KAFR ZIADA, Egypt (Reuters) - Egyptian farmers have begun to harvest their wheat without the coronavirus disruptions hitting other growers globally, and with a plea from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to sell the government as much of their crop as possible.
Egypt has imposed a nationwide nightly curfew to curb the spread of the disease, but farmers are exempt and work into the night after breaking their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The country, which is the world’s largest wheat importer, expects its local harvest to yield around 9.2 million tonnes this season, and the government intends to buy around 3.6 million tonnes of that for its multi-million dollar food subsidy program.
Egypt consumes around 20 million tonnes of wheat annually and usually imports around 12 million tonnes, according to the latest report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But as major grain producers curb exports due to lockdowns, it is now focused on building up strategic reserves.
“While we have organised ourselves well and have good reserves, because of the uncertainty until this coming December I say to farmers it would be better if you don’t keep more than necessary and sell it to the government, that will keep it and it will benefit many,” Sisi said during a televised event on April 22.
Farmers tend not to sell their full wheat crop to the state, preferring to store around half for their own use.
Sisi has also requested the import of 800,000 additional tonnes of wheat during the local buying season this year, a rare move reflecting global uncertainty over food supplies during the pandemic of COVID-19, which has led to 5,268 registered cases in Egypt and 380 deaths.
Egyptian farmers have so far been spared the problems facing agriculture workers elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. where lockdowns have forced some growers to bin their produce as transport difficulties and labor shortages strain the sector.
Egypt said on Tuesday it had bought 578,000 tonnes of local wheat since the start of the season on April 15, a sizeable amount in just ten days of harvesting.
In one small village, some 125 km (80 miles) north of Cairo in Beheira governorate, the farmers of Kafr Ziada have taken to their sprawling fields for harvest just as they always have, seemingly unfazed by the pandemic.
“Nobody dies before their time comes,” said Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, head of the farming association in the village.
He planted 3 feddans of wheat this season and will rely largely on relatives and villagers to help him gather the crop.
Most farmers view their potential profits as the main factor in determining the amount of grain they sell to the state, rather than fears over the virus.
The government has set a procurement price of 700 Egyptian pounds ($44.59) per ardeb (150 kg), which farmers say is a higher price than they were offered in previous years but is not hugely attractive given a surprise storm in mid-March damaged some of their fields and left them with less than they hoped.
Those with larger pieces of land say they are more likely to sell significant amounts of their yields to the government, while those with smaller patches are more likely to keep their crops.
“The harvest this year isn’t very rewarding because of the rain. It affected the wheat plant as the ears were heading and it lasted 2-3 days. The amount of water that gathered there was unbelievable,” Abdelkhalek said, adding he expected his yield per feddan to roughly halve.
Another farmer, Rabia Mahmoud, said he plans to keep around 750 kilos of wheat to feed his family, around half of what he grew. He says he will sell to the state but finds the price unrewarding.
“The costs (of farming) are up, prices have increased for everybody. One sack of (fertilizer) is very expensive, it’s not free. And hiring someone to work is also costly.”
“We’re not worried about coronavirus or any of this nonsense,” he added, even as a shiny new hospital towered over the fields of wheat in the neighboring town of Kom Hamada, which villagers say is a designated coronavirus isolation facility yet to be occupied.
Reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Editing by Maha El Dahan and Alexandra Hudson