By Mohammed Hamid al-Sawaf.
This week, the annual grape exhibition opened in Dohuk, a state famed throughout Iraq for its grape growing prowess. NIQASH’s Abdul Khaliq Dosky went to see what all the fuss was about.
Big, thick, luscious bunches of grapes are everywhere. That is the main thing you remember after attending the special exhibition organized by the state of Dohuk’s Department of Agriculture. The exhibition is the fourth annual one of its kind and organizers say that it helps not only to publicize Dohuk’s grape growing prowess but also allows local grape growers to meet and exchange ideas and information.
The juicy bunches weigh at least two or three kilograms each and are arranged in cane baskets up and down the corridors here. Visitors to the exhibition centre, in the village of Malta east of the state’s capital city Dohuk, gathered around tables where over 20 varieties of grape were displayed; the hall was so crowded that you broke into a sweat upon entering.
The first person I speak to inside is Mohammed Salim, 57, a local grape grower who is carrying some of his produce with him. When I express my surprise at all the different varieties grown here, he tells me that he personally grows around 30 varieties on his farm in the village of Baribahar, north of Dohuk city.
“And this year we have produced 15 tons of grapes. I could actually double my production but I’m afraid of not being able to sell everything we produce,” Salim tells me. “We still depend on the local market because we can’t export outside of Iraq.”
This is a common problem in the area, which is well known for its grapes as well as other fruits.
Daryawish Andrios, an agricultural engineer who’s been helping with the development of grape production in Dohuk, carries some grapes too and he tells me that they produce 89 kinds of grapes in the area and that these are mostly divided between table grapes and grapes used in further production, such as to make raisins.
“There has been a remarkable change here since we changed the production methods that we’ve been using since 2001,” Andrios explains. “Now we’re using wires for our vines instead of traditional methods and production has reached a thousand tons a year.”
A well known Iraqi broadcaster, Amin Yassin, who’s recently been presenting agriculture-related shows on national radio, was also there. As he tasted one of the grapes, he told me how good Dohuk’s fruit was.
“The grapes displayed are some of the best grapes around. They are grown naturally and the local farmers put lots of effort, and patience, into growing them, without chemicals,” he explained. “But while a major effort is being put into growing the grapes, we have a serious business problem,” Yassin said, referring to the problem of surplus fruit. “If this problem is not solved,” he warns, “then local farmers will be discouraged and they’ll stop trying to grow grapes.”
One of the grape growers overheard this comment and added his own idea. “We should open large refrigerated warehouses so that we can store the surplus grapes,” he suggested. “So much of our production is wasted because what we produce exceeds local demand.”
Other suggested solutions to this problem have included increasing exports, the building of local canneries, so the grapes can be canned and then sold, or the establishment of large scale juice businesses.
In another corner of the exhibition hall, grape grower Abdullah al-Baikiri, 62, was proud to be exhibiting his grapes here for the first time. He had brought 15 varieties of grape from his farm in Bakira, east of Dohuk.
“We can produce the best quality grapes and we could export them too,” al-Baikiri said optimistically, fingering his rosary beads. “I am planning to extend my vines but I have to admit I’m scared of water shortages.”
Also present to admire Dohuk’s grapes was Hussein Hama Karim, the Minister of Agriculture, for the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, of which Dohuk state is part. He told me that Dohuk produces about 60 percent of the grapes that the local market demands.
“We have opened factories to produce the wires for the grape growers to use and we sell them at a lower price than it costs to produce them,” Karim said when asked about how the local authorities are supporting these grape growers. “We also open special markets for locally grown grapes and we’ve ban the import of grapes from elsewhere until the local grape growing season – usually from March until September – finishes.”
And then finally, it was time for me to leave this festival of greenery. On the way out, I speak to one of the visitors who was aimlessly tasting grapes in the hall. What did he think of the show? I asked.
His reply was one that the local grape growers would have appreciated. “I can’t believe that all of these good kinds of grapes exist in Dohuk,” he exclaimed. “When I go to the market place, I only find five kinds. If they grow all of these grapes, where do they sell them?”