Freekeh season in Idlib: Temporary jobs for workers, source of profit for farmers

Burning wheat crops before ripening to prepare freekeh grains in eastern Idlib countryside - May 7, 2024 (Enab Baladi)

Burning wheat crops before ripening to prepare freekeh grains in eastern Idlib countryside - May 7, 2024 (Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

The freekeh season is a source of livelihood for a broad segment of the population in Idlib, northwest Syria, embodying a profession that locals are accustomed to and a tradition inherited from ancestors.

Farmers, workers, merchants, car owners, combine operators, and fuel and professional tools shop owners await the freekeh season. This involves burning the wheat crop before it ripens, hoping for financial returns to meet their needs amid scarce job opportunities in the area.

The work to produce freekeh begins in the first week of May each year and lasts from 15 to 25 days. During this time, the wheat spikes are slightly damp across most of the northern Syrian regions, with some areas differing from others.

What is freekeh?

The production of freekeh goes through several stages. It starts with cutting the wheat spikes with a combine, although manual cutting is used in cases where the combine cannot enter the field due to the presence of wheat among trees.

After cutting, the wheat spikes are exposed to the sun for hours to dry before being burned. They are then packed in large sacks and transported to a threshing facility to separate the freekeh grains from the burn residues like chaff and dust, making them ready for sale.

According to farmers interviewed by Enab Baladi, the method of burning freekeh varies by region and custom. In some methods, workers gather wheat spikes and burn them in a single pile on an iron bed. In others, they are spread for hundreds of meters on roads and burned.

In both methods, workers rely on burning via a tube connected to a gas cylinder placed two to three meters away from the ignition point.

Awaited season, High costs

The grueling nature of the profession does not limit the work to young people or men, as women and children also work during this brief period to support their families, earning $5 for women and $10 for men due to longer working hours, sometimes staying up until midnight depending on the demand and availability of harvesters.

Hssan Hilal, a displaced farmer living in the countryside of Idlib, who has been practicing this profession for over 15 years, told Enab Baladi that currently, a ton of freekeh is sold for between $500 and $800, depending on the quality. This year, the quantity produced per hectare is lower, ranging from three to five tons.

The cost of cultivating a hectare ranges from $800 to $900, depending on fertilizers and irrigation. Farmers pay $80 for the combine harvester and 5% of the crop sales to a contractor (broker) for brokerage and commission, according to the farmers.

A farmer pays $1 per 60-kilogram sack of freekeh for threshing (separating the wheat grains from dust and husks).

A hectare consumes between seven and thirteen gas cylinders for burning the wheat, with consumption varying depending on the weather. If the sun is shining and the temperature is high, the consumption is lower and increases if the weather is cloudy. Currently, a gas cylinder in Idlib sells for $11.83 (about 385 Turkish lira).

In addition to farmers, some individuals rent wheat lands during the freekeh season and take risks hoping to achieve profit margins, especially since some are internally displaced farmers.

Rental costs for a hectare of wheat near confrontational lines range from $300 to $400 (land only), and reach between $1200 and $1400 for freekeh stage costs depending on irrigation and fertilizers, according to farmer Hassan Hilal.

Farmers benefit from the remaining straw after cutting the wheat spikes. If they decide to rent it out, the rent for a hectare of straw ranges from $150 to $200, varying according to density.

Farmers or renters pay amounts to secure a place to burn freekeh on part of the road or what is called a “spread,” ranging from $200 to $500 for an area suitable for spreading a hectare of wheat. Farmers use this area until the end of the freekeh season.

After 2020, the geographical area in northern Syria shrank after government forces took control of nearby towns and areas in their last advance, and a practice of blocking roads by farmers and traders emerged after coordinating with local councils in each area, a practice that was not usual previously.

According to farmers, blocking asphalt roads does not mean completely closing them but rather taking a longitudinal space from them that allows the passage of machinery and vehicles. Furthermore, the rental fees vary between areas and are done through a public auction by the local council, approached by merchants and farmers.

Temporary opportunity

Freekeh represents a temporary opportunity to secure the basic needs of families in a region suffering from unemployment, youth migration, rising crime rates, and increased poverty levels among civilians, with an average unemployment rate of 88.74% among civilians (considering daily laborers within the mentioned categories).

Regardless of the freekeh season, the daily wage reaches 100 Turkish lira (about three US dollars) at best, while the recognized poverty line is 1,843 Turkish lira, and the extreme poverty line is 8,933 lira.

5.1 million people live in northwest Syria, of which 4.2 million need assistance, 3.4 million suffer from food insecurity, 3.4 million are internally displaced, and 2 million live in camps, according to the United Nations. Local statistics speak of 5.5 to 6 million people.

4% of wheat production

The General Director of Agriculture in the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), Engineer Tamam al-Hammoud, told Enab Baladi that the area planted with wheat this year is estimated at 33,000 hectares, and the production quantity cannot currently be estimated.

He explained that the production of freekeh from the wheat production amounts to about 4%, a percentage that does not significantly affect the wheat production in the region.

In 2023, wheat production estimates in areas under the control of the Salvation Government, which include Idlib governorate, northern Hama countryside, and parts of western Aleppo countryside, reached about 99,000 tons.

The Salvation Government set the wheat purchase price from farmers at $320 per ton (32 cents per kilogram) in 2023, whereas in 2022 it was set at $450, causing dissatisfaction and surprise among farmers, leading some to turn to other new and potentially more profitable crops such as aromatic plants like cumin and saffron.


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