Farm comeback strong since '74 loss of land, but struggle goes on

By , the Monitor's Middle East correspondent.

Even in the best of times, agriculture in Cyprus has been a matter of frugality, ingenuity, and patient labor. The soil is thin, the weather dry, and there are no major rivers.

But no matter how it is coaxed from the ground, the food available here is excellent.

In the isolated highlands of the Troodos range, ancient terraces edge precariously along mountain walls, supporting small vineyards, apple and olive orchards, and tiny farms. Vacant lots, even in the capital, are grazed by sheep and goat herds.

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Every donum of farmland is utilized -- and reclamation measures are attempting to put more land in operation. In Cyprus's semidesert southeast, for instance, modern terraces have been carved in dozens of conical hills in an effort to reforest what was denuded centuries ago by wind and overgrazing. A generation ago this area was virtually ignored, traversed regularly only by camel trains (gone since the 1950s). But agriculturists believe the effort must be made to increase potentially tillable acreage.

Cypriot farming was made doubly difficult in 1974, when the majority of the island's fertile acreage fell into the Turkish area. According to the government, the economy lost 72 percent of its citrus groves, 64 percent of wheat land, 72 percent of tobacco areas, 40 percent of carob plantations, and 38 percent of livestock forage.

The comeback of the farm sector since then has been remarkable -- but there is a long way to go. Arable land in Cypriot areas has been intensively cultivated and marginal land exploited. Crops previously less important, such as potatoes, table grapes, and fresh vegetables, were given extra emphasis, and a push was begun to grow high-value exports such as avocados, flowers, and tropical fruit. Then the relatively efficient transportation network and trade acumen of Cypriots were put to work opening new markets abroad for the island's produce.

In 1979, total gross farm output amounted to $270 million, 11.5 percent of the total gross domestic product. While the Central Bank of Cyprus considers this a strong showing, the bank points out that it was a drop from 12 percent of the GDP the year before. This was partly because of growth of other areas of the economy, the bank explains.

Production of potatoes, which became the main crop after the Turkish invasion , equaled 160,000 tons in 1979 and brought in an estimated $36 million. Cereal production, which was severely affected by loss of the main growing fields in the Mesaoria plain, has been given special attention. Wheat and barley in 1979 totaled 89,000 tons -- still well below pre-1974 levels.

A recent cause of the decline in wheat production has been the absorption by other sectors of the economy of laymen and technicians previously engaged in agriculture. Moreover, wheat land is being given over to higher-value plants.

Most Cypriot wheat is imported from the United States and Canada.Overall in 1979, Cyprus had to import $162 million in foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, seeds , animal feeds, and fertilizers.

Entry of the republic into a customs union with the European Community has been difficult for agriculture. But exports to the United Kingdom, the prime farm product market for Cyprus, have been allowed to enjoy EC tariff breaks. Particularly aided were sales of new potatoes, carrots, table grapes, citrus, and wines.

The Cypriot agricultural sector remains the chief national employer, with 44, 000 people working on farms. The government has worked on ways to heighten the productivity of the land through irrigation and rural development. A $62 million irrigation project is being carried out near Paphos (the breadbasket of the present) to benefit 38,000 donums of land. Other water projects are under way in various watersheds. The government is sponsoring efforts to increase farm extension services and to spread modern techniques of animal husbandry, farm mechanization, and food processing.

"Despite the progress attained," says A. Louca, director of the Cyprus Department of Agriculture, "the effects of the 1974 events continue to shape overall production patterns. Capacity constraints, because of the deprivation of natural resources and a substantial proportion of the most fertile land, impose severe limitations to the rapid development of the agriculture sector."

Nevertheless, Mr. Louca envisages increases in productivity and yields in the next few years through large agricultural and rural development projects now in the works.

At present, given the poorly developed state of farming and marketing in the Middle East, Cyprus stands out as one of the most pleasant areas in which to live, even with its lost acreage. Cheese, fruit, and meat are plentiful and inexpensive in the local markets. Milk is up to first-world standards.

"For me," says a businessman who travels frequently throughout the Middle East, "Cyprus is simply the fresh carton of milk in the refrigerator."

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