There’s a myth that only potatoes will grow in the mountainous terrain of Kazbegi. “But it’s not true” said Kahka Djanukashvili, “I really wanted to prove it wrong.” Kahka Djanukashvili was one of the first villagers in Sno to plant new crops that could fetch a premium price. It’s been a good year and he’s optimistic about his own prospects. He also knows he’s something of an exception.
In a country still producing far less agricultural goods that it was in 1990, farmers like Kakha are a rare, but influential group. They take the risk - and their success or failure is noticed by everyone in the community.
Tucked alongside the stark Greater Caucasus mountain range, Sno is a village containing a few hundred families. They live a short drive from Stepantsminda (formerly known as, as still most often referred to as Kazbegi), a tourism hotspot that draws backpackers and wealthy tourists alike. Connected by a modern road - along the route of the Russian military highway - it’s only three hours north of Tbilisi, and half an hour from Russia.
One of the sons of this ancient village is likely the most revered Georgian alive. “When he comes here, we speak often about farming, about our village, our region, the whole of Georgia,” said Kakha. “He says that God gave us land, and strength, and thoughts - and the earth can support us. So in the fall, he asks me, where is your lettuce?” On the table was a leaf covered cauliflower, plucked from his field. We used it to chase the homemade chacha we drank out of used shotgun shells. “And when the Patriarch eats my leaves, he sounds just like me,” said Kakha and began munching. “Mmmmmmmmm.”
Kakha’s “first life,” as he calls it, was working as a procurator - a prosecutor in the Kazbegi region. He was forced to resign when Saakashvili came to power and he considers that period in his life a waste. “I don’t even want to remember it,” he said, “They were almost worthless years.”
He bought some sheep and worked as a shepherd for the next seven years, planting some potatoes intermittently to survive. “When I was shephard, I thought about leaving Georgia a lot. To go to Europe or America or somewhere, but I didn’t have the language. Then I wanted to go to Russia, but I was afraid. What if everyone abandoned me? I’d be all alone there.”
One day, early in the spring, he saw posters from a USAID funded New Economic Opportunities Initiative, advertising some farming projects in the area. A little more than a dozen people went to the meeting.
“They had studied the climate and the soil and they told us that it’s possible to grow lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and other plants here,” said Kakha.
He was skeptical though: “I thought they just came something, said some words, and nothing would come it. During that time, the Saakashvili years, it was all talk. They almost killed people, but said on television that we are in a democracy," he said. "A person begins to wonder, begins to think it’s all nonsense. And I thought that way too. But I signed up anyway.”
They showed the farmers how to use drip irrigation, saying it was best suited for the plants. ”I didn’t want it. I had no idea how effective it was. I’ll do it my way - attach the hose to the water and pour it,” said Kakha, while stepping over the drip irrigation he has since installed and praises.
NEO was a day late in bringing the saplings. “When on the first of June they didn’t come, I thought, well, just like everyone lies, so do they. As soon as they didn’t arrive, on the 2nd of June, I planted half the plot of with potatoes.” The plants did arrive, and Kakha planted half of his roughly 1,000 square meter plot with them.
It was a success. Many factors combined to make it work - a development project with effective outreach, Kakha and his wife taking the risk to grow this crop, a climate that supported a cash crop, a lack of ecological problems, and most important of all: an accessible market. The good road to Tbilisi and Russia, as well as the guesthouses and hotels catering to tourists in Kazbegi gave Kakha customers.
He was thrilled. “I made a flag of Georgia with these [lettuce] leaves on my plot,” he said. “The entire plot was a flag. In the middle was a row of red lettuce, then crosses in the corners. At first people didn’t understand it. ‘What are you doing?’ They’d ask, just planting things willy nilly. But then it grew, and it was clear. Not everyone has the perspective to even look it.
Today, Kakha is expanding his fields and looking for new crops. He said there are hundreds of families growing lettuce and cauliflower now, so he has to start looking for a new way to get ahead, another crop he can master and profit from. “It was a revolution to me,” he said, reflecting back on the market oriented training he received, “It changed my mentality.” And what advice would he offer other farmers? “If you want fish,” said Kakha, “You’d better get your butt wet.”