MISHKHAB, Iraq — Once the cradle of agriculture for civilization, the Land Between Two Rivers — the Tigris and Euphrates — has become a basket case for its farmers.
Just ask Naji Habeeb, 85. His family has been growing rice in this village 135 miles southeast of Baghdad for generations. Thin green shoots stick out of the flat paddies, shin-deep in brown water.
The Iraqi government, he claims, still owes him half of what he's due from last year's crop. He turned it in months ago and still hasn't been paid. "Shall I suck my fingers and eat like a baby?" he shouted. "The Ministry (of Agriculture) will never know my family is hungry!"
Habeeb's family members have farmed the 12-acre foot plot next to a branch of the Euphrates River the same way for centuries. Except today they till with tractors, run water pumps with gasoline and spread artificial fertilizer. They plant seedlings by hand in June and July, irrigate and keep bugs and disease away in the summer heat, harvest by hand in October.
However, their efforts haven't helped Iraqi agriculture overcome the twin disasters of war and sanctions, which have transformed the country from one of the world's premier sources of aromatic rice and nearly 500 kinds of dates 30 years ago into a net importer of food.
Iraq now imports nearly all the food its people eat: California rice, Washington apples, Australian wheat, fruits and vegetables from its neighbors. All are staples in Iraqi groceries and on the dinner table.
The decline of the farming sector creates other problems. Agriculture accounts for half or more of Iraqi jobs and is the second-largest contributor to the gross domestic product. The prices that people and the government pay for shortfalls in what they used to grow weaken the country's economy.
For its part, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's office says he unveiled an "agricultural initiative" two years ago. It included $240 million to bolster farmers, including no-interest loans, guarantees to buy crops, research and development, and other plans. A deputy in the Ministry of Agriculture, Mahdi al Qaisi, said that his agency "will be happy to help farmers, who are our brothers. The time of fear has ended; there is no need to be afraid."
Iraq's agriculture faces the same problems as farmers everywhere: drought (in its fifth year), bugs, disease, salty water, red tape. Those problems are exacerbated, however, by location and history. Eight years of war with Iran, defeat in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, then 12 years of sanctions and, most recently, six years of war and U.S.-led occupation have left the country's agricultural sector in shambles.
Reliable statistics are elusive or suspect. Iraq is the only country, for example, in which the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service estimates crop yields by using satellite data.
The available numbers, however, suggest a stagnant and backward sector.
This year's wheat harvest is expected to be 1.3 million tons, down a million tons from last season. The prized amber rice crop grown by Habeeb and popular throughout the region for its perfumed scent will be around 100,000 tons, one-third of last year's yield.
One result is that Iraq has become one of the world's biggest importers of wheat, around 3.5 million tons. Barley to feed livestock — sheep, goats and cattle — also is shipped in from other countries. The higher cost of raising livestock means that more will have to be culled.