Since 2003, I have been a part of efforts to introduce commercial berry production as a high-value hand-harvested cash crop for Georgian farmers in desperate need of economic opportunity. Some of the first North American Highbush Blueberry plants to be introduced into Georgia arrived in my suitcase on one of those early assignments. “Berry Production” was identified as a priority sector in 2004 as part of USAID’s five year AgVantage development mission in Georgia. During that period, I made as many as five trips per year to Georgia: presenting seminars, establishing replicated cultivar trials, shepherding demonstration farms and a plant nursery development, creating curriculum for an agricultural technical college, and encouraging efforts to form a Georgian Berry Growers Association. In 2006 we succeeded in bringing nine Georgian farmers, including a Deputy Minister of Agriculture, to the United States for a two week “study tour” of Upper-Midwestern berry production farms, university berry research stations, and examples of berry marketing, distribution, and processing efforts.
Following this most recent experience, it is difficult to express the full measure of my joy for what I see happening as a result of efforts begun nearly 15 years ago to assist this brave determined little country.
During the past year, the Georgian government increased support of their high-value fruit crops by implementing a new program to stimulate national fruit production--including berry production. 70% of the costs for perennial plant purchases, and 50% of the costs for the purchase of irrigation systems, are now provided by the government to qualifying land holders and entrepreneurs. In the past year more than 800 new or expanded family fruit farms of all kinds--nuts, pome fruits, stone fruits, and berries--representing 8,000 acres of new production were initiated. 50 acres of raspberry, 100 acres of blackberry, and 450 acres of blueberry production is now well established. Israel has become a major recipient of Georgian fresh blueberry exports.
In addition, a new USAID agricultural development mission, ZRDA, has been launched to provide technical assistance and grants to farmers for the next five years. Independently owned farm service centers, established with Millennium Fund assistance nearly ten years ago, and now supported by ZRDA, are now well established in all parts of the country and expanding their services to these family farmers. I had opportunity on this assignment to both reconnect with stakeholders from earlier programs, some not seen for more than ten years, and to meet numerous new "back-to-the-landers"--an eclectic mix of urban professionals, recent university graduates, and existing rural residents. Their excitement for the opportunity to establish or expand their farms is palpable. ZRDA has asked me to assist their efforts to support and expand the Georgian berry industry through the remainder of the USAID-ZRDA mission. I will return to Georgia in September.