-political support for issues surrounding this type of project."
CSUF is already working closely with the Academy to set up programs that provide technical assistance to Armenians in the areas of agricultural marketing, grades and standards, transportation, packaging, processing, merchandising, advertising and promotions.
"Our primary goal here at the university is to assist the Armenian Agricultural Academy develop a strategic plan with the idea that from that plan, a comprehensive program in agricultural marketing and business be developed," Batista said.
He added that CSUF also has the ability to go into the local community and solicit help from individuals and organizations interested in contributing to the project.
"We plan to have a great deal of input from the local agribusiness community in helping to establish some practical guidelines for the Academy," he said. Batista is already planning a trip to Armenia this November accompanied by a local expert in countertrade to advise on technology that can be imported into Armenia and an expert to advise on dehydrating grapes.
In related project developments, Jeff Ennen, ATI-NET general manager at CSUF, recently returned from a trip to Armenia where he began the development of a Web page for the Academy. ATI-NET is a technology information network based at CSUF that provides extensive data on agricultural marketing.
Ennen's visit represents the first step in developing electronic information exchange between CSUF, the Armenian agricultural sector and the Central Valley's agricultural industry.
"Getting Armenia on-line is going to greatly facilitate international trade negotiations and stimulate research from other institutions," Ennen said prior to his departure. "And it's a great way to link Armenia with the rest of the world using the World Wide Web to disseminate information."
An important aspect of the program also calls for CSUF to offer strategic planning and curriculum development assistance to the Academy, which falls under the responsibility of John Shields, professor of agricultural economics at CSUF.
Shields, who has served as chairman of the academic policy and planning committee for CSUF, also recently returned from a trip to Armenia where he spent time reviewing the Academy's curriculum and began introducing them to the process of strategic planning.
"Strategic planning is really about how to make choices and how Armenia can begin to take stock of their new economic environment," he explained. “It is a great opportunity for Armenia to redefine its purpose in agricultural economics as well as identify current and future needs."
According to Shields, the focus of the Project is to help the Academy become more marketing oriented and bring it into the practical role of a service-oriented institution that can help farmers, producers and researchers with information.
Shields explained that the Academy is entering a transitional stage because of the economic forces of change currently underway in Armenia. Clearly, he sees challenges ahead for the Academy.
"The Academy is slightly adrift right now because prior to land reform, it was wholly dependent on directives and planning from the Armenian Ministry of Agriculture," he said.
"Our role is to assist the Academy in redefining its purpose as an academic institution, especially its relationship with new land owners."
In addition to assisting the Academy with implementing a new strategic plan, Shields is also working to develop an educational exchange program between Armenia and the United States. He is identifying potential research areas at the Academy and is setting up a program to train Academy professors in Western economics.
"The real key is for the Academy to take a larger role as coordinator of agricultural issues in Armenia and that is where CSUF comes in," he explained. "We plan to assist the Academy to incorporate more marketing classes into its program and help it establish a long-term vision that includes product evaluation, target customers, manufacturing and training.