Kurdistan’s wealth of high-grade pasture lands has long made it suitable for a pastoralist economy, but it is equally suitable in many areas for intensive agriculture. Unlike the woodlands and the heavy damage they have sustained, the pasture lands have remained in reasonably good condition and continue to be a productive source of animal feed (see Flora & Fauna). The rich pastures have always ensured that in all historical periods, regardless of how dominant the agricultural sector, there have been nomadic herdsmen exploiting this economic niche to its fullest.
Although many pasture lands are suitable for agriculture, in many others, especially on the steep slopes and hard-to-reach plateaus, pastoralist herding is the only viable use of the resources. In many areas, various other elements, such as high elevation (hence, short growing seasons), inavailability of suitable sources of water, unsuitable soil properties, etc., can make impossible the conversion of a given pasture land into agricultural land. Even terracing of the slopes, which has been practiced there since the 8th millenium BC, is limited by the availability of deep top soil. These pastures would produce nothing if not used by the pastoralist nomads and/or for seasonal shepherding by otherwise settled farmers. Even today there are some Kurds who practice pastoral life, tapping a valuable resource (see Nomadic Economy). The range of such seasonal shepherding operations remain by necessity quite limited. The herd remains within a few days walking distance of their home base, and the more remote and inaccessible pastures are slowly forced out of production. The pre-modern nomads before them had no such limitations.
Large and fertile mountain valleys, on the other hand, provide ample space for agriculture. Despite its mountainous nature, Kurdistan has more arable land proportionately (28% of its total surface area) than the majority of Middle Eastern countries. Expansive river valleys create a lattice work of fertile fields in Kurdistan, except in the region of the central massif. This may very well explain the fact that agriculture was almost surely invented in Kurdistan, as was the domestication of almost all basic cereals and livestock, with the notable exceptions of cows and rice (see Prehistory & Early Technological Development). Since then, the economy has always had an agricultural base, albeit with varying degrees of importance.
A great variety of cereals and vegetables have traditionally been grown in Kurdistan, but wheat and barley are the most common. Rice has more recently been given growing preference, and it is displacing bread as the basic food of choice of the Kurdish middle class. Cash crops like tobacco, sugar beets, and cotton are playing a growing role in the local economy. The tobacco is of good quality, with pipe tobacco (also the tobacco of choice for water pipes) of the region being in great demand throughout the Middle East.
On the rich soil of the foothills, where plenty of sunshine and long growing seasons are coupled with runoff from the mountains, cotton has become the cash crop of choice. In western Kurdistan in Turkey, large swaths of land earmarked for development under the GAP project (see Natural Resources: Water), particularly in the Middle Euphrates basin (Ataturk Dam region), are to be given to cotton production. As the level of cotton production in Kurdistan of Syria and Iraq also rises, it is expected that the plant will play a growing role in the Kurdish economy in the decades to come.
Sugar beets were introduced for large-scale plantation farming in the middle of the last century. Many sugar refining mills of various sizes are found now in Kurdistan, processing sugar for local and state markets (see Industries).
Olives are a localized cash crop, and grow primarily in western Kurdistan toward the Mediterranean Sea. Fats and oils for cooking and other uses have traditionally come from dairy sources, rendering olive oil more of a delicacy than a dietary necessity.
A few basic crops introduced into Kurdistan relatively recently are opening a fast growing niche for themselves. Maize, soy beans, and sunflowers are primarily cash crops. They supply state markets for vegetable oil, but also a growing portion is now used as poultry feed in that fast-expanding industry. Potatoes, grown on the poorer and glacial soils, are consumed locally and beyond.
Many fruit and nut trees grow naturally in the Zagros-Taurus forests (see Flora & Fauna). Pistachios, almonds, hazel nuts (filberts), chestnuts, and acorns have traditionally been collected from these natural growths. Much larger crops are progressively being collected from the cultivated groves. Located in the natural habitat of these trees, these groves yield prolifically.
Wild berries, particularly black and white mulberries, are found in almost every village, but are not yet produced in large quantities for market. Mulberries, and to a lesser extent barberries, are currently the berries of choice. Dried, they are used throughout the year.
The fruits, including grapes, are grown in large tracts of land. Some quantity is also collected from wild stands. They play an important role in the Kurdish diet, particularly in their dried forms.
Evidence of the importance of fruits and nuts in the diet of the ancient Kurds comes from the 2800-year-old archaeological site of Hasanlu in eastern Kurdistan. There was found ample evidence of quince (of species Cydonia oblonga), several kinds of pear (Pyrus communis), apples (Pyrus malus), and a variety of apricot or almond (of genes Prunus), indicative of the importance of fruits in the local diet (Harris 1989).
The dried fruits are the fastest-growing cash commodities, outranking even cotton and tobacco in their total cash value. In 1981, for example, Iranian Kurdistan produced an agricultural (non-animal) surplus worth approximately $221 million. Of this, $89 million was in fresh and dried fruit products. Cereals were second in value (Iran State Statistics, 1986). The expanding international market for fresh and dried fruits has outpaced the local market for these commodities, turning it into a bona fide industry. The products, now processed and packaged with international standards in mind, promise yet a larger role for dried fruits in the local economic output.
Growing wild in abundance in the oak forests, truffles (chema), the prize of any gourmand chef in the West, are a food for the poor in Kurdistan. Kurdish truffles can at least rival the lucrative Japanese shiitake mushrooms in the U.S. and European food markets, becoming a valuable source of specialty food export.
A healthy agricultural export industry will more than any other single economic sector help the Kurdish economy in balancing its cash flow and maintaining a healthy economy. The agricultural cash commodities represent a far more rational and attainable means of converting the presently static, subsistence-level Kurdish economy into the vibrant trading economy it was before the beginning of the 16th century. Additionally, the income generated from agriculture percolates down to the household levels, benefiting the largest number of people, and helping not just the larger producers, but also the average village growers.
Further Readings and Bibliography: Mary Virginia Harris, “Glimpses of an Iron Age Landscape: Plants at Hasanlu,” Expedition 31.2-3 (1989); E. R. Guest, C. C. Townsend, and A. al-Rawi, eds., Flora of Iraq, 6 vols. (Baghdad: Ministry of Agriculture, -1966-85); B. Gilliat-Smith and W.B. Terril, “On the Flora of the Near East,” Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information of the Royal Botanic (Kew) Gardens 7-10 (1930).
Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992