From seed to salad, the agricultural system in the South Caucasus is a shadow of its past. While large scale agriculture is slowly being rebuilt across the region, most farmers are just a step above subsistence. Harvesting and selling these crops requires improvisation and personal relationship at every step.
To understand the challenges and people behind this supply chain, Chaikhana profiled farmers and sellers of a simple vegetable - the humble eggplant - in each of the three countries.
Our journey begins in Marneuli, a region near the border of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, where villages of different ethnicities are often on opposite sides of the same road. While most farmers say there is broad respect across ethnic lines, there are also limits to the fraternity.
Aliyev Mirzali, from the village of Baydar, has no interest in going to the bazaar to sell his eggplants. “It’s too dirty, a pig wouldn’t walk there,” he said. An even bigger obstacle: fees to sell at the bazaar. “It’s fifty lari per car, or 1 lari per bag, but if you ever argue with them, you have no power, they are a mafia,” he said. “They killed an Azeri once, a security guard who used to be a boxer just punched him in the face and he died, but the security guard wasn’t arrested.” Mirzale has no problem with his Georgian neighbors, but he says his ethnicity does put him at a disadvantage. “So I sell it cheaper, right here on the road.”
The eggplants grow quickly. His field is just 400 square meters, but he grows 1 ton of eggplant, five to six times per year. Aliyev was a government driver in Soviet times, but like so many men of his generation, he has reverted to subsistence farming since those days. “Of course it was better,” he said, “People lived very well during the Soviet Union. Now I have a son in Belarus who can work on a 50 hectare plot, and here we’re fighting for so little.”
Just down the road from Aliyev sits a cart overflowing with eggplants. “It’s been here for two days, no one is coming to buy it,” said a friend of Arif, the owner of the cart. A dozen villagers come out to explain their hardship. It boils down to a lack of access to markets and price pressures from foreign competition. Cheaper produce from Turkey makes it very difficult to earn a living. “Why do we allow theirs in, but other countries won’t accept ours?” said one man who asked not to be identified. “Life is hard here, what can we do but wait for someone to come buy this?”
Buyers do sometimes come, from all over the country. One driver, who asked not be profiled, visited four separate farmers with his van that evening, negotiating at each stop, relying on the trust he has built up over years to work out pricing and ensure quality. “I have a degree in automotive production, but there’s no work in that,” he said. “So I have to improvise, I have to do something.”
He brings the eggplants to the Samgori market in Tbilisi at night, where other resellers will buy from him to sell at their stalls - or to resell to even smaller vendors.
Mzai Lagvilava has been selling the same crates of eggplants and cucumbers for four days - losing most of her earning to the 7 lari daily fee at the market. The people at the end of the supply chain are often the poorest, and they tend to receive the smallest profit margins.
“But I have great friends here,” she said, as her friends in adjacent stalls smiled. “They knew me from my hometown.” Like many of the produce sellers on the streets of cities and towns in Georgia, she is an internally displaced person, having fled the wars in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“I had a store in Abkhazia,” she recalls. In 1992, she fled the war in Abkhazia to Tsinaki. Then she moved to Tskhinvali, until the war in 2008, when she again fled the violence.Mzai is homeless now and stays with various relatives in Tbilisi. “One night it’s one place, another night it’s somewhere else - I feel no peace,” she said. “All I want is a room, somewhere I can live myself.”
The villagers in the Sabirabad region do not want to talk about eggplants. I told them I was there to photograph the cultivation of eggplants, but it was not a happy topic. “People are in very bad situation. The sack of eggplants costs 2-3 AZN,” said a local farmer, echoing the complaints of many others. A single kilogram sells for just 0.20 AZN (about 25 cents USD).
This is a portrait of a man we’ll call Emre. He is a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and was once profiled by a local TV channels because he was a model farmer. However those days are behind him. He says the police prevent him and his villagers from freely selling their products and demand bribes all the time. “Last time when police came to take bribe I did not give and told everyone that even if they shoot me I won’t give any ‘illegal’ money.” After that, he says, the police never approached him again. Currently, because of health problems, he is not able to sell his crop himself, so he sells them wholesale for a lower price.
Two of his sons help him in agriculture. The youngest is thirteen and loves sports, and his older brother, sixteen, has left school to tend to the the cattle. Because of the low income from the eggplants, Mirza cultivates other crops and raises livestock. After gathering the eggplants, he takes them to the bazaar with his horse and wagon.
The Armenian eggplant often begins its existence on a farm just like that of 57-year-old Ishkan Bakoyan, from the village Arabaz in the Armavir region. He has been farming for 30 years and grows eggplants on most of his land.
Ishkan says that harvest this year was good, but he did not manage to sell it. “The price of eggplant was too low, compared to recent years. In the beginning it dropped to 100 drams (20 cent), then to 50 drams (10 cents).
“We have independence for 24 years already, but the situation of villagers has not improved. Instead, now we are 24 steps closer to hell," says Ishkan.
The burden on the Bakoyan family has eased a little, as the retailer buys the harvest right from their field.
Other eggplants are sold to a reseller, such as 22-year-old year old Vigen Vardanyan from the Araks village in Etchmiadzin.(first from the right)
Other farmers focus on more valuable crops and simply buy their eggplants. 45-year-old Gagik Grigoryan cultivates different types of vegetables and fruits in several greenhouses. However, this year he has no eggplants of his own, so he has to buy them. Gagik, who likes playing ping-pong, drinking coca-cola and watching TV, has a 7-member family. They love eggplant dishes at dinner.