The year was 2001, and we were squeezed around an enormous table, together with a half dozen men in their late fifties, in a small conference room at a Soviet-era tobacco collective in Lagodekhi, near the Azerbaijan border. The director of the collective casually slipped a biography of Joseph Stalin under the table and told us the story of the farm, although we weren’t really interested. Our local host had hijacked us into the meeting, believing we could give these gentlemen sound business advice simply because we were westerners.
“Our tobacco is natural, no chemicals,” the director asserted.
“Yes,” another man interjected with a grin, “we have no money for chemicals.” The men all chuckled.
For nearly a decade after this meeting, we would hear the refrain, whether it was from a tobacco, tomato or grape farmer, that their produce was “natural” because pesticides and fertilizer was too expensive. But it wasn’t entirely true.
An American friend who was working in the agriculture sector for an NGO at the time said he had come across many farmers who were using old stockpiles of Soviet fertilizers and pesticides, including DDT. The produce we would get at the market was fresh and natural in the sense that it wasn’t genetically modified, but it wasn’t organic – a term that is only now becoming understood in Georgia.
“A guy will pour you a glass of wine and brag that it’s natural, but that only means he didn’t add sugar and water to it. But he probably sprayed the grapes a month before harvesting them,” says 33-year-old Elena Chanturia, whose company Jammy-Green has been growing certified organic vegetables since 2009.
The decision to grow organic vegetables was a “bring the mountain to Mohammed” scenario for Elena, one that began with a salad. The standard Georgian salad is tomato and cucumber smothered in fresh herbs. Leafy veggies like beet leafs and spinach are minced or pureed with walnuts and vinegar into pkhali. Elena and her German architect husband, Jochen Frank Jager, craved lettuce salads but nobody in Tbilisi sold lettuce.
“If you mentioned ‘bio’ to someone they’d just look at you, it was a weird word.”
For this reason the young couple bought land in Marneuli, about 25 kilometers from Tbilisi, and started farming valerianella (lamb’s lettuce), a green that happens to be indigenous to Georgia but had all but disappeared locally. For them, there was no question that they would grow organically, a concept many people ridiculed at first.
“If you mentioned ‘bio’ to someone they’d just look at you, it was a weird word. Everybody laughed at us, I couldn’t understand why and took it personally,” Elena recalls. “Bio produce is good for your health, your children and the environment,” she adds.
Nevertheless, everyone liked the produce, even if they didn’t care how it was grown. Restaurants and markets bought their surplus greens, and the business expanded to include other vegetables and fruits, like colored cherry tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli and kale.
Three years ago, they opened up a little shop in a courtyard behind the Rustaveli metro named Sunflower, a humble room with shelves packed with imported and local organic goods: biodegradable detergents, gluten-free flour, craft cheese from Kakheti, raw sunflower seed oil, farm fresh eggs and much more. We never leave the shop without a loaf of homemade sourdough bread and a bottle of their hand-crushed apple, quince or grape juice.
While Elena and Jochen are farming and raising their two daughters, Elena’s mother Alexandra runs the shop, which they intend to remodel soon. In addition to improving the branding of their largely word-of-mouth enterprise, the couple has plans to develop an eco-complex in Kakheti, where they now live, which would include a hostel and restaurant serving their organically raised meat.
Elena says people in Tbilisi are beginning to understand and talk about the importance of organic foods. The problem, she stresses, is that producers aren’t.
Georgia’s agriculture sector is highly underdeveloped, making up a mere 7 percent of the country’s GDP, yet it also employs over half the population. Poverty runs high in Georgia’s rural areas.
Because organic farming requires more work and produces lower yields than conventional farming, it’s hard to convince to a small farmer already struggling to make ends meet to go organic. There are, however, a few farmers who have been blessed by living in high-yielding micro-zones with rich soils. They don’t use chemicals because they don’t have to, yet they cannot afford the complicated process of getting organically certified, which costs around $800 a year.
The lack of a certificate doesn’t keep the growing number of Tbilisi restaurants from sourcing their produce from small bio farmers, who have also found a market at Sunflower. “We don’t close our door on clean products,” Elena affirms.