Apple trees form a major source of income for a large section of the people of Suwayda. There are more than three million trees in the province, covering an area of 140 hectares.
This year's season was, however, a curse on the city's farmers, who are waiting to reap the fruits of their season and the entire year. Yet, their apples are still sitting idly on the trees without harvest, despite the advent of winter which threatens to destroy them.
Price Rise—'Scourge of the Season'
The deteriorating Syrian pound and the high prices, are the main obstacles facing farmers. Agricultural production costs have exponentially increased—starting from the explosive increase in the prices of pesticides and fertilizer, to the hike in skilled apple picking labor rates.
48-yeard old Abu Majid tells Rozana: "I am a farmer and the son of a farmer. I grew up among the apple trees. But this season was the toughest season ever. We've been waiting all year the arrival of the harvest season to reap some profits, yet the arrival of the harvest season today brought us anxiety. The quality of the apples is no longer the same as it used to be in the past, due to climate factors and the lack of rain."
Abu Majid adds: "Price rise is the scourge of the season. It is the locust that devours everything and that no pesticide can eradicate. After enduring the trouble of a full year of costs, the farmer ends up in deficit. Pesticide prices increased four-fold from what they were in the past."
According to the man, the labor costs of cultivation and harvesting and packaging also rose, with even storage and cooling costs per ton tripling.
He explains: "We were used to cold-store apples for 100 Syrian pounds per box, but now pay 300 Syrian pounds per box. And with frequent power outages, the cold-storage units resort to diesel fuel, which has become rare these days and the prices of which have increased. All of these costs come out of the farmer's pocket. Everyone takes from him."
Our Crop is Still on Trees
The increasing cost of apple cultivation and picking, has not been reflected in increased returns for the farmer. The Department of Agriculture in Suwayda has set the price of one kilogram of premium apples at 63 Syrian pounds; farmers estimate the price of a kilo at about 75 pounds on the tree. They estimate that, when sold in retail markets, the price is around one dollar per kilo, or 160 Syrian Pounds.
Despite Suwayda's apple production reaching 49 thousand tons this year, the official Storage and Marketing Agency, will not draw more than 1,325 tons. Farmers will have to keep the remaining production quantities in stock at their sides. This will eventually lead them to succumb to the apple traders, the wholesalers, who will buy their apples on the trees, and who have their ways to export and market them.
Maan, 43, an agronomist who owns a project at the foothills of the Suwayda Mountains, says about this: "The wholesales come to us and buy at cheap prices that will not allow us to even recoup our costs. If we want to sell our crop through the Department of Agriculture, the price they set is also cheap and they do not buy from all farmers. This is where the nepotism comes into action."
Maan and a number of peasants decided to share the cost of renting a cold storage unit. They found that all the storage units were rented, since the start of the season, to the wholesalers. Meanwhile, the crop still sits on the trees.
He explains: "We have only one of two options: either sell at a loss, or leave it on the tree to rot." he concludes: "I may end up leaving my crop on the trees for the birds eat the insects to consume it, rather than sell at these prices!"
A number of peasants attempted to harvest their crops then market them directly in the capital Damascus, where they are processed and exported; but ran into regime roadblocks.
Abu Maarouf, 51, says he and a number of peasants tried to break the traders' monopoly, and to pick market the apples themselves. yet they encountered difficulty in transporting to Damascus, as most trucks are contracted with the wolesalers, and work exclusively for them.
He adds: "Despite this, we were able to find someone willing to transport the apples. We also found a trader in Suq al-Hal [Damascus' main fruit wholesale market] willing to buy the premium apples at 90 Syrian pounds per kilo. But we faced a much greater problem: regime checkpoints. The officer in charge at the checkpoint would order truckers to bring the entire load down to be searched. They would offer to reconcile for a 50 thousand pounds bribe to be paid to the officer in charge. This means that any profit we stood to make will go to those responsible for the checkpoints."
Abu Maarouf indicates that: "Before the war, traders from various Syrian provinces used to come to us to buy Suwayda apples. The farmer had several options to choose the best from; now farmers are forced to submit to the terms of the wholesalers, or face the risk of crops remaining on trees, a feast for the birds and worms."
So, Who Benefits?
Syrian apples are sold in Egypt at the equivalent of $2 per kilo, while they are purchased from the farmer about a 30 cents. The regime government is actively pressuring the farmers to prevent them from marketing their goods on their own, rather through large wolesalers and merchants who will export it abroad and secure the foreign currency the State do desperately needs. Everyone benefits, with the farmer remaining the biggest loser.