By Muhammad al-Shamali and David Leetsma
IDLIB: Farmers in northern Syria’s Idlib province expect this year’s olive crop to yield 75 percent less than in 2015, threatening the livelihood of thousands of farmers, olive press operators and merchants.
Already vulnerable due to the country’s raging civil war, Idlib farmers, who historically produce more than half of Syria’s total olive output, attribute the year’s abysmal harvest to above-normal temperatures and a lack of rainfall across the rebel-controlled province.
“The heat waves and dry spells that struck Syria throughout the year decimated the quality and quantity of the olive crop,” Adeeb Abu Hamid, a farmer in Idlib province, tells The Syrian Voice.
The ideal temperature for olive farming “is between 31-34 degrees Celsius,” another Idlib olive farmer, Anes Rahmoun, tells the Syrian voice, “but this year temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius.”
The summer heat wave was exacerbated by a 65 percent reduction in rainfall compared to 2015, said Rahmoun. Without irrigation, many of Idlib’s olive farmers are solely-dependent on the annual rainfall to water their crop.
Together these factors forced an early harvest on the farmers. In turn “the early harvest affected the amount of olive oil yielded,” according to the head of Syrian Interim Government’s Directorate of Agriculture in Idlib, Khalid Husayn.
“The highest percentage of oil is extracted when the harvest takes place around mid-November,” said Husayn.
He went on to mention that vehicles have damaged many trees as well, likely to affect their future production.
Displaced Syrians in olive groves and airstrikes have also taken a toll on olive production, with the former at times causing tension between farmers and displaced Syrians.
As challenges to olive farming multiply, farmers are beginning to turn to different crops, such as figs, which can produce higher financial returns.
Olive Presses Run Dry
The decline in Idlib’s olive production has left many of the province’s olive presses out of work, some of which haven’t opened all year.
“Last year we ran shifts 24 hours a day for 40 days. This year I haven’t produced 10 percent of what I did last year,” Abu al-Bara, a press operator in south Idlib, told The Syrian Voice.
“We produced nearly 1000 tons of olive pulp from 10 thousand bags of olives” explained Abu al-Bara. “An olive press needs one ton of olives in order to meet its operational costs, this amount just isn’t available in most regions this year.”
“This year I’m expecting to produce 15 kilograms of olive oil,” Mustafa Qintar, a farmer from Idlib’s Jabal a-Zawiyyah, told The Syrian Voice.
Last year Qintar produced 140 kilograms of olive oil.
Farmers who produce less than 50 kilograms are turning around an immediate profit by selling their olives at 450 Syrian pounds (approximately $o.90) per kilogram, rather than sending them to a press, many whom refuse an amount under 300 kilograms, farmers told The Syrian Voice.
A combination of low olive production and a lack of stored olives to stave off local consumption has put Idlib on track to import more olives than it exports, for the first time ever, Abu al-Bara explained.
In turn the price of olive oil has risen to 1800 Syrian pounds (approximately $3.60) per kilogram. In 2015, olive oil prices peaked at 750 Syrian pounds (approximately $1.50) per kilogram.
The majority of Idlib’s population doesn’t have the means to afford olive oil, said Qintar, the Jabal a-Zawiya farmer. As a result, Idlib’s residents are replacing olive oil with vegetable oil, an unthinkable downgrade in the Syrian kitchen.
“This is a disaster,” Qintar said, speaking of current farming conditions.
“Olive farming is my only source of income.”