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Plants for the future – improving Georgia’s nurseries

In recent years, parts of Georgian agriculture have gained significant momentum. There are more and more exports to Europe and Asia. Blueberries are emerging as a thriving sector. Drive from Sagarejo to the David Gareja monastery, and you will look out over hundreds of hectares of newly planted almond orchards. The Georgian government, in turn, has been running a ‘Plant the Future’ program, which, since 2016, has helped more than 1,000 farmers set up a total of 6,000 hectares of fields, orchards and vineyards.

Entrepreneurs in the sector, however, face a major problem: how to source quality plants. Healthy and vigorous plants are needed to develop a thriving farm. Such quality plants, however, are barely available in Georgia right now. What can be bought locally is often of uncertain pedigree and uneven quality.

To address this problem, nursery entrepreneurs, with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), have established the Georgian Seed and Sapling Association (GEOSSA, also referred to as the Nursery Association), which seeks to contribute to the agriculture sector by ensuring that Georgian farmers can get better and healthier plants, at a reasonable price. The director of the Nursery Association, Aleksandre Sakandelidze, says this is “the right time for fundamental changes in agriculture in Georgia.” Informing farmers and entrepreneurs about the Nursery Association’s activities and contributions is one key focus in this initial phase, following the founding of the Nursery Association at the end of last year.

Extensive imports, uneven local quality

Currently, most entrepreneurs seeking to develop quality orchards bring their seedlings from abroad. Hazelnut rootstock has been brought from Italy or even Switzerland, almonds from Spain, blueberries from Poland or the U.S., plums from Armenia, and a small feijoa orchard has flown in plants from New Zealand. Customs data shows that these imports have grown considerably in recent years, reaching a total value of $15 million in 2019.

For Georgia, importing seedlings and saplings in great quantities is suboptimal. Money that could be earned in the country flows abroad, while fields in Georgia that could grow these plant stocks remain idle. Many people in rural areas would be glad to have permanent employment that could otherwise be generated. Imports can also bring in disease—viruses and bacteria—that are not in the country yet. Transport takes time and has its own hazards: one importer in Samegrelo found that a strike by harbor workers in Alexandria, Egypt, delayed a refrigerated container with his seedlings for an additional 10 days. The plants survived, but he recalls it was a tense time.

“Agriculture is already laced with terrible uncertainty even under the best conditions. The last thing farmers need is unpredictable crop outcomes from substandard plants,” says James Ricard, an American-Canadian nursery expert who lives in Tbilisi and has been working in the Caucasus region for more than ten years.

There are several problems with many of the plants that were used in the past, according to Ricard. Some of the plant stock is physically damaged or underdeveloped. There are phytosanitary concerns of all kinds—microbial problems, infestations of small worms called nematodes, or of insects. Inexperienced nurseries have struggled to manage their herbicide and insecticide application. Both too little and too much can do long-term harm to their plants. Entrepreneurs also report that they get plant seedlings that are not “true to type.”

It is hard to create a successful orchard when your fruit type and size is inconsistent, as it comes from a diverse stock. There is, therefore, much to do for the Nursery Association.

Propagation and intellectual property

To ensure sustainability, the Nursery Association is seeking to work as a membership-driven association. The Nursery Association is governed by a board, with a full-time executive director. Sakandelidze, its founding director, says that he wants to promote nurseries as a cluster of businesses and institutions that help each other thrive. One major focus of collaboration is with the packaging cluster, as seedlings and saplings require good packaging for sales, transport and to ensure traceability. Ricard points out, too, that in the U.S., plants are usually grown in containers, rather than planted in local soil and dug up.

The financial support of the European Union has made it possible for the Nursery Association to set its initial membership fee at a nominal amount. Eventually, the work of the association should be supported by fees, which will be the major test for its ability to serve members’ interests. Sakandelidze brings extensive experience from other industries, having previously worked in the insurance industry, with transportation and logistics, and with Sarajishvili, the Georgian brandy producer. Sakandelidze holds an MSc in Business Administration from Jönköping International Business School in Sweden.

With this background, why did he join the Nursery Association? Sakandelidze replies that he “got very excited to join the Georgian seeds and saplings association, as seeds and planting material represent the base of agriculture, and their quality can be [the key] determinant for successful agriculture” overall.

In its first months, the Nursery Association held a series of training sessions via Zoom on plant propagation with an expert from CREA, the leading Italian agricultural research organization. Growing plants just from the seed can produce inconsistent results for farming purposes. To achieve consistency, nurseries employ various cloning techniques, in which the same plant is replicated. Nurseries often use cuttings (in which you cut a branch, often finger-thick, dip it into a growth solution, and then plant it into substrate, hoping that it will develop roots), or grafting (for which branches are grafted onto rootstock, which sometimes can even be a different variety, selected for vigor or heartiness).

Another recent training, again with an expert from the Italian CREA, focused on Intellectual Property and Plant Variety Protection. In many fields of agriculture, research institutions develop new varieties that are optimized for specific climates, for increased disease resistance or for longer storability. Yet developing a variety, which may well be done with the traditional patience of plant propagation rather than genetic modification, is expensive and can take years. The developers, including some state-funded institutions, often seek to recoup their investments by licensing new varieties, which in turn can fund further development.

When it comes to plant varieties, the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights in Georgia is still evolving. For agricultural entrepreneurs, it matters that Georgia is recognized as a reliable partner in which intellectual property rights can be enforced; without such a reputation, it will be difficult for entrepreneurs in Georgia to obtain the licenses for newer varieties. In this regard, too, intellectual property rights—and their enforcement—matter beyond just the sectors that most people first think of, such as software or the pirating of movies. Some blueberry experts, for example, estimate that proprietary varieties will dominate the European market by the end of the decade.

Broader impact and international standards

Having good nurseries is of relevance beyond agriculture. Landscape architects such as Sarah Cowles, an American based in Tbilisi, say that they find it hard to get the right trees and plants in Georgia. Currently, they source some of their trees abroad, which adds considerable expense, especially if trees already have a well-developed crown, making them harder to transport longer distances. During the conversation in her office in Vera, one of her colleagues leafs through a catalog from a Spanish nursery and casually mentions that a single well-developed tree can cost more than $10,000 , before it even begins its journey. At this price point, few real estate projects in Georgia can afford comprehensive landscaping.

Some entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector are only moderately enthusiastic about the increased regulation of plant propagation, which will come with the mandatory National Seedling Certification scheme to be introduced in 2024. They fear overreach and intrusion, and have concerns that even propagation for use on one’s own farm may be regulated. “Why should they mess with what I do here, on my own farm?,” is one oft-heard comment in this context. Yet they, too, concede that current standards in the sector fall far short of what is needed, and hope that the Nursery Association can contribute to a sensible balance, and bundle entrepreneurs’ interests vis-à-vis government agencies. Moreover, to achieve certifications such as Global G.A.P., the plants need to come from certified sources, too.

Government representatives have pointed out that this increased regulation of nurseries is part of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the European Union. The upside is that Georgian nurseries will be able to sell into the European market, but, in exchange, need to meet minimum standards, which ultimately serve the purpose of providing healthy and safe food at an affordable price to citizens of the European Union and its partner countries.

Nor is regulation just a feature of EU agriculture. Ricard, who gained some of his first work experience in a nursery in Arizona, highlights that the United States also “sets detailed horticultural standards prior to sale: propagation conditions, plant size requirements, accurate identification, pruning specifications, root-ball dimensional rules” and more. The protocols on how to control bacteria, disease, and pests are enforced “from the wholesale side all the way through to the retail end,” he says.

One encouraging aspect is that the nursery sector has developed significantly in recent years. One farmer in western Georgia says that now windbreak plants are available in Georgia that two or three years ago simply were not on the market. He hopes that, with these saplings, he can recreate the windbreak lines required for successful agriculture, which were cut down for firewood in the early 1990s.

There is more awareness of varieties, says an almond farmer in Kakheti, though he thinks more attention should be paid to rootstock. Gone, too, are the days in which one farmer bought hundreds of seedlings, grew them for three years, only to realize, eventually, that he had been sold all-male plants with zero prospect of ever bearing a single fruit. Ricard says that he has “seen Georgian smallholders accomplish miracles with limited tools and few resources at their disposal”, but they would of course be served better if there was more consistency in the sector.

Sakandelidze and Ricard agree that, in principle, the prospect for nurseries in Georgia should be good. For grape vines alone, some estimates say that demand will be as high as ten million grape vines per annum, as plants need to be replaced regularly. Next to consistent quality, diversity of supply would be a big help. As Ricard puts it: “There are thousands of fruits and vegetables that are perfect for our climate, but to which Georgia has only recently gained access .” It would be transformative, he says, “if many small farmers would have a clear, affordable way to acquire and experiment with such plants.” In these ways, the Nursery Association can play an essential part in helping agriculture, and Georgia itself, thrive.

Dr. Hans Gutbrod heads the agribusiness committee at AmCham, and also works as the Regional Representative of Berlin Economics.

The Georgian Seed and Sapling Association e-mail is info@geossa.ge; its website is still under construction. Alexandre Sakandelidze, its director, can also be reached at 599121274.

James Ricard, a Canadian nursery consultant resident in Tbilisi, can be contacted through his website at https://ricard.carrd.co

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