“Freekeh” making in northern Syria, old profession resisting difficulties
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
These days, the 27-year-old Mohammad al-Satouf wakes up every day at midnight to go out to the work he has been waiting for since last year, burning the wheat crop before it is ripened to produce freekeh grains on a bypass road between Idlib and Binnish.
Freekeh production becomes active in the first week of May of each year and lasts for days not exceeding one month, when wheat ears are slightly wet and not dry, in most areas of northern Syria, with some areas more distinctive than others.
The majority of the population of northwestern Syria is awaiting the wheat burning season for the production of freekeh, a profession that is the source of livelihood for many people and families.
Through a video call on WhatsApp, Mohammad al-Satouf (a displaced young man from the village of al-Talhiya in the eastern countryside of Idlib) spoke to Enab Baladi about his profession, which his village is famous for and he inherited from his ancestors.
Between the flames and the rising smoke, the features and details of the masked young man, who was carrying the steel pipe from which the fire was rising, were absent, and behind him was another young man carrying a gas cylinder connected to the pipe.
Al-Satouf goes out every day at 3 am with some workers from his village to follow up on the harvester’s work in cutting the bunches of wheat (separating the bunches from the sticks), to be joined at 6 am by tens of other workers to start the stage of spreading the bunches on the roads, he told Enab Baladi.
After being left for hours in the sun, the wheat bunches that extend for hundreds of meters are burned, then packed into large bags, and transported to threshers to sort the freekeh grains from the remains and remnants of burning from straw and dust to make it ready for sale.
No cultivation outside the village
“I mourn the days of the village,” the young man released a sigh and expressed with these words his grief and eagerness to work in his village before he lost his land and previous work in it, and from which he was displaced to distant areas.
After their displacement, the work of the residents of the village of al-Talhiya, which has been under the control of the Syrian regime forces for two years, was affected by the deteriorating economic situation and the decline in green spaces, and the high costs of working in agricultural production.
The villagers were famous for burning wheat crops, producing large quantities after planting them on their lands and renting large areas of land from neighboring areas.
The production of freekeh is not limited to farmers, merchants, or landowners, as the village’s youth also work in burning, renting, selling, buying, and producing the crop.
Hassan Hilal, a displaced farmer from the village of al-Talhiya, explained to Enab Baladi that the village’s farmers are facing many obstacles, including the declining and limited geographical area and the loss of agricultural lands, after the regime forces retook control of cities and neighboring areas in their last military advance in 2020, which raised the rent of agricultural land in the displacement areas, and reduced the opportunity to rent a larger number of hectares.
Many village farmers were unable to practice farming after their displacement due to their inability to bear the costs of renting again and resuming agricultural work, in addition to competing with the farmers of the rest of the villages and cities, which made working in agriculture difficult for them, amid challenging economic conditions, from which most of the residents of northwest Syria suffer.
A source of income
A large group of families works in preparing freekeh grains, and this work is not limited to young men or men, as even women and children work during the few days of the freekeh season to support their families.
Al-Satouf, who works from morning until sunset, earns a daily fee of 150 Turkish liras from burning the crops. Meanwhile, women who work for fewer hours get a daily wage of 75 Turkish liras, except for those who burn crops, who receive as much money as al-Satouf.
The cost of freekeh grains’ transportation varies according to the size of the transport vehicle. The farmer, the tenant of the land, or the owner of the production process pays between 35 and 50 US dollars.
The wheat-cutting harvester’s fare is 100 US dollars per hectare (10 dunums), while the thresher’s fare that isolates the freekeh grains from the straw is 1 US dollar for each bag weighing between 60 and 65 kilograms.
The cost of renting one hectare of wheat ranges between 2,800 and 3,200 US dollars for the irrigated crop, depending on the fertility of the crop, and some lands are rented with the amount of straw or grass left after cutting the wheat, which is used for livestock.
The productivity per hectare ranges from four to five tons of freekeh, depending on the fertility of the land, and the price per ton ranges between 900 and 1,000 US dollars.
On 20 April, a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that the number of internally displaced people in northwestern Syria had reached about 2.8 million people, of whom 1.7 million are living in camps.
More than 75 percent of the population suffers from food insecurity in northwestern Syria (i.e., 3.1 million out of 4.4 million people), and an additional million people are at risk of food insecurity, according to a previous 2022 UN report.
Spreading and exporting “Freekeh”
The farmer, Hassan Hilal, explained that after selling the wheat crop to the merchant, it is spread on the ground either by the merchant or by the farmer himself in case he did not sell it.
The crop is spread in spacious and covered facilities in a way that does not expose it to sunlight, such as in poultry farms and others until it becomes dry and free of any humidity while moving it on a daily basis.
The grinding stage follows the stage of sifting the crop from dust and straw, and then it is filled in bags of different weights for sale or export. The bag’s weight ranges between five and 25 kilograms and is exported to different regions through Turkey.
The spreading and drying phase is also expensive, as the merchant and the farmer pay additional costs for renting a place to spread the crop, and they pay for the workers involved in the process.
Dried freekeh is sold at a higher price due to the additional costs and weight loss occurring in the drying process.
Although the majority of the population work in the production of the freekeh grains, the produce is not marketed well in the local market, according to Hilal, who is also active in trading it. He attributed the reasons to the fact that the area is small and with a population density that does not absorb the large quantities produced by farmers. The people’s supply of it is minimal and does not constitute 10 percent of the produced quantity.
Fuel prices as additional obstacle
The high fuel prices constitute an additional burden on farmers and merchants, which have increased significantly over previous seasons.
Farmer Hilal pointed out that fuel provision stood as an obstacle to many farmers and merchants and prevented them from working, while some ventured into the season despite the simple profit margin because of the love for agricultural work and the farming rituals of freekeh, which also provides little income.
The high costs did not only include gas cylinders needed for burning the wheat crop but also transportation and workers’ wages.
On 19 May, the Watad Petroleum Company, operating in the areas of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib city and its countryside, raised fuel prices.
The price of a liter of high-quality imported gasoline amounted to a dollar and 181 cents, while the price of a gas cylinder reached 13 dollars and 13 cents, according to Watad’s bulletin of fuel prices via Telegram.
The price of European diesel reached 935 US cents, the improved diesel 740 cents per liter, and the filtered diesel 550 cents. The company, on the other hand, justified the fuel price hike with a global rise in oil prices.
No impact on wheat production
The Minister of Economy in the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) that controls the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in northeastern Syria, Abdul Hakim al-Masri, explained to Enab Baladi that the production level of freekeh is normal, and its quantities do not affect wheat produce.
Al-Masri said that the problem lies in exporting wheat and transferring it from the northern regions, stressing the prevention of wheat and strategic materials export to any party, confiscating them, and ensuring their purchase from the Grain Corporation in order to maintain food security in the SIG areas.
The SIG will take practical and strict measures to ensure the provision of flour for the making of daily bread, according to the minister, who indicated that the use of wheat in other products such as bulgur and freekeh, whether by locals or organizations within the region, is permissible as long as the production is directed to the region, but exporting it outside the region is prohibited.
On 19 May, the SIG issued a statement banning the export or removal of strategic crops, primarily wheat, outside Syrian territory by any means.
The SIG attributed its decision to the global food crisis, the threats associated with the supply of wheat and strategic crops, as a result of the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the ban on major export products, and fears of a major food crisis.
The SIG directed the concerned ministries, namely the Defense, Interior, Local Administration, and Finance, to take the necessary legal measures to ensure the implementation of this decision and to follow up efforts to prevent the smuggling of these crops out of the northern regions.
Meanwhile, the SSG, which controls Idlib governorate and part of the western countryside of Aleppo, Latakia countryside, and al-Ghab Plain, to the northwest of Hama, did not issue any statement on wheat production.
Enab Baladi contacted the SSG to question the impact of freekeh on the wheat production season and about the solutions or measures taken to avoid any negative effects or future problems in this sector but received no answer until the preparation time of this report.
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