April 15, 2006 Los Angeles Times
Dust Bowl Uncertainty Grows in Iraq
Farm production has fallen below prewar levels. Without a plan to revive
the agricultural sector, a nation's identity may wither, officials say. By Doug Smith and Raheem Salman, Times Staff Writers

UMM AL GHAREEJ Iraq, Like hundreds of villages that dot the Tigris

River south of Baghdad, this cluster of cinder block-and-mud dwellings
draws its livelihood from small farming plots cultivated by hand and
crude machinery.
This is the heart of Mesopotamia, the biblical land between the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers where one of the world's first civilizations
thrived on the bounty of the land.
Today that land is sick.
Qassim Mohammed, 20, whose family has farmed here since 1980, has
left more than half his 30 acres unplanted this year. The harvest was so
poor last year, he said, that he couldn't recoup the cost of seed and
fertilizer.
"This land is weak," he said, strolling in a flowing robe through a
field where the salt-crusted earth offered only a scruff of dead weeds.
Mohammed's acreage is typical of much of the farmland south of Baghdad.
Reliable agricultural statistics have been unavailable since the
U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But the level of wheat imports, which surged
during the United Nations oil-for-food program in the late 1990s, shows
the extent of the decline of agricultural production.
Three years after the invasion, Iraq still imports about
three-quarters of the wheat its population consumes, said Jamil Dabagh,
economist for the Ministry of Agriculture.
The agricultural decline began under the centrally controlled
economic system of Saddam Hussein's Baath regime. Neglect of the
intricate system of irrigation canals that crisscross Iraq aggravated
centuries-old problems with salt buildup and poor drainage. As the land
deteriorated, free fertilizer and guaranteed prices kept farms going,
Dabagh said.
Yet agriculture, which has provided the primary means of support for
more than a third of Iraq's population, was an afterthought in U.S.
rebuilding efforts, which concentrated on oil, electricity and municipal
water systems.
"Everybody looks at Iraq as an oil country," said Col. Randy Fritz,
the former agricultural counselor to the U.S. military.
Three years after the ouster of Hussein, no coherent policy has
emerged on resuscitating Iraq's agricultural sector, and most indicators
show the situation worsening. Much of Iraq's degraded farmland could be
restored, experts say, but there are sharp disagreements on how to do it.
U.S. officials would like to increase the yield on farmland still in
production and see Iraq move toward a free-market system. But Iraqi
agricultural officials contend that crucial resources are too short for
farmers to make a quick transition into the world market. The Ministry
of Agriculture continues to pay more than $200 a ton for wheat, more
than the price on international markets. Bahadli said the phaseout of
price supports should be done over a 10-year period.
Iraq's U.S.-educated minister of Agriculture, Ali Bahadli, contends
that the problem threatens both Iraq's economic stability and cultural
identity.
"This is our life," Bahadli said of farming. "If we cannot do it,
our future will be very dark."
A plant pathologist trained at UC Davis, Bahadli advocates massive
expenditures for land reclamation, the slow and costly process of
washing salt-laden soil. Such a program, centered in the south, could
cost tens of billions of dollars, he estimated, far more than either the
Iraqi budget or the U.S. development program can support.
In contrast to such sweeping reform proposals, the U.S. military has
established some direct programs to assist Iraqi farmers. Many
commanders have used discretionary funds to clean irrigation canals, set
up co-ops and repair facilities. U.S. Army civil affairs officers, who
see the rural unemployed as a source of recruits for the insurgency,
sometimes take issue with U.S. agricultural officials who they say are
in Iraq to open markets for U.S. exports.
"How can you expect someone who represents Iowa wheat to give
impartial advice to farmers in Iraq who could raise their own wheat?"
one civil affairs officer told a visiting congressman last year. The
Iraqis "need to grow some of their own, not import all of it" from the
United States.
The USDA is fully committed to the development of Iraq's
agriculture, said James Smith, agricultural counselor in the U.S.
Embassy in Baghdad
. But Smith said that the picture was complex, and
that American feed exports, for example, could stimulate Iraqi's
depleted poultry industry.
"If they prefer to import frozen chickens, we can meet their needs
with high-quality, low-cost meat," Smith said.
"If they prefer to grow their own poultry, we can provide them
excellent corn and soybean meal.
If they want to grow their own chicken
feed, we can provide them the seeds."
Yet another view is that the best course for Iraqi farmers is to
shift away from wheat production, which has long been promoted as a
national birthright.
Paul Savello, a senior U.S. agriculture consultant in Iraq for the
last two years, said Iraq's farmers should be encouraged to shift to
cash crops such as tomatoes with a combination of advanced farming
techniques and old-fashioned manual labor.
This is happening on a small scale, especially in the south near
Basra, where farmers grow winter tomatoes under long tubes of plastic
lined up in the parched desert. The crops are watered by drip systems.
The plastic retains the moisture and protects the fragile plants from
the night chill.

But it's not cheap.
Waleed Mamoon, a wealthy business executive, owns such a farm.
Mamoon, who bought 40 acres as a way to "make myself happy," is
purchasing a reverse-osmosis filter from an Australian company to purify
the salty water from his well. He also plans to replace the belt-driven
diesel pump. Each crop requires the purchase of seed, plastic sheeting
and fertilizer.
Mamoon employs an elderly man and his nine daughters to do the hand
labor. The man, Abdul Ali Mani, said he abandoned his own farm, which he
had been working since 1962, because he could no longer afford the
upfront costs.
Several of Ali Mani's daughters, wearing head-to-toe coverings
called abayas, worked in the field, raising the plastic sheets to apply
fertilizer to the plants.
Across much of Iraq, the practice of agriculture today has the look
of Dust Bowl-era desperation.
World War II-era pumps smoke and clatter as they suck water from
canals that are clogged or drying up. Irrigation ditches are filled with
muck that barefoot farmhands remove with shovels. Tractors and
harvesters are few and antiquated. Women in black robes bundle harvested
crops to carry home on their heads or on donkeys' backs.
Irrigation water is often tainted by sewage and industrial
pollutants. Upstream dams in Turkey and intensified farming have reduced
the flow in the Tigris River and elevated its salt content.
With no
access to capital or new technology, farmers make matters worse by
flooding their poorly drained fields, a practice that deposits more salt
and further degrades the soil to the point that it becomes too muddy to
till.
These conditions are partly the natural heritage of the low-lying
Tigris and Euphrates valleys south of Baghdad, but they grew worse under
Hussein. Technological advances came to a standstill, capital investment
dwindled and subsidies encouraged short-term practices over sustainable
production.
Hussein's Sunni Arab regime clamped down on the Shiite
majority, and funds were cut for the upkeep of irrigation canals.
But most analysts agree that the slide has continued, or even
accelerated, since the 2003 invasion.
The damage is especially severe in the south, where a U.S.
contractor estimates that 10,000 additional acres a year are becoming
too salty or waterlogged to farm
.
The south's date farms, once the source of Iraq's only export crop,
are also in decline. Many date palms were felled by Hussein to punish
Shiites. The trees that survived are suffering because of the poor land
quality and the suspension of aerial pesticide spraying. Competitors in
neighboring Jordan and other countries have seized the date export
market through advanced production techniques.
Sunni areas in the north and west are also affected by low yields
and competition from superior imports. From Tall Afar to Tikrit, a
heavily Sunni region in the north, wheat land that had been tilled as
recently as two years ago has been abandoned.
In its $20-billion reconstruction budget, the U.S. government has
committed only $100 million for agriculture.
"It's a very small amount, considering the size of the agriculture
sector in Iraq," said Savello, the U.S. agriculture consultant.
The money was used for a single USAID contract to Development
Alternatives Inc., a global consulting firm based in Washington that
specializes in social and economic development, including agriculture.
In a bleak 2004 report in which it noted that Iraq's farm production
had fallen below prewar levels, the consulting firm issued a blueprint
for a quick transition to market-based policies. "To move agriculture
forward, the government must cede control of production decisions and
focus on regulation, supervision and certification of private sector
activities," it said.
The plan called for the elimination of the food basket program
initiated by Hussein that still delivers free staple foods to every
Iraqi family. Most of the giveaway food is imported. Development
Alternatives said the program distorts the economy, reducing farmers'
incentive to produce.
Company executives declined to speak to The Times. A USAID
spokesman, in response to written questions, listed numerous programs it
said Development Alternatives had underway or had completed, including
the rehabilitation of irrigation systems reaching 321,000 acres,
training of farmers and government officials in advanced agriculture
methods and the repair of 42 veterinary clinics.
Now, as the program enters its final year, no new appropriation for
the reconstruction program has been proposed. Instead, U.S. officials
are urging radical reform of Iraqi economic policy to attract private
investment.
In Umm Al Ghareej, the farmers say they rent their land from the
government. They fear a future of uncertainty and privation.
"Just imagine that in this village, the people are making their
lives out of this agriculture and this is what is planted," Mohammed
said, pointing to his fallow fields.
Several young men said they were forced to look for work, but
couldn't find anything.
"We tried even to work with the government, to be police, soldiers,"
one said. "Nothing."
The men professed to have no interest in politics or the sectarian
rifts that have kept Iraq on the brink of civil war. They're just poor
farmers, they said.
"We are suffering financially because nothing is supplied to us,"
villager Salem Mohammed said.
He had just returned from a visit to the regional Ministry of
Agriculture in Basra where, he said, he paid about $9 for enough
fertilizer to plant 8 acres.
He sees few options.
"We have to be patient and wait," he said. "We were patient during
the regime. We will wait."
*
Times staff writer Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.