Syrian wheat confronts major challenges

Threshing machine in Barisha Mountain region in northern Idlib governorate - 30 May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

Threshing machine in Barisha Mountain region in northern Idlib governorate - 30 May 2021 (Enab Baladi/Iyad Abdul Jawad)

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Due to drought and the difficulty of irrigation, wheat, one of the main food resources for the Syrians, has been affected in recent years.

The consumption of the crop, whose sowing date ranges from 15 November to 15 December, is linked to dietary habits based on consuming large quantities of its derivatives, such as flour and bulgur.

Mahmoud al-Karim, 65, a farmer from the countryside of the town of Jaza’a, south of al-Qahtaniya, northeastern Syria, explained to Enab Baladi that the previous two agricultural seasons were affected by drought to the extent that it became difficult for the farmer to escape debts, motivated by his desire to cultivate his land.

Al-Karim explained that the difficulty of securing fuel is an obstacle to operating wells and irrigating crops. The farmers of the southern countryside of Qamishli did not receive their shares of subsidized diesel to operate irrigation wells, which pushed them to venture into rain-fed agriculture after borrowing the price of seeds, farming costs, and other agricultural basics.

The Economy and Agriculture Authority in the Jazira region has approved since 2021 a mechanism for distributing fuel to farmers in batches, on the basis that 20 liters of diesel per dunum are allocated for wells with a depth of 50 meters, 25 liters of diesel per dunum for wells with a depth of 51 meters to 100 meters, and 35 liters per dunum for wells with a depth of more than 101 meters. Such a process is at risk of delayed delivery and non-completion of the agreed quantity.

This prompts the farmer to operate the well on solar energy, i.e., the need for about 10,000 USD to prepare the well (1 USD was trading for 7,150 SYP at the time of preparing this report).

Enab Baladi shed light in a previous report on the obstacles placed by the Seed Multiplication Institution affiliated with the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria to its contract with farmers in order to provide them with seeds at a subsidized price of 2,300 SYP per kilogram and 200 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare (10 dunums), which is granted to the owners of wells exclusively, as it requires a complex process such as guarantees and a cultivation license from the Directorate of Agriculture.

Turnout in northwest Syria

Majed Suleiman of the al-Rouj Plain, which constitutes the food basket for Idlib, confirmed to Enab Baladi that the demand for wheat cultivation is increasing in the current season, which is mostly rain-fed.

The farmer explained that the most important obstacles that stand in the way of wheat cultivation are the prices of fertilizers, pointing to the purchase of a bag (50 kilograms) during the last season for 47 USD, in addition to the high prices of sprayers and pesticides as well, and their almost ineffectiveness.

The price of one ton of seeds is 500 USD, and one dunum requires between 25 and 30 kilograms of it.

The crop requires two sprayings of fertilizers in February, and each spraying requires ten to 15 kilograms of fertilizer per dunum.

The price discrepancy between buying and selling constitutes a disturbing factor for farmers.

During the last season, farmers handed over the wheat crop to the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) at 400 USD per ton, sometimes less, but the price of a ton of seed distributed by the Salvation government is 500 USD, and the average production per dunum ranges between 370 and 400 kilograms, according to Suleiman.

Concerning the date of planting, the possibility of delay, and its effects on the wheat crop, the agricultural engineer Mousa al-Bakr told Enab Baladi that the level of plant height is about 15 centimeters currently for wheat in al-Rouj Plain, given that some farmers started farming since the beginning of the period.

Al-Bakr added that delaying planting may double the plant’s vulnerability to frost, in addition to already weak germination and affected productivity.

Although some organizations support the farmers of some villages with fertilizers and agricultural medicines, fertilizer prices are still high.

However, wheat does not need to be sprayed with fertilizer at the time of planting but rather after about a month and a half, and one dunum requires 25 kilograms per spray, which means 50 kilograms of urea fertilizer per season, according to the agricultural engineer.

In the countryside of Aleppo, the situation is different for farmers who also depend on rain-fed agriculture for wheat. A ton of seed from the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) ranges between 400 and 420 USD, while on the black market, the price per ton is 500 USD, while a ton of fertilizer ranges between 900 and 950 USD, which is close to the fertilizers prices in the areas of the Salvation Government.

Southern Syria hesitates

The conditions for wheat cultivation are not considered better in the south than in the rest of Syria, as some farmers in Daraa governorate were not encouraged to cultivate because of the increase in the wages for plowing the land linked to the rise in fuel prices, which is an exacerbating crisis in the areas controlled by the regime, in addition to the high prices of seeds and fertilizers as well.

Faisal, 45, a farmer of Daraa countryside, told Enab Baladi that the costs have doubled from what they were in 2021, and the price of a liter of diesel fuel has increased to about 10,000 SYP, recording a jump of about 4000 SYP over the price of one liter until November 2022.

Plowing one dunum requires 50,000 SYP after it was only 20,000 SYP in 2021.

At the level of seeds, prices exceed those announced in the northeast of the country, as the price of a kilogram of seed delivered by the associations to farmers reached 3000 SYP.

Cultivating one dunum of wheat requires between 30 and 40 kilograms of seeds, according to Muhammad Khair, 60, of Tal Shihab, who wants to plant his 50 dunums with wheat.

On 30 November 2022, fertilizer prices jumped by 20% from their previous price, just three months after raising their prices.

Accordingly, the price of one ton of urea fertilizer amounts to 3 million SYP, after it was 2.4 million SYP.

The price of a ton of super phosphate fertilizer amounted to two million pounds, and a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (nitrogen fertilizer) amounted to 1.6 million pounds.

According to what an agricultural engineer residing in Daraa explained to Enab Baladi, the minimum amount of ammonium nitrate and superphosphate fertilizer that must be used is 15 kilograms per dunum of each type (agricultural associations provide only five kilograms per dunum).

The more fertilizer used, the better crop quality the farmer has, the agricultural engineer added.

‘Ruthless’ market

On the other side, unsubsidized prices in the local markets are sometimes more than double, which makes a ton of urea fertilizer cost 5.5 million SYP, and a ton of superphosphate costs 2.5 million SYP.

Rustom al-Hashish, director of Daraa agriculture, told the state-run news agency (SANA) that the area cultivated with wheat in Daraa until 16 December 2022, both irrigated and rain-fed, amounted to 39,000 hectares.

These data were preceded, in July 2022, by the talk of the Minister of Agriculture of the regime government, Mohammad Hassan Qatna, who told the Russian Sputnik agency about a decline in wheat production from what was expected for the last season to reach 1.7 million tons, despite the country’s need for 3.2 million tons of wheat.

In light of the insufficient local product, the regime opens alternative doors to obtain the need for wheat in its areas of control, one of which is the “looted” wheat from Ukraine.

Reuters reported on 17 December that the amount of wheat that arrived in Syria from the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula (which Russia unofficially annexed to its territory in 2014) has increased by 17 times since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

According to previously unreported shipping data, the amount of wheat shipped exceeded 500,000 tons, making up nearly a third of the regime’s total grain imports.

Optimism in one place, fears in another

Abdul Karim al-Masri, Minister of Economy in the Syrian Interim Government, says that the Syrian regime does not have the capacity to import wheat and does not have stored quantities capable of covering the needs of farmers.

Al-Masri told Enab Baladi that production during the past season in the northern regions was not at its best, but at least it did not cause a flour and wheat crisis.

He indicated that the rains enhanced agriculture in the north, and irrigated areas of rivers were planted, while the turnout is declining in regime-controlled areas due to the lack of foreign exchange, fuel, and seeds, and irrigated areas were also planted.

Al-Masri considered the wheat season auspicious for an abundance of crops outside the control of the regime, which are the largest areas that constitute the Syrian wheat basket.

On the other hand, the regime’s areas depend on rainwater, the rainfall of which is not sufficient for production, which means resorting to alternatives, such as piracy in cooperation with the Russians to steal Ukrainian wheat.

Al-Masri questioned whether the Autonomous Administration areas in northeastern Syria possessed a surplus of wheat to be exported to the regime.

This means that upcoming difficulties the regime may face with regard to wheat, given that seeds, fuel, and fertilizers are absent or very expensive, in addition to the fact that many people have migrated, abandoning their lands and cultivation, which is necessarily reflected in the volume of production, he concluded.

 

 

 

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