Paying Farmers Even Less for Their Food: The Coronavirus Excuse

Seasonal farm workers Mariem, Latifa, and Fatima carry cartons of grapes they have picked on Abdsattar Ben Said's grape farm in Mornag to a van that will take the the grapes to market in Ben Arous. Photo by Jack Jeffery, August 22, 2020.

Cradled between the north bank of the salt flat Chott el Djerid and the main road that connects Tozeur with Degueche is Wadi Kabeer. There, Aziz and his elderly father own and run a small one-hectare date farm. This year’s harvest is expected by mid-October, but Aziz and his workforce are facing a new setback this year: his buyers are offering much lower prices because they say demand has collapsed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we sold a kilo of dates at around 3.5 dinars a kilo…now the factories are only prepared to buy our stock at 2 dinars per kilo this harvest,” Aziz told Meshkal. “The factories are telling us they are suffering from supply issues. They say the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that they were unable to sell off all of last year’s stock.”

Like other small date farmers, Aziz has few options other than selling to nearby factories that have the resources to wash, dry, sort, and package the dates, access to finance, and the connections needed to reach export marketsthe final destination of most Tunisian dates. The economic power these factories have over Aziz may be one reason he declined to use his real name when speaking to Meshkal on the record. One study indicates that date factories may create and share blacklists of workers who protest labor conditions. For this reason, some of the names of farmers and agricultural workers that Meshkal spoke with have been changed in this article.

“Covid-19 has clearly led to supply crises but I think it’s strange that all of the factories are lowering their prices to near the same figure,” Omar, a friend and sometime employee of Aziz’s  told Meshkal. “They know small farms lack the facilities…and that they only sell 10 percent of their stock to the local market. They are dependent on these factories to buy their crops.”

Omar, grew up with Aziz in Degueche and lives in nearby Tozeur.

“It’s difficult for him,” Omar said of Aziz. “If factories are going to buy at only two dinars per kilo, Aziz will make very little profit this year. He can’t lower the salary of his seasonal workforce too much because that will stop them from working at the farm.”

Many small farmers like Aziz need to work other jobs to supplement their harvest income, even if they own land and are better off than the seasonal farmhands they hire. But Omar noted that Aziz needs to look after the farm year round, which limits his ability to work other jobs and have other sources of income.

A “diglet nour” variety of date palm on Aziz’s farm in Wadi Kabeer on August 19, 2020. Photo by Jack Jeffery.

Both Omar and Aziz expressed resentment towards the date factories, some of which they say are owned by large multinational companies. Meshkal reached out to several date factories in the governorate of Tozeur for comment but did not receive any replies. One factory listed as Royal Palm Factory, which provided a Tunisian phone number online, was reached and a representative gave an email with the email address “Royalgroupae,” which appears to be linked to a UAE-based company.

It is not clear whether international market demand for dates has indeed decreased so low that it might explain such a drop in prices. An April report by the World Bank found that the coronavirus pandemic had “driven most commodity prices down and is expected to result in substantially lower prices over 2020,” but noted that this primarily impacted energy and metal commodities while agricultural prices “saw only minor declines in the first quarter of 2020.”

According to the latest figures publicly available from ONAGRI, the French acronym for the Tunisian state’s National Observatory of Agriculture, Tunisia’s food trade deficit by June 2020 stood at 137.1 million dinars, far better than at the same time in 2019 when it stood at 679.4 million dinars, although this was largely due to huge increases in olive oil exports and decreases in sugar imports. According to the same monthly report from ONAGRI, date exports by June 2020 stood at 67,000 tons, only 4,000 tons less than by the same time in 2019, when it stood at 71,000 tons. This represents a 5.6 percent decrease in quantity of exports, yet, interestingly, the decrease in value of these date exports saw a bigger drop, standing at 9.3 percent. Other exports faced much higher decreases in export quantities compared to 2019, such as citrus fruit, which dropped by 34.3 percent, and fishing products, which fell by 35.6 percent. [The Arabic-language version of the June ONAGRI report is available here].

For Aziz, this 5.6 percent drop in exports—or even the corresponding 9.3 percent drop in sale value—does not justify the near 40 percent drop in revenue his farm faces this coming autumn.

Omar, who will work on harvesting Aziz’s dates this fall, explained to Meshkal that hiring a small labor force of five workers for the autumn harvest costs a one-hectare farm like Aziz’s around 5,000 dinars, a fee which must be deducted from the 20,000-25,000 dinars he would usually make in revenue from his yield. Then fixed costs including fertilizers and a water tax must all be factored in.

More Exports, More Water, More Costs

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, the quantity of Tunisia’s date exports had been rising steadily over the past 15 years, from about 53,000 tons in 2005, to 100,000 in 2015, and then reaching a record of 120,000 between October 2018 and September 2019. However, with increased production comes the need for more water.

According to one study, the amount of water needed to cultivate a Tunisian date palm averages around 23,600 m3/ha [cubic meters per hectare; Aziz’s dates cover one hectare].

Temperatures in Tunisia have risen by about 1C (1.8F) since 1988, according to data collected by the meteorological office in Tozeur. A further rise is forecasted with the annual maximum temperature likely to increase by 1.5°C to 2.5°C in 2030 and then by a further 1.9°C to 3.8°C by 2050, according to a study produced by the US state’s international development agency USAID. Consequently, date palms in Wadi Kabeer and other small date farms in Tozeur and Kebili will need additional water to properly irrigate their date palms as higher temperatures and greater humidity will cause date palms to release water. If untreated this will lead to both smaller and drier yields that are more susceptible to diseases.

But extra water sourced from public wells and local springs could lead to higher rates of tax charged by Water Users Associations, local governmental bodies that are responsible for both water distribution and taxation. Given the current market, this is something farmers like Aziz simply cannot afford.

The well used by Abdsattar Ben Said and his two brothers for irrigating their crops in Mornag. Photo by Jack Jeffery taken on August 22, 2020.

Rather than facilitating Aziz’s water needs, the state is charging him unfairly, he believes, especially as many larger farms are reportedly exempt from this fee. Consequently, local farmers often search for alternative ways of getting water, from sources unknown to officials working in the governorate.

Right behind Aziz’s plot of land is a date farm that’s been in the hands of the state since independence. Meshkal was unable to determine the group managing this state land, but in the high profile case of Jemna, locals claimed that cronyism, nepotism, and a legacy of colonial expropriation were all at play in the state’s procedures for leasing a state-owned date plantation.

“They employ a full team of staff all year round and I don’t think they have any issues sourcing more water,” Omar said of the state-owned land plot.

No Living off a Third of a Hectare of Land

Even among small farmers who are not at the mercy of factories and industrialized agriculture, some expect to earn less this year.

Just ten kilometers south of Tunis near the town of Mornag is a small grape farm run by Abdsattar Ben Said. The land on which the farm sits was first purchased by Abdsattar’s eighty-four-year-old father, Sghayer Ben Said, in the early 1960s, and has since been divided up equally between Abdsattar and his two brothers.

It is the job of Abdsattar’s son Wajdi to take the grapes to the wholesale market [souq al joumla] in Ben Arous, where it will be sold to other merchants. Assuming the entire harvest is sold, Abdsattar believes they will make around 10,000 dinars profit this year, the same as he made last year.

But his son Wajdi is more pessimistic.

“Last year we sold all of our grapes for around 20,000 dinars, taking in just over 10,000 dinars profit, but that was before the outbreak of COVID-19,” he stressed. “We pay our four pickers around 4,000 dinars, while the tax for using water from our well should cost our third of the farm 2,000 dinars. But given the current market, I think we would be lucky if we made 10,000 dinars profit this year.”

Wajdi’s pessimism is rooted in an undeniable reality: independent of how fruitful the harvest is, a third of a hectare of land isn’t enough to support a large family.

“With the exception of my mother and my sister, we all have other jobs. I am an online French and Arabic teacher; my twin brother works at the port, and my father is stonemason,” Wajdi said. 

Wajdi Ben Said stands in front of a van of grapes picked from his father’s farm in Mornag by hired, seasonal farmhands on August 22, 2020. He will drive to the wholesale market [souq al joumla] in Ben Arous. Photo by Jack Jeffery.

In an article written in Food First in 2019, Habib Ayeb, the social geographer, filmmaker, and founding member of the Observatory of Food Sovereignty and the Environment [OSAE by its French acronym], argues that an export-focused agricultural sector and a lack of protective policies have polarized the Tunisian farming industry, stunting the competitiveness and development of small farms like Abdsattar’s.  Ayeb draws particular attention to the problems of inequality in landownership.

“Three percent of agricultural producers have more than 100 hectares each. They hold more than 30 percent of arable land and produce largely for foreign markets. At the same time, 97 percent of farmers hold less than 100 hectares each, and occupy the remaining two-thirds of the agricultural land. For the most part, these farmers produce for local and/or national markets,” Ayeb notes.

Ayeb argues that this predicament should be “addressed through a radical agrarian reform that sets minimum and maximum thresholds for agricultural property, regulates the land, agriculture, and food markets, uses tax policies to prohibit speculative investments in food and agriculture, and shifts agricultural production to local and national markets at the expense of export to international markets.”

When asked whether they were looking forward to one day owning a piece of their family’s land themselves, Wajdi and his twin brother Majdi Ben Said told Meshkal that they felt obliged to carry on the tradition, despite the challenges involved.

“It’s peaceful here and I enjoy my time here far more than working in Tunis,” Wajdi said.   

Leaving Agriculture to Make A Living

Even before covid-19, many small farmers and seasonal farmhands had not been able to make a living off agriculture alone, despite the intensity of the work. This has led many to seek jobs elsewhere or to migrate to cities.

Back on Aziz’s date farm in Wadi Kabeer, Aziz’s 14-year old cousin Maher explained what it was like to work on the family farm.

“During the harvest season, the daily salary here is around twenty dinars a day, better than anything else I can find during that period of the year. But I like all types of work,” he told Meshkal, indicating he received regular payment despite being a family member.

Maher works on the date harvest but also said he works day jobs he can find on construction sites in Tozeur and Degueche.

According to the 2016 UNICEF annual report, more than 100,000 Tunisian children drop out of school every year before the age of 16, the legal age of compulsory education. A 1996 amendment to Tunisia’s labor code—article 53-2—does allow children as young as 14 to work, but only on the condition that their work is part of an official “study” or “training” program. Maher did not explicitly tell Meshkal he had dropped out of school, but he is set to miss part of the autumn school term if he works at Wadi Kabeer throughout the harvest.

Maher’s outward enthusiasm for work is not shared by his older co-worker, Anis, who Aziz has also already hired to work the date harvest this year. 

“I know many men my age who have left Tozeur to try to look for work elsewhere, often in factories in Tunis and Sfax. There you can find one full-time job as opposed to moving between different jobs day to day,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my aging mother I would have left here years ago.”  

It is hard to find data on internal migration patterns within Tunisia, but there are indications that a familiar pattern continues: migration of young people from rural, agricultural areas to urban centers looking for work. According to an independent survey published by the data technology company Knoema, total outgoing migration in 2014 from the governorate of Tozeur for reasons related to employment stood at 1,699 persons – Tozeur’s total population is just over 100,000. In the same year, the other major date farming governorate, Kebili which has a slightly higher population than Tozeur, recorded a similar figure of outwards migration, with 1,369 persons having left the governorate for reasons related to employment. There’s also evidence of migration by people originating from Tunisia’s interior regions to Europe, often in dangerous conditions on the Mediterranean, increasing in recent years due to economic hardships, with one report indicating 600 people leaving the governorate of Tataouine in a single month in 2017.

Persistent unemployment and a stagnant labor market dominated by part-time seasonal employment have been features of the southern economy for decades.

In the city center of Tozeur, away from the ears of seasonal employers, friends Omar and Karim were more openly critical about the local agricultural industry. Karim, who works on both small chili pepper farms and date farms during the harvest season, laughed when asked about his daily wage.

“Daily wage!? I only see the money after the harvest is all sold off. From that, I receive a small percentage [of the total revenue], about 10 to 15 percent,” Karim explained. “I would do anything else if it were available.”

Friends Omar (L) and Karim sit on the steps of a boarded-up coffee shop in downtown Tozeur late at night on August 19, 2020. Photo by Jack Jeffery.

Karim doesn’t just do seasonal work in agriculture. He also works in tourism.

“Every year during the early summer months, I usually travel to Hammamet with a friend and rent out camel rides to European tourists. It’s always my favorite part of the year, when I can have some peace. But because of COVID-19, the beaches were empty this year,” Karim told Meshkal. 

On the other hand, Omar considers himself one of the lucky few having managed to secure full-time employment as a receptionist at his uncle’s hotel in Tozeur.

“What you must realize is that nearly all men here have some experience working on date farms. My father bought and then cultivated his own area of land about twenty years ago. I was working out in the field with him helping him plant his first seeds when I was just a young boy. Maybe that’s why I hate dates so much,” he joked.

Closer to Tunis at Abdsattar’s grape farm, the seasonal farmhands are women because many of the men have gone to the city for work.

Abdsattar’s son, Wajdi confirmed that fruit picking in Mornag is a seasonal occupation dominated largely by a married, female labor force aged between 35 to 60. He believes that, in Mornag’s case, this employment pattern is only made possible because of the area’s close proximity to the capital.

“Here, men tend to seek permanent employment further away in the city, often on construction sites in the southern suburbs of the capital, while their wives stay in the local area,” he explained.

On a recent visit to Abdsattar Ben Said’s section of land, three local workers, Mariem, Latifa, and Fatima, were hard at work examining which vines from this year’s harvest have come out early and are ready for picking. To avoid the midday heat, their work begins at 6 a.m. and stops around lunchtime. For a three week period this fall, they will work every day and receive twenty dinars for each day’s work, their employer claimed.

“There are different crops in the area that need picking during harvest season,” 40-year-old Meriem, the oldest of the three women, told Meshkal. “Here, most farms grow grapes, mostly Meski [Muscat]. But there are also apples, pears, figs, and almonds, all of which need to be harvested at slightly different times. We are rarely short of work during this time of year.”

“We have been harvesting these crops for years and all the local farmers know us,” Fatima added.

Meshkal could not confirm how much the women were actually receiving for their work as they were only able to speak in the presence of their employer’s son. Saoussan Jaadi, a researcher for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights [FTDES by its French acronym] told Meshkal last year that they have found seasonal agricultural workers who are women are typically paid between 12 and 14 dinars a day while men are paid 18 to 20 dinars a day for the same labor.