Beneath the hanging tree branches of a garden that has lost its lushness, amid traces of an ancient beauty, farmer Saber and I sat together.
He owns six acres of land. He was crippled after an injury in the 1973 October War. His elder brother Abdel-Naby, a bank employee in Damanhour, sat beside him. Abdel-Naby has been living there for decades, but he frequently visits his home village on Fridays.
Beside me is Anwar, a blond short man with light-colored eyes sat on the ground. In addition to his four acres, he used to run a poultry farm, which was completely ruined during the avian flue scare.
Also present was omda Said, the mayor who doesn’t fit in at all with our mental image of the omda for he is the youngest of the group, barely in his forties, slim and was the only one wearing modern clothes, jeans and a silk purple shirt. But he retained the characteristics of a omda: respectful, proud and speaks little.
In front of us was an ugly barn gate and on the left there was the doorway to a warehouse that was turned into a luxurious poultry and rabbit farm. In front of it there stood an old featherless rooster. Running around us were approximately 30 boys and girls of different ages.
“Will we plant cotton again ya omda? Saber asked. The omda didn’t reply, and kept looking at a water buffalo someone was leading into the barn.
“The vegetable yield was no good, replied Anwar on the omda’s behalf. “Have you seen what the onions to Abdel-Samad?
“But what can we do? Saber asked.
I asked them to explain to me what the problem was, and this, dear readers is a sample of some of the explanations I got.
“One feddan of cotton yields five to ten kantars. Last September the price of a kantar was LE 950 but it suddenly plummeted to LE 600. So a feddan that yields six kantars was sold for LE 3,600. The cost of cultivating the crop, including the price of pesticides is LE 1,500, that is without counting the cost of picking the cotton, which is 70 piasters per kilogram [a kantar is 157.5 kg]. This means that harvesting alone costs LE 111 per kantar.
“When you multiply this figure by six, you get a total of LE 666 per feddan. We also pay 10 percent commission for the workers’ supervisor, in addition to other LE 300 worth of workers’ transportation, tea and food. Add the LE 300 to the LE 666 and LE 1,500 and the total cost would be LE 2,500 per feddan. If you deduct this sun from LE 3,600, the net profit of a feddan of cotton would be exactly LE 1,100.
“But let’s not forget to calculate the interest of the loans we took out from the village branch of the Development and Agricultural Credit bank.
“This simple arithmetic equation, he continued, “doesn’t include the cost of the farmer because, apparently we believe that he works for free.When you divide the LE 1,100 over six months, it won’t even cover the rent of one feddan. The price of a feddan is now LE 150,000 and there are place in the Delta where one feddan is priced at LE 300,000. You do the math.
“For at least 15 years cotton-growing hasn’t been covering its costs. When the government raised the price of diesel, we tried to go on strike and stopped the lorries from moving. But the drivers were arrested and beaten at police stations. When they were released the drivers immediately went to fuel stations to buy diesel; they would have even drank it.
“So many farmers have stopped growing cotton and grow rice instead because it’s a little safer. One feddan of rice yields three tons, sold at LE 1,000 per tone and the cost per feddan is LE 1,500, hence a LE 1,500 profit, which is better than the LE 1,100 profit per feddan of cotton.
“But some of us still grow cotton because they still have hope that one day they’ll go back to the good old days.
“More than 50 percent of the cotton yield is sold to the Nile Company for Cotton, owned by Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza. This company sets the price of cotton. Public sector companies only take a small percentage of the yield.
“The original Egyptian cotton seed no longer exists. It’s been sold to Israel and South Africa, thanks to Youssef Wali [the former minister of agriculture] and the current seed, which the government sells to us, is completely different. They once gave us the long-staple seed but after we grew it, they said there was no demand for it in the global market. But this is the government’s problem. Weren’t they the ones who gave us the seeds?
“In the 1950s and 1960s, a kantar of cotton was sold for LE 40 when the price of one feddan was LE 100 which means that you could afford to buy two feddans for the yield of a single feddan. My father, may God have mercy on him, would wait for the cotton season to marry off one of his sons. Now we wait for the cotton season to get a divorce!
Khaled Al Khamissiis a political scientist and prolific social commentator.