Snow is answer to prayers for N.Africa grain growers

Wed Feb 8, 2012 12:06pm EST

* Snowfall saves grain Algerian crop from weeks of drought

* Tunisian officials say no damage to its grain crop

* Morocco misses out on rain, farmers worry about frost

By Lamine Chikhi

ALGIERS, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Cold weather spreading from Europe into North Africa has helped the grain crops in Algeria and Tunisia by dumping snow and rain, breaking a drought so severe that mosques had offered up prayers for rain.

Neighbouring Morocco though, missed out on the precipitation and a farmers' representative said the combination of cold and lack of rain could hurt crops there, with sugar beet and cane especially vulnerable.

European wheat futures rose this week on anxieties that the freezing conditions on the continent could damage crops. The northern tip of Africa was affected by the same weather systems, with the Algerian capital seeing the heaviest snowfall in living memory at the weekend.

But in Algeria and Tunisia, farming officials welcomed the rain and snow.

In those two countries, the risk of cold damaging grain crops is lower than elsewhere because there is no winter crop. The plants are therefore still under the soil and better protected from frost.

"We are very fortunate because the snow and rain will save the grain season, which was at high risk from drought," said Djamel Barchiche, director of communication at Algeria's Agriculture Ministry.

"Remember, we got almost nothing (in terms of precipitation) during the past two months, we were very concerned, but now we are relieved and we look forward to another good grain season," he told Reuters.

At Friday prayers on Feb. 3, Muslim clerics at mosques all over the Algerian capital led prayers for rain in the hope of helping rain-starved farmers. Rain started falling about 24 hours later, followed by snow.

RESERVOIRS FULL

Algeria last year imported over 7 million tonnes of grain while Morocco's imports were about 6 million tonnes, putting both among the world's 10 biggest importers. Imports are largely dictated by the size of domestic harvests.

An official at Tunisia's Agriculture Ministry said his colleagues had been to grain-growing areas to inspect for damage from the weather but found none.

"It's the opposite; the recent rains will have a positive impact. The reservoirs (used for irrigation) are full," the official said. "There will be no bad consequences for the harvest."

Mosques in Morocco also offered prayers for rain last month, but they have not been answered, at least in the main grain-growing areas.. Rainfall so far this growing season is substantially down on normal levels.

"We are set for an average harvest this year," Ahmed Ouayach, who chairs the Moroccan Confederation of Agriculture, told Reuters.

"The rain we had last month was not plentiful enough and this cold spell is not helping farmers' case at all," he said.

Morocco has a spring grain crop as well as an autumn harvest. The plants are therefore more advanced than in Algeria or Tunisia and so more exposed to the cold.

Ouayach said the cold would also take a toll on sugar cane and sugar beet crops. "Cane for instance dreads the frost," he said. "I think we will be forced to import more raw sugar this year." (Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat and Tarek Amara in Tunis; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Keiron Henderson)

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