Potato farmers suffer 2nd dismal season

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BEIRUT: Potato farmers looking to recover losses made during an unseasonably dry harvest season last year have had their hopes dashed, as prices of the produce plummet to below total costs by roughly LL150 per kilogram.

The year’s first potato harvest, which runs from early June to late August, has seen yields that are “exponentially larger” than they have been in previous years, president of the Agriculture Association in Lebanon Antoine Hwayek told The Daily Star Monday.

But despite a bumper crop events in the market do not bode well for farmers.

Transport costs are up by nearly 50 percent due to restrictions in travel to and from Syria, which Lebanese potato exports must pass through in order to reach their predominantly Arab import markets. This coincides with increased inflows of the produce from Lebanon’s embattled neighbor, saturating a domestic market that is already better supplied than usual due to decreased exports and increased yields, and forcing prices down to unprecedented levels.

Additionally, consumption levels have fallen both regionally and locally, as political insecurity grips many parts of Lebanon and its periphery. Demand for the produce is noticeably smaller, in spite of decreasing prices.

Potatoes sell for LL300 per kilogram, but it costs farmers nearly LL450 on average to get the crops on the market, the Agriculture Association reports.

This is not the situation farmers hoped for when they emerged from a difficult autumn harvest last year. Scant rainfall during the second and final harvest season devastated many tracts of farmland, cutting yields of the water-intensive crop by more than 50 percent.

Now, instead of scavenging for produce in bone-dry soil, farmers are leaving healthy, ripe potatoes to rot, preferring to forgo reaping than to bear losses in the marketplace.

“What can the farmers do?” questioned Hwayek. “The potatoes will go to the garbage.”

One thing that the government can do, he said, is to revive the country’s only agricultural subsidy program, Export Plus. The export subsidy amounted to $30 million per year up until 2005. After that, the government divested from the program by 20 percent every year. It was supposed to run its course in 2011, but Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan has recently passed an emergency law that sustained payments to exporters.

Still, payments by the program are lower than they have ever been. They cover $15 per ton of potato exports, which Hwayek says is “far too little.”

“The payments are not enough to encourage people to export. Export Plus needs to go back to its original amount,” said Hwayek.

Potatoes are one of Lebanon’s most important crops, with more than 250,000 tons of the vegetable exported per year on average.

“We don’t have any real policy when it comes to farming,” said president of the Economic Committee at the Chamber of Commerce in Zahle and the Bekaa Tony Tohme.

“All of our officials say that Lebanon shouldn’t be a farming economy. We should focus on services and tourism instead.”

Agricultural Ministry officials put government expenditures in the farming sector at less than 1 percent of total spending, and have petitioned to increase the budget.


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