BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Standing in the middle of what was once a date palm oasis overlooking the Tigris River, Salim Abdulla al-Salim sees little hope in Iraq’s quest to relive its heyday as the world’s leading producer of dates.
Once, before its 1980s war with Iran, Iraq had 30 million date palms producing 1 million tonnes of dates annually.
But Saddam Hussein’s military campaigns and decades of neglect savaged the industry, cutting the number of trees in half and yearly production to 420,000 tonnes.
Young Iraqis, needed to scale the tall palms to hand-cut and lower bunches of golden fruit to the ground, see no future in it and are leaving the orchards for government jobs with better salaries and fewer hardships, Salim said.
“The industry is not viable any more. The revenues don’t cover the money spent on preparing the palms for production,” said Salim, a date farmer with 6,000 trees.
“In the past, the young generations were adopting their ancestors’ jobs, but now they have shifted to police, army and civil jobs, abandoning the date industry,” said Salim, standing in his dusty palm orchard in Baghdad’s Doura district of Doura.
Iraq, which relies on its vast oil and gas fields for most of its economy, now ranks only 7th among world date producers, according to Kamil Mikhlif al-Dulaimi, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s date palm board.
But the ministry has an ambitious $80 million plan to rebuild the date palm inventory up to 40 million trees in 10 years and to introduce more marketable varieties.
“We are working now to change the date palm map, and to produce the species the world wants,” Dulaimi said.
Ninety percent of Iraq’s production is one variety of date, the Zehdi. The ministry is expanding the menu to include the Hillawi, Khadrawi, Sayer, Maktoom, Derrie, Ashrasi and Barhee varieties.
It is also introducing new types of laboratory-produced trees that will bear fruit in two years instead of the four or five it usually takes.
The ministry recently signed a $17 million contract to buy seven crop-spraying helicopters to fight orchard pests.
“Having these helicopters means a big step forward for the agriculture sector,” Deputy Agriculture Minister Ghazi al-Abboudi said in an interview.
The government’s hope is to double production to more than 800,000 tonnes annually in two years’ time, Abboudi said.
Dulaimi’s goal appears more modest -- to boost the industry to 800,000-1 million tonnes in ten years.
In the 1970s Iraq sent 700,000 tonnes of dates abroad each year but last year exported only 200,000 tonnes, according to Mohammad Sulaiman, head of the Iraqi government’s date processing and marketing company.
Domestically, Iraq consumes about 100,000 tonnes yearly, and farmers in a depressed industry grumble about imports of foreign dates. “I wonder why the government allows imported dates in? Don’t we have dates?” asks Salim, the date farmer.
His groves are filled with weeds. Many of his trees have brittle brown fronds hanging limply, and clumps of dried fruit that should have been picked months ago. Salim said he didn’t bother because it would not have been financially worthwhile.
Iraqi date palms produced 150-200 kg (330-440 pounds) per tree in the 1990s, when water quality, fertilizers, pollination and pest control were better. Output is now down to just 50 kg, according to Salim.
The government is trying to help farmers boost production via subsidies for fertilizers and crop-dusting helicopters, agriculture officials say, and offers soft loans for processing and storage facilities.
“We started to give loans to investors to build warehouses, and they are increasing. We have now around 80 warehouses in Iraq,” Abboudi said.
The ministry also buys dates at $385 a tonne and sells to exporters at half that price to shore up the industry, he said -- effectively subsidizing farmers to keep them cultivating dates.
But farmers like Salim say they would rather sell to a private middle man at $300 a tonne than face the Iraqi government’s tangled bureaucracy for the extra $85.
Feroun Ahmed Hussein, the owner of 4,000 palms in Baghdad’s Doura district, said many farmers are selling off their land for housing projects despite farm-protection laws enacted before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that are still on the books.
“Some people figured that the government is not in a strong position and started to sell these agricultural lands to turn them into residential,” Hussein said.
Agriculture contributes about 10.2 percent to gross domestic product, according to government statistics, a relatively small slice of an emerging economy dominated by oil.
Iraq has signed deals with oil companies that it hopes will vault it into the top rank of world producers in six years.
But Dulaimi said Iraq should not rely only on oil.
“We are an agricultural country ... it is not in our policy to keep depending on oil,” he said. “Oil will run out one day.”
Editing by Jim Loney and Mark Heinrich