Wednesday 26 June 2013

Agriculture in Kurdistan: A Long Way to Grow

Rudaw 25.6.2013

By Judit Neurink

SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region - Dutch agricultural entrepreneur Annemiek van Waarden arrived in the Kurdistan Region in 2007 to start growing apples, pears and other fruits, as well as to import seed potatoes and advise Kurdish famers how to grow them.
Since then, she has shifted her main activities to supplying imported first-class produce for luxury hotels in the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. The 45-year-old is also in charge of growing local products that can compete with imports.
But the slow local development Van Waarden has witnessed in her six years here has forced her to speak out, warning that at this rate agriculture in Kurdistan has no chance of competing with production and quality in neighboring countries.
“Agriculture is a knowledge sector. We are constantly busy trying to keep up with development elsewhere, to be able to compete. But the development in Kurdistan is not going fast enough,” she complains.
The Dutch businesswoman is no stranger to the history of embargoes, wars and chemical attacks that changed Iraq from an agricultural producer to a consumer. She wants farmers to produce enough to feed Kurdistan’s inhabitants, but admits that is a distant goal.
An agricultural engineer by training, she notes that in her own homeland after the Second World War the Dutch government focused on improving agriculture by educating farmers at schools and universities, and through research and free advice. “They visited my granddad weekly to advise him on how to improve growth and production,” she recalls.
Because of the importance given to agriculture, it took 50 years for authorities to hand it over to the private sector, Van Waarden says. “Now, we pay for advice, and every farmer has his own advisor to make sure he gets the best results. That is where we should be heading in Kurdistan, because we have to get better than our competition.”
When she compares the production of Kurdish farmers with those in neighbouring countries, she thinks the Kurdish potato production is about half of what is produced in comparable circumstances; for fruit it is no more than one-tenth.
Iranian, Turkish and Syrian farmers have more knowledge about when to plant, how much water and feed to give, how to select and use pesticides and the right time and method of harvesting. Because their production is going up, farmers can buy better equipment and seed, raising output even more.
“A farmer has to work hard. If in Holland a farmer does not improve or even achieve the same results every year, he can just about close his farm. That is how fast the competition is moving,” Van Waarden says.
For Kurdish farmers, the competition comes mainly from Turkey, Iran and Syria, whose products have flooded Iraqi markets. Many of them are B- or C-grade products, the Dutch entrepreneur says. “A-grade products hardly get into Kurdistan, because the importers have a higher profit margin when they buy lower quality.” Yet the Kurdish products are hardly better than imports.
Van Waarden is highly critical of the government’s policy of occasionally banning imports to protect local production. “The government has to stimulate and facilitate, not pamper the farmers. They have to be stimulated to become better than the competition. Keeping the competition out creates the wrong incentive, it makes farmers lazy.”
Instead of giving tractors and equipment for free to farmers, as in the past, Van Waarden calls for the government to facilitate farmers with cheap loans. To pay back the loans, farmers have to work hard and improve quality and production. “It would be good to create a ‘farmer of the year’ competition, with a trip abroad as a prize, for instance. That will work as a stimulus,” Van Waarden believes.
She notes that most of the greenhouses for cucumbers and tomatoes that the government and aid organisations gave to farmers for free were not being used for a second year. “The farmers did not make money, as they were not stimulated and advised how to use them in the most profitable way,” she explains.
Van Waarden advocates that the government should facilitate research, for instance on irrigation and the use of different seeds, feeding products and pesticides. Test fields are needed to see which plant grows the best where. The authorities should provide free advice, she says, so that “farmers should have someone to talk to about their problems.”
To help farmers work more efficiently, Van Waarden suggest they unite in a cooperative or make bigger farms. “Small farms are burdened with relatively high costs. To increase the size of the business is a way out, but that has to be well organized and planned. In this world you cannot farm alone. Farmers need to work together on some issues; they need to sell their goods together to make sure they get the best price,” she advises.
Speaking from experience in Holland and elsewhere in Europe, Van Waarden is concerned about the lack of agricultural control in Kurdistan. “Everything that is imported into Kurdistan needs a health certificate and is tested. But farmers are not checked on whether they did not spray their products with pesticides right before harvesting, or if they are harvesting when the product is ripe enough. There is no control at all.”
Her conclusion is that the five-year plan the Ministry of Agriculture made for production targets is a good start, but that good policy is also needed to achieve targets.
It can be done, she is sure, because Kurdistan has all the necessary ingredients: good soil, underground water wells, climate and a big reservoir of people who can grow into good farmers.
“The change I have seen in six years? Then, there was little activity, little production and few farmers,” she remembers. “Now we have more greenhouse production, a few more orchards and a more activities. But we do not see many more Iraqi products of good quality on the market.”

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