Shirak region. What is it associated with? Good food and humor? Or maybe an earthquake, poverty and harsh climate? How about rucola, green basil, sage and other food items, mostly seen in the upscale restaurants and supermarkets of Yerevan. Or even tomato, cucumber and pepper. The latter seems especially significant to Shirak – the locals call Yerevan residents ‘bibar krtsogh’ or ‘pepper gnawers’, and the legend says that this is because no peppers grow in Shirak and locals are simply envious! But just a few months ago the situation has changed dramatically: new and experimental greenhouses built in Shirak seem to have caused an agricultural revolution in the region.
Text / Photos : Vardan Melikyan
The climate in the Shirak region is indeed harsh and it is one of the coldest regions of the country, with frequent hail and other extreme weather. So, in terms of agriculture this part of Armenia is mostly associated with the harvesting of grains and cattle breeding. This in turn makes agriculture a risky business, since the level of diversification is low and weather calamities or diseases can potentially lead to loss of crops, cattle and income. But it turns out that the seemingly negative factors of the region can also become advantages. The high altitude is one of the reasons for the harsh climate, but it also results in some positive points. Higher elevation means a thinner atmosphere and thus more solar energy reaches the surface. In combination with an abundance of water and quality soil, this provides a good environment for the development of the greenhouse business.
The problem with convenient greenhouses used in Armenia and other countries in the region is that these require natural gas for heating, if used during the colder season, then this is more expensive, raising doubts over the economic feasibility of the business. However, new technologies mean that there are no heating costs involved, even when the temperature is far below zero. Passive solar greenhouse technology was first developed in China, specifically for high-mountain zones, over two thousand years ago. Since then it has been successfully utilized in different parts of the world, including Japan, Korea, Russia and starting from 2013, Armenia as well.
An Armenian NGO called ‘Researchers for Bio-Heating Solutions’ first piloted the technology in Kut village of Gegharkunik Marz in 2013. The village residents are almost exclusively refugees from different parts of Azerbaijan, including cities, and poverty is one of the main issues of this village, although historical chronicles say it once used to be the summer residence of Syunik Princes. Another distinct characteristic of the village is its high elevation (2,060 meters) and the surrounding harsh climate. The main source of income in Kut is cattle breeding and some potato and cabbage harvesting, so construction of the first passive solar greenhouse has been something unprecedented for locals. Since then a small group of farmers have been successfully cultivating different high value crops year round and selling these to the best restaurants and hotels in Yerevan.
The promising results of the work undertaken in Kut has become the trigger for the UNDP Armenia Country Office to implement another pilot project, with some improvements made by its experts, this time in Horbategh village of Vayots Dzor region. The village has been selected for the same reasons as Kut, including its association with the Orbelian Princes of Syunik – according to locals, Horbategh comes from the Orbelian word ‘tegh’, meaning ‘place’ in English. The village and its fantastic nature, including Red Book wildlife species, like bezoar goats, is located next to some of the well-preserved historical monuments of Armenia, such as the famous Smbataberd. However, this has not resulted in income generation yet, so there has been a need for the assistance with this. Plus, the assessment undertaken by UNDP has shown that Horbategh is one of the most vulnerable villages of Vayots Dzor, in terms of climate change, and there has been a need for the introduction of respective adaption mechanisms to mitigate the risks. The greenhouse construction was completed in December 2015.Starting from January 2016, when the temperature outside has been as low as -250 C, the locals have harvested the first crop without spending a penny on heating.
So, what is the secret behind this? Not much – mostly proper design and positioning. The greenhouse consists of three heavily insulated walls, built using locally made straw bales, as well as a double-layer of special polyethylene film covering the fourth side of the structure, facing south. Thanks to this, during the day the maximum amount of the sun’s energy can penetrate the greenhouse and raise the air temperature inside to more than 400 C, even when it is extremely cold outside. Of course, during the night the temperature drops significantly, but the thermal energy accumulated during the day, as well as the proper thermal insulation, ensure that it does not drop below 0. This does mean that one can grow tomatoes during the winter (as most Armenian farmers want to in the beginning), but instead there are better options, with higher added value and better tolerance of low temperatures, such as the above-mentioned rucola.
The success stories in Kut and Horbategh have become an incentive for the Government of Romania to provide funds to UNDP for construction of another passive solar greenhouse in the Shirak region in 2016. Torosgyugh village has been selected for the project, mostly thanks to its active residents, who have already established a cooperative to implement similar projects. A convenient greenhouse with photovoltaic panels and a solar heating system has been constructed by the cooperative and a passive solar greenhouse is being built next to it. This will provide a comparison of the results, although assessments made by respective specialists already show that the passive solar greenhouse is more effective.
A 260 m2 greenhouse will become an alternative source of income for a village with around 250 residents, and can potentially lead to the development of other businesses, such as the production of agricultural products, the opening of a restaurant, etc. The local cooperative members have ambitious plans, including exporting their produce to neighboring Javakhk region of Georgia, and cooperating with the farmers there. Additionally, the greenhouse will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the year-round access to locally grown healthy and fresh food. Construction commenced on October 2016 and is scheduled to finish by the end of the year. Most likely, Torosgyugh residents will be serving food grown in the greenhouse on their New Year tables.