Iraqi farmers are back in business, and Iraqis love local produce

BABIL PROVINCE, Iraq — Mansour Abdul Khadim's mix of winter crops gives every impression of abundance, despite the double threat of drought and violence that has plagued Iraqi agriculture since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003.

Rows of red potatoes and green beans grow together in one lot. Winter wheat sprouts in adjacent fields. Tomatoes for the spring already are incubating in mounds of fertilizer.

Khadim is optimistic scanning the fields, not least because the days of government mandates for wheat production appear to have ended. He thinks that will give him more opportunities to earn extra money by selling more-valuable vegetables.

"I am not restrained by any government condition. I am free to use the land the way I want it," said Khadim, 37, whose family has farmed in this rural area south of Baghdad for decades.

Khadim's taking advantage of a drop in violence to rebuild decrepit canals and boost his farm's production as part of a 700-member agricultural cooperative. He's part of a trend that many hope will increase across the country, bolster employment and restore Iraq's status as an historic breadbasket for the Middle East.

As Khadim's farm shows, Babil Province - known not long ago as a part of the "Triangle of Death" - could be a sort of salad bowl for Iraq if the peace holds and farmers are able to invest in their land.

"They could turn Babil Province into an agricultural center like the Fresno valley," said Patrick Broyles, a U.S. Department of Agriculture adviser from Emporia, Kan., who is working in the region around Khadim's farm.

That prospect is about a decade off in the best of circumstances, said several American agricultural experts who have worked in the country since 2003. They're working to support the agricultural sector because it's a vital employer, accounting for as much as a quarter of jobs in Iraq.

The country benefits from a 10-month growing season, good soil and its two rivers, which have supported farming in Iraq for thousands of years — the Tigris and Euphrates.

"The basic system for agriculture is there; it's just in shambles" said Joseph King, a project leader for studies on Iraqi farming conducted by Texas A&M University's Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture

The biggest obstacles that could keep Iraq importing its food well into the future include:

_ A shortage of electricity and fuel that blocks farmers from pumping water out of wells.

_ Poor systems to deliver water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to farms. Khadim's area is served by one main canal constructed by the British in the 1930s, and another, in poor condition, that was built about 30 years ago by a Turkish company. Both need continual maintenance, Khadim said.

_ Depleted seed and livestock supplies that were hindered first by the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and then by United Nations sanctions that followed Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait through the following decade. "Basically with every crop grown in Iraq, there are better varieties that could be grown," Broyles said.

_ Inefficient drainage on many farms that allows salt to build up over time, ruining soil.

_ A shortage of border security agents to prevent Syrian, Iranian or Turkish imports from flooding Iraqi markets and jeopardizing the health of Iraqi crops.

Those challenges are so severe that U.S. and Iraqi officials are chipping away at them instead of tackling them whole.

"In six months, we're not going to change that," said Edwin Price, director of the Borlaug Institute. "In three years we're not going to change it."

A team from Price's institute studied agriculture in Iraq's provinces over the past year, crafting detailed recommendations for each.

It's focusing on educating farmers more than calling for immediate changes in how Iraqis manage their agricultural sector. One of its projects launched 4-H clubs in southern Babil province, where students chose to work together on raising poultry.

The State Department has a similar strategy. It's investing in Iraq's agricultural extension program to spread knowledge about the latest farming techniques.

"The proof to me will be when everyone is happy with respect to ag income," said a U.S. embassy official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "Ultimately the goal is to provide enough income so people won't be shooting at each other, or at us."

Price noted a regional demand for certain Iraqi exports - dates, eggplants, cucumbers and okra. He has encouraged farmers to focus on those crops, which can earn them higher incomes - and use less water - than cereal grains. Iraqi lamb is considered a delicacy, too.

Iraqis have a pent up demand for locally grown food. Many Iraqis believe their products simply taste better than their counterparts from Syria and Iran.

"The quality of the ag produce is the best in all the Middle East," said Fuad Husseian, a Kurdish man who is working with Broyles on a contract with the State Department in Babil province.

But Iraqi produce is hard to find in the fruit and vegetable markets that dot Baghdad's streets. Most of the cornucopia of pomegranates, tangerines, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants at the markets comes from Syria, sellers said.

"Every time retail sellers come to buy from us, the first question they ask is 'Do you have local product,'" said Qusay Abbas Ahmed, 30, a wholesaler in the town of Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad. "After we say no, they start looking around. They prefer it because the Iraqi product tastes better and is fresher, and to tell you the truth, one enjoys eating the product of his own country," Ahmed said.

Wholesalers say they can't get products from Iraqi farmers, who they say have been held back primarily by the electricity shortage. They said it was easier to get Iraqi food during the U.N. sanctions because so few imports were allowed across the border.

Jassim Abu Atheer, 42, owns a wholesale stand in Abu Ghraib and has fruit orchards in the Diyala province east of Baghdad. He said Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture should restore subsidies for fuel and fertilizer to help farmers to pre-war levels. Those subsidies remain, though to a lesser degree.

"Now we are supported with nothing, no seeds, no fertilizers," he said. "If the farmer was to buy what he needed from the market it would be more expensive than the goods that are being imported."

Bloody sectarian violence didn't help, either. The wholesale market in Abu Ghraib was unreachable for some of its customers in 2006 and 2007 because of road closures, the wholesalers said.

Kadhim's province suffered severely during that period, too. Insurgents threatened to kill his parents if they didn't leave their land.

An al Qaida in Iraq cell took up positions along a primary canal, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to fix its leaks. Kadhim and others worked with tribes and the American military to eliminate those cells.

A flourishing agricultural sector could be a key to keeping those cells from returning, said Sayeed Sabaa, a leader of a farming committee on Babil's district council.

He attended a ceremony this week to mark the opening of the U.S.-funded $3.2 million "Central Euphrates Farmers Market," a project that's expected to make it easier for Babil farmers to sell their products.

"We hope to implement this and have people to work here to stabilize the security situation," Sabaa said.

McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report. Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee