Tunisia set for good harvest season despite fires

Fires in early June destroyed 681 hectares of forested land and agricultural fields, compared to 242 hectares during the same period last year.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Positive outlook. A tractor pulls a hay baler after reaping wheat at a field in Tunis.(Reuters)
Positive outlook. A tractor pulls a hay baler after reaping wheat at a field in Tunis.(Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s grain harvest is expected to reach 2 million tonnes this year, the country’s Agriculture Ministry said, nearly 50% higher than last year and 40% above the past decade’s average.

The positive assessment, due to above-average rainfall in the main cereal growing regions of northern and central Tunisia, came as welcome news in a country struggling with a lingering economic crisis.

Precipitation was higher and well-distributed during important periods last year, prompting farmers to plant more acreage and creating better crop conditions than in previous years. Seed and fertiliser were also more readily accessible, farmers said.

“We got the most wonderful period of precipitations perhaps in 30 years,” said Abdessalem Hammami, 54, a farmer in the northern Beja province. “Rainfall came when we needed it, not rapid and violent but smooth and continuously.”

“It is all good for the harvest and the earnings from it for us and for livestock. We will also not be worrying about drinking water as the dams are filled to their capacities,” he added.

Hammami’s neighbour Salah Harrabi smiled when asked about his harvest. “I planted the same acreage as last year but I collected three times more wheat bags,” he said.

“I got more chaff from the harvest as well. I paid the cost of the combine harvester from the sale of the chaff to livestock breeders from the south of the country.”

“This year, we were lucky as the rainfall was abundant, even later in May,” said Harrabi.

Official figures showed that some 700,000 hectares of wheat were harvested in 2019, up from 620,000 last year. A total of 620,000 hectares of barley were harvested this year, up from 525,000 last season.

While the higher projected grain harvest will not end Tunisia’s reliance on cereal imports, it will help decrease its trade and current account deficits, which have been widening over the past eight years because of economic stagnation.

Grain traders and experts said the cereals’ domestic output would help trim Tunisia’s imports by approximately 20% compared to last year. That means Tunisia would import some 2.9 million tonnes of crops from July 2019-June 2020, including 800,000 tonnes of soft wheat.

Tunisia’s domestic grain production varies sharply depending on the weather. Irrigated wheat acreage accounts for 13% of the area in which wheat is planted. Most irrigated land is used for durum wheat as part of the country’s strategy to reduce dependence on imported durum, which is more expensive and in limited offer on the international market.

However, farmers expressed concern about losing some of their harvest to fires, which flared up in the first week of June when grain was being collected from fields. Authorities are investigating whether the fires that burned some 500 hectares were “economic sabotage” or due to neglectful behaviour and soaring temperatures.

There is suspicion that arsonists connected to unscrupulous real estate speculators or wheat importers were behind the blazes but no evidence has been put forward to support the accusations.

“We cannot say for now whether the fires were criminal acts. We are waiting to know more about that from the Interior Ministry,” said Tunisian Agriculture Minister Samir Taieb. “There are committees working on that in the country’s cereal-growing regions and we will study their findings.”

Civil Protection spokesman Moez Triaa said June 12 that fires in early June destroyed 681 hectares of forested land and agricultural fields, compared to 242 hectares during the same period last year. He said 96% of the fires were “man-caused.” Investigations will determine whether the human factor means neglect or criminal behaviour, he said.

Hot weather exacerbated the fires, with temperatures soaring to 44 degrees Celsius, up to 10 degrees higher than maximum temperatures the same period last year. Experts say the heatwave is part of a general climate trend that is exacerbated by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Taieb said the Agricultural Ministry would fly four drones over the country’s largest grain fields for the first time to prevent more fires. He asked the Defence and Interior ministries to provide more air resources to keep the flames in check.

The Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishing urged the government to open a “serious investigation” into the fires.

“These aggressions are crimes against the high interests of the country, its economy and food security,” the union said in a statement, adding that farmers whose harvests had been affected by the fires should be compensated by the government.

A farmer losing a harvest to a fire could spell disaster because small and medium-sized family farms dominate farming in Tunisia. Almost 90% of farms are smaller than 20 hectares and 54% of farms are less than 5 hectares.

Tunisia plunged into an economic crisis in 2011, leaving small farmers struggling to cope with reduced subsidies and other lost incentives.