Palm trees yield record crop in Tunisia but date growers concerned

Friday 13/11/2015
A Tunisian vendor displays dates on his stall at the Central Market in Tunis.

Tunis - A record crop of palm dates is expected in Tu­nisia but the bumper harvest has failed to sweeten tempers of farmers worrying about market prospects and price levels.
“We have a record harvest of dates this year of about 240,000 tonnes,” said Abdelmajid Azzar, chairman of UTAP farmers’ union. “But that abundance comes with pain for producers as there is a col­lapse in prices and coldness and apathy from buyers in acquiring the output.”
The production of Tunisian dates in 2000-01 was approximately 100,000 tonnes. Output grew in subsequent years as investment and modernisation of production systems increased volumes and quality. By 2014 the volume was 225,000 tonnes.
After harvest, the dates are usu­ally taken to conditioning units that are equipped with physicochemical and bacteriological analysis labora­tories allowing a rigorous grading of quality. All certifications are deliv­ered by authorities and are subject to tight controls as the country jeal­ously protects the reputation of its dates.
But this year, “farmers in all dates-producing oases are worried about a particular phenomenon”, says Azzar. “Conditioners, owners of manufacturing units and export­ers are not buying. They are dis­playing a sort of apathy towards the harvest.
“Farmers believe exporters and others are willing to provoke a col­lapse in prices. Farmers argue man­ufacturers and exporters are sitting on their hands to test farmers’ pa­tience on lower prices.”
Palm date farmers recently took to the streets to vent anger, block­ing traffic in some protests. They achieved some results, including the right to unlimited exports.
The government has set a refer­ence price for dates of between 1.5- 2.2 dinars (0.8 to 1.00 US dollar) per kilogramme, depending on quality.
The most popular date cultivar is Deglet Nour, which has been mar­keted since 1870. The brand is ap­preciated abroad for its translucent colour, the softness of its feel and the high quality of its sweetness.
The country’s economic climate is weighing on all sectors in Tuni­sia. Banks, reeling from the tour­ism industry’s downturn following a pair of terror attacks on tourists, tightened credit lines.
“To be fair, there is no bad faith from exporters and other buyers of dates. Banks are reluctant to grant them loans anew to finance the har­vest, as was usually the case,” Azzar said. “Banks have not been paid by exporters and manufacturers who got loans from these lenders for last year’s season.”
Tunisia exports up to 60% of its dates. Its production is sold in about 60 countries over five conti­nents. European markets account­ed for the biggest share.
The North African country is home to some 5.4 million palm trees producing dates. The produc­tion of dates takes place in four main oases in southern Tunisia where bioclimatic diversity allows the development of several sorts of oases where more than 150 varie­ties of dates are produced from the beginning of October until the end of December.
Azzar did not estimate the quan­tity of dates to be exported but Tu­nisian Agriculture Minister Saad Seddik was quoted by local media as saying in October that “this sea­son’s date harvest looks like it will be exceptional in both quantity and quality”.
He said Tunisia expected exports to reach 118,000 tonnes, an 18% rise compared to 2014.
Seddik has also said efforts are being made to find new markets for Tunisian dates.
“A national consensus was reached between the government, farmers’ representatives and other bodies that freeing fully exports for farmers is good for agriculture and for the national economy,” Azzar said.
There have been no restrictions for exporting farming products since September. The government used to intervene in the export market to regulate prices and keep social peace at home. Food costs account for about 40% of the coun­try’s inflation gauge.
Azzar said: “This approach of choking up exportation to tame prices did not bear fruit. As a result, prices would soar in one season while there would be shortages the following period. Sustainable ben­efits for consumers and producers will come about in one or two years as a result of free exports.”
Tunisia’s food trade balance re­corded a surplus for the first nine months of 2015 as coverage rate of imports by exports stood at 111% against 53% in the same period of 2014, Agriculture Ministry data showed.
The ministry predicted that ratio to reach 105% in 2015 against 60% for the full year of 2014. Record ol­ive oil revenues accounted for 56% of total exports against 17% in 2014.
The government expects date ex­ports to take the place of olive oil in bolstering the trade balance. Olive oil production is expected to shrink in 2015 compared to an exceptional yield a year ago.