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Trip to Republic of Georgia a give and take for ag educator

May 13, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

From April 29 to May 6, I had the opportunity to visit the Republic of Georgia.

For many, you will remember Georgia was a member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, until 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent weakening of communism in Eastern Europe. The Republic of Georgia is not Russia, which many people have mistakenly assumed after my telling them where I was going or where I had been.

If you are looking to find Georgia on the map, it is east of the Black Sea and north of Turkey. It is a country of rugged beauty, which is recovering from the ravages of communism and 17 years of struggling independence.

So, why was I there? It certainly wasn't so I could share a geography or civics lesson! I was there to work with agrarians in the community of Akhaltsikhe. The local agriculture economy is what many would characterize as at a subsistence level. The typical farmstead is about three acres, mostly composed of house, barn, outbuildings and garden. There is also a vineyard or trellis for grapes. Grapes and cheese play a significant role in Georgian food culture.

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The garden and grapes produce a major portion of the family's food supply. In addition, the farmstead will include several cows, a flock of chickens and a few pigs to drink the whey left from making cheese.

In addition to the farmstead in the village, the family may own some land outside the village. This land may be planted in cash crops such as onions and potatoes or hay to feed the stock during the cold Georgian winters.

Another interesting aspect of their agricultural practices is the community herd. Each morning the village's cows are loosed and the "shepherd of the day" will collect the village cattle and herd them out to the community grazing lands for the day. Community grazing lands are very hard to define on some levels. The easy parts to define are the roadsides - no need of mowing crews in Georgia, the cows keep the roadside well manicured without burning an ounce of fossil fuel and only leaving behind an occasional cow pie.

After leaving the roadsides and venturing into the hillsides, the land issue gets a little blurry. Other than the defined crop fields, there isn't much that isn't deemed fair game for grazing. While this may seem odd to Americans, where fences and property lines border on sacred, you must remember most of these folks have known nothing but communism where everything belongs to everybody and nothing belongs to anybody.

Back to our project ... because of there management system, the lands are overgrazed. While that is not necessarily bad for roadsides, it is not good for fields and pastures. So, in an effort to improve their forage management, we shared the concept of rotational grazing. This practice is also something we try to get local farmers to adopt, as well. The key to rotational grazing is giving the grass time to rest, recover and regrow. Three things continuous grazing does not allow and, thus, results in poor pasture performance. Rotational grazing in our country uses fencing, but in Georgia they will employ their shepherds to keep the herds from over-grazing.

There were many take home points for me from my visit. First, people are people regardless of where they call home and the folks in Georgia want to improve their farming systems. It will take time because, just like their U.S. counterparts, old habits die hard.

Second, we can learn things from folks that are different from us. The Georgians are survivors and their cattle, while perhaps not "modern" by our standards, are hardy. Their system is working and, with a few minors tweaks, can be a very solid system.

The most important things I learned, though, are best captured by two quotes. First from Winston Churchill: "Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The other quote comes from Lee Greenwood: "God bless the U.S.A."

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