Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
For a farmer who had just been told that almost everything he’d ever known about agriculture was wrong, Mohammed Regaa is remarkably cheerful.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor with a dozen colleagues, he cracks jokes and teases his peers relentlessly. When the group’s lecturer for the day—a distinguished agronomist from Cairo—gently coaxes her pupils to discuss their farming woes, Regaa reels off a laundry list of concerns. “The weather, the water, the heat, the cold, the prices,” he says, clutching his traditional galabeya robe tight in the early December breeze. “Actually pretty much everything is unusual.”
But amid the good-natured vibes and a largely studious atmosphere that falters only when a light rain began to fall on the makeshift outdoor classroom, these Nile valley farmers are quietly panicking. Their crop yields aren’t keeping pace with Egypt’s population surge, nor are their earnings matching the rising cost of fuel and fertilizer.
That’s why some of them have decided to go back to school through a novel U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) program, where farmers meet in small groups once a week to learn new techniques and share advice.
In an era of climate change and irrigation troubles across the water-impoverished Middle East, increasing numbers of farmers are toying with an idea that their pharaonic ancestors might have considered blasphemous: Leaving farming altogether. “We talk about driving tuk-tuks, or taxis, or maybe moving away [to the cities],” says Said Moftah, who works his family’s one-acre wheat and alfalfa plot near Beni Suef, roughly 100 miles south of the capital. “How can we farm like this?”
Ironic and painful for a people who are intensely proud of their history, these struggles are at least partially grounded in these farmers’ loyalty to their grandfathers’ agricultural practices. Accustomed to seeing the Nile flood valley land for thousands of years from early July to October, many farmers have yet to shake their weakness for large-scale water use.
Though the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s put an end to the annual floods, an extensive series of irrigation canals routinely pump their fields full of water. But with upstream Ethiopia in the midst of an extensive and controversial dam-building program that might one day cut the river flow, and Egypt already a water-stressed country, environmental officials agree this practice is no longer sustainable.
WIthout the natural enrichment from millions of tons of nutrient-heavy Ethiopian silt dumped by the river, Many Nile farmers now splurge on copious quantities of chemicals, some of which are poor quality and seep back into the river. “We used to burn the agricultural waste, but we’ve learnt to keep it and use it instead of buying fertilizer,” Regaa says, gesturing at a large tarp-covered compost heap on a plot of communal village land.
But in many struggling villages, the most challenging conditions are not of their own making. As in much of the wider region, the lush green expanses of Middle Egypt are being buffeted by hotter and longer summers, along with unusual temperature swings, and even occasional hail in the winter. For farmers who’ve long expected relatively consistent weather, these changes have played havoc with their crops’ health. “Hail! Why do we have hail now?” Moftah asks.
Interestingly, it was rural Egypt’s continued use of the pharaohs’ calendarfor agricultural purposes that first signaled the trouble that was to come. Farmers associate each ancient month with a particular stage in the cultivation cycle, and so when a few years back, Barahamet rolled around (which more or less correlates with March), and the weather was already blazingly hot, they knew something was amiss. When November (Hatoor) arrived, and the wheat-planting season scarcely resembled the usual conditions, the alarm bells really sounded.
Fortunately for Regaa and his peers, there is some help at hand. The FAO has launched 15 schools across five regions. Here, in informal settings such as the field shack, groups of 15 to 25 farmers meet once a week for four months to talk through their struggles and receive instruction in more efficient agricultural techniques. “We teach them to pick better seeds, to disinfect them before planting, and to level the soil—this is crucial. It saves water and improves germination,” says Zahra Ahmed, FAO’s lead project manager in Egypt.
And despite some early opposition from older agricultural laborers, who’ve regarded the reforming outsiders with suspicion, most indications so far suggest Ahmed and her counterparts might be onto something. The Beni Suef farmers who’ve adhered to their coach’s advice have seen their yields grow so much—often at least 50-60 percent, that the governor has pledged to roll the teaching scheme out across his entire portion of the Nile Valley.
As FAO students start to see results after applying changes on their land, even some of those initial skeptics have come hurrying back, keen to share in the bounty. “They’re asking us to teach them,” Regaa says with a laugh. “‘You’re learning,’ they say, ‘so now tell us what you’ve heard.’”