Reviving Central Asian orchards
Orchardists from Washington bring hope and expertise to fruit growers in Central Asia.
This slit on apple wood has been opened up to reveal overwintering leafhopper eggs. They typically lay 8 to 12 eggs per slit. In spring, immatures emerge to feed on weeds.
The glacier-coated mountains of the Tian Shan Range create a stunning backdrop to a 40-year-old apple orchard in the Ili River Valley of southeastern Kazakhstan. The fruit trees were planted at the height of the Khrushchev economic boom in the former Kazakh Republic, which was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They are local varieties such as Pestrushka, Aport, or Limon, planted on random seedling rootstock taken from wild apple growing on the lower slopes of the mountains lining the valley.
The orchard is unkempt, rarely pruned, and bears fruit in alternate years. A closer inspection reveals a multitude of pests and diseases on the trees. In a bearing year, the orchard will be lucky to produce two tons per hectare of poor-quality fruit.
This once abundant fruit-growing region fell victim to the economic collapse of the USSR in the 1980s, as state farms lost their subsidies and state-sponsored markets disappeared. The final blow came when the Kremlin decreed a prohibition on alcohol across the union that was interpreted on the local level as an order to destroy thousands of hectares of vineyard and orchard.
Orchard area fell from over 100,000 hectares to less than 50,000. The orchards that did survive fell into disrepair, and desperate farmworkers gleaned any fruit that appeared. Annual production fell from an already modest high of seven tons per hectare to a paltry two tons per hectare. When disease overtook the once-healthy trees, they were simply abandoned or chopped down for firewood.
Across the irrigation ditch, Axmet Mukhtarov shields his eyes from the Central Asian summer sun and looks out contentedly on his new apple orchard. This modern orchard has foreign varieties such as Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Idared, as well as the local varieties Aynur and Rashida. The trees are on locally bred dwarfing rootstocks. The rows are clean, the trees are planted closely and properly formed, and the healthy orchard stands in sharp contrast to its Soviet-era neighbor orchard. The three-year-old trees are already producing their first crop, far ahead of the traditional seedling-rooted orchard that begins to produce in its seventh year. He can expect to get 20 times the fruit crop per hectare that his neighbor might get. The fruit looks good with barely a blemish in sight.
Not far away, trucks can be heard on the main highway to Almaty, the largest city and late capital of the independent Republic of Kazakhstan. The highway is a modern version of the Silk Road, that ancient highway linking China to the west. Kazakh, Russian, and Chinese traffic pass daily carrying consumer goods to Central Asian middlemen in the blossoming bazaars. Soon, Mukhtarov will be bargaining with purchasers for the sale of his crop.
The varieties he has planted will store well into spring and compete with the nicely packaged imported fruit in the markets in Almaty and as far away as Russia. Down the valley, other young orchardists like Mukhtarov are hoping to reclaim the region's once-famous reputation, and they are getting help from a small agricultural development group called the Central Asia Harvest Project.
The objectives of CAHP are simple—to improve methods and outputs of Central Asian fruit growers by encouraging renovation of old orchards and establishing productive new orchards in the Ili River Valley. Operations to support this include a residential and mobile orchard training program as well as the establishment of community orchard associations. CAHP staff scour the former state farms for promising orchardists who are busy but lack resources and modern techniques. One or two serious fruit growers are all it takes to form the core of a community orchard association. These local champions then select up to ten growers in their region who are eager to plant new orchards or, in some cases, renovate older ones. Through a lottery system each year, CAHP selects two of the ten participants in each region to receive CAHP trees and training to start a modest, but significant, 500-tree orchard.
The CAHP began in 1996 when founders Stan and Tami Brown invited a group of North American orchardists from California and Washington State to visit the region to help assess the need for agricultural development assistance. The newly independent Republic of Kazakhstan had begun to encourage foreign investment, and, while the energy sector attracted most of the attention, agriculture naturally drew attention, being a full 34 percent of Kazakhstan's output during the mid-1970s.
What greeted potential agricultural investors was reminiscent of the Great Depression in North America. Farm machinery lay abandoned and rusting, lacking parts and money for repairs. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland lay fallow, gathering weeds. Private land ownership was nonexistent, but the "owners" of the land, the bankrupt state farms, had no means left to use it.
Most of the interest in agriculture in Kazakhstan focused on wheat grown in the vast northern steppe. With the bankruptcy of the state farms and the devastation of orchards during the 1980s, horticulture had become the realm of backyard farms and dachas (summer cabins). The natural wealth of the Ili Valley and the Semirechi, or "land of seven rivers," was unknown to outsiders until it began to draw the attention of horticultural scientists as the possible home of the domestic apple.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored a number of cooperative expeditions into the wild apple forests of the region. Collections of genetic material gathered on these trips are being studied in laboratories around the world with the hope of discovering beneficial genetic characteristics for the next generation of fruit.
But all this was of little interest to the newly unemployed state farm workers now trying to survive as independent farmers in the valley. It became clear to the visiting North American growers that major help was needed for these Central Asian farmers, and that, perhaps, their American counterparts might be able to contribute. And so, in 1997, the Central Asia Harvest Project was born, and in 1998, a Kazakhstan not-for-profit fund was registered. The new Harvest Public Fund began by hosting annual visits of volunteers from the United States to share their expertise.
Visitors have included Walt Butcher, agricultural economist from Washington State University; Tom Hale, former president of the Washington Apple Commission; and Bill Mansour, Extension specialist from Oregon State University. Larry Knudson, Aaron Clark, Fred Nyberg, and other orchardists from eastern Washington State have provided training in orchard management, pruning, and pest control. Chuck Goemmer of Yakima, Washington, was one of the first to champion the project and continues to lead a training program for volunteers who may spend ten years or more serving these small-scale fruit growers in Central Asia. Obstacles to successful orchard development have included poor-quality nursery trees, inadequate weed control, and damage by livestock.
The CAHP and the Harvest Public Fund also play a key role in linking local farmers with Kazakhstan government specialists and institutes, such as the Kazakhstan National Fruit and Viticulture Institute, which holds seminars that address specific questions faced by local orchardists. The National Pomology Gardens provide good-quality nursery stock and rootstock of known local and foreign varieties for distribution through the CAHP orchard establishment program.
Service businesses are starting as demand grows for nursery, pruning, and pest-control supplies. And, while in the past, farmers have had to ferry their small crop into the city to market, buyers with transport are now beginning to compete with each other at the farm gates to load the produce. As local governments begin to recognize the potential of fruit growing and the need to devote resources towards its recovery, the CAHP will continue to have an important role.