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Even as war wages around them, Syrian farmers keep country fed

Prices are higher, but there remains enough food grown within 
the war-ravaged country to stave off food shortages

For the past six months, farmer Hisham al-Zeir’s wife and daughters have been up before sunset each day when it’s still cool, baking traditional tanoor bread in a century-old clay oven in their home in Syria’s rich agricultural province of Idlib.

Rather than selling all his wheat to the state as he usually does, Zeir decided this year to keep almost a third of it to ensure his wife and six children have enough food to survive on as the conflict in the country spreads.

“I am putting it aside to eat from until Allah eases on his people and things become clearer,” Zeir said at his modest farm in Idlib, a region of gently rolling hills and olive groves that supplies a large proportion of Syria’s fruit.

Zeir is not alone. Many farmers are hunkering down as the 17-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule — which has killed at least 18,000 people — drags on.

“People’s ability to live off their land has helped in this crisis unlike urban dwellers,” said Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist.

The current crisis is actually reversing a decade-long exodus of rural residents to cities like Damascus and Aleppo, as those fleeing violence in the cities return to villages. The conflict is never far away, however.

“A mortar has hit and killed two of my sheep and destroyed our yard,” said Omar al-Natour, a day after army shelling at his house in the town of Al-Sahara in Idlib.

The 45-year-old former factory worker now supplements his meagre income by rearing cattle and other livestock.

Food aid

Food production has been rising in Syria in recent years despite sharp fluctuations in harvests and bouts of drought. That has helped diversify the economy, and in the present conflict, staved off significant food shortages in the countryside so far, residents and Damascus-based economists said.

They contradict the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, which estimated this month about 1.5 million people in Syria need immediate food aid.

Across the country, agricultural production continues, despite a shortage of seasonal labourers who once flocked to work in the fields during the harvest period. This has secured an adequate supply of vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers, staples of the Syrian diet, as well as grains, even though the high cost of tractor fuel and a lack of fertilizer has reduced the amount of cultivable land.

This is allowing people to survive during a time when many shop owners have not replenished their stocks for over a year.

“People are managing with the minimum. Don’t forget, some people are just barely surviving,” said grocer Farouq al-Masous from Hazanoh, a town known for its olive groves.

As the fighting in Syria shows no sign of abating, the populations of some rural towns in Idlib have surged, and across rural Syria, a new breed of private trader has emerged, supplying foodstuffs to now isolated communities.

“The rural resident is not able to get his goods from the city so he is relying on new traders who are buying directly from farmers and selling in local villages,” said Saleh al-Shawaf, a former electrician. He now works as a vegetable trader, frequently dodging army checkpoints to go to Aleppo’s bigger markets to buy goods he can sell in the villages.

City dwellers have reduced their food consumption much more than rural residents, said Taher al-Guraibi a former housing contractor who has gone back to his family’s hometown of Binish after fleeing Aleppo.

“You used to eat fruit daily, now it’s every two days,” he said. “Consumption of goods has in general gone down… If you used to buy a kilo of meat every week now you buy half a kilo.”

Higher prices

In Darat Azah’s bustling marketplace, traders offer a range of local produce including cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelons and peaches. People consistently complain about higher prices, not shortages, traders say.

Nearby, a butcher hangs up a piece of mutton, which has almost doubled in price in the past year.

“There are lower quantities of food but no food shortages in Syria… there are people who are supplying food. As you know, in every crisis, there are those who profit,” said a senior Syrian official at the state wheat procurement agency.

State bakeries remain open even in rebel-held areas and officials say no village in Syria has been deprived of bread.

At a private bakery near the rebel-controlled town of Sahara, baker Abu Adnan is surrounded by dozens of men and women jostling to get bread that has just arrived from a bakery in a nearby town that now serves several villages.

“For God’s sake… everyone, just one loaf,” Adnan shouts.

Despite long bread queues, prices have barely gone up for a loaf of Arabic bread, on sale for a heavily subsidized 15 Syrian pounds (about 22 cents Cdn).

In a tacit agreement with the government, rebels have not sought to take control of 36 state-owned silos spread across the country that remain in government hands.

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