Our relationship with soil is complicated. For some it represents roots, lineage and heritage. For others the natural world. For those who work with and till the soil, it is their livelihood, a way of life that spans generations. They plant seeds that will germinate and sprout and provide a plethora of fruits, grains and vegetables. And while they supply us with food, sustenance and security, they are preserving and maintaining traditions that stretch back to thousands of years of human activity. They are the custodians of our soil and the guarantors of our survival.
Armenians have worshipped the soil since antiquity. Farming was once the main occupation of the people and the soil and working the land were the symbols of the continuity of life and fertility. People believed that the soil was capable of listening and healing. Sometimes they would place soil on a wound believing it had healing properties. The soil was sanctified because it was the guarantor of an abundant harvest and fertility.
The role of farmers in the prosperity and security of any country cannot be overstated. It has been and continues to be one of the toughest jobs in all of human history - the efforts of one’s labor at the mercy of weather conditions and climate change, disease, and infestations that can wipe out entire crops causing huge financial loss to farmers, impacting national economies and the health and well being of countries. Ensuring food security and safety, therefore, is a key public health challenge and concern.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, collectivized state farms in Armenia were dissolved resulting in the prevalence of small family farms: the average farm in Armenia is a mere 1.5 hectares. At the time, the rural population was unprepared and lacked the necessary toolbox to transition and adapt to the new market economy. Political instability and lack of social protection mechanisms compounded their situation. Almost 30 years after independence, land fragmentation and limited access to knowledge, mechanization, transportation, finance and markets including a fractured or non-existent infrastructure have left the rural population without the tools to adopt innovations and develop new business models to manage their resources and assets.
In October 2019, the new state budget for the development of agriculture for 2020 was discussed in Armenia’s parliament. An article we published last year stated that the “main message running through the subsequent discussion was that the responsible policymakers have to both urgently rethink their political views and positions and redefine their own role in the entire food system.” It also argued that the over 40 million USD that was to be spent implementing several fragmented projects were ambiguous, lacking a long-term vision to revitalize the agricultural sector: “There is no ultimate goal, ideological basis or unifying thread running through the intended pilot projects and initiatives.”
Currently, Armenia’s government is working on a land reform package that will be submitted to the National Assembly by the end of this year, with the objective of lowering land fragmentation and putting abandoned plots to use again through a number of mechanisms. It remains to be seen how the current government will effectively prioritize and implement agricultural reform.
In Lieu of a Conclusion
Any agricultural policy, reform package or agenda must be human-centered. I say this because I know the sacrifice and back-breaking work that goes into working on the land. Farming is part of my family’s heritage. And as such, I have seen first hand how soil has a deeply symbolic meaning to farmers. Their relationship with the soil is an intimate one. They have planted, nurtured, watered, grafted, pruned, picked, packaged and shipped the fruits of their excruciating labor. They have touched each branch and every leaf with love and care, willing each tree to life. And even when frost or hail wipes out their harvest, when the market fluctuates eating away at their profits, even when disease sets in and they record the worst year of yield, they still hang on because only they know what it has taken from their lives. It is painfully beautiful and heartbreaking.
Next time you buy fresh produce at your local market, think of the labor, effort, care and love it has taken to deliver that bounty to your table.
We have dedicated this month’s issue of EVN Report Magazine to everything related to soil. You can read those stories here: https://www.evnreport.com/magazine