CAIRO — Once revered as "white gold" and a harbinger of good times, Egypt's cotton now brings little more than hard work and lower profit to the Nile farmer.
A bumper cotton harvest 40 years ago might have meant a new bride for a man or new clothes and luxuries for the family. For older farmers, it might have paid for rare city delights in the shops and nightclubs of Cairo or Alexandria.
But the good times died 35 years ago when land reforms passed by Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolutionary government cut private holdings to 50 acres and introduced cotton-growing quotas.
Before the Revolution
"Cotton is no longer the white gold it was before the 1952 army revolution," lamented Hassan Ali Magdoub, who farms in a remote village near the Nile delta town of Tanta.
Producers grumble that the government pays low prices for cotton and that the state system has backfired.
"It's a lot of hard work yielding very little profit to the farmers," agreed Yassin Osman, an Agriculture Ministry official.
Cotton farming is costly. During eight months of growth it needs more labor, insecticides and aerial spraying than most other crops, a farmer explained. The end result is a net profit of $145 per acre.
Farmers are generally unimpressed by free water, subsidized seeds, pesticides and fertilizers or by low-interest loans and goods sold to them through a state marketing system.
State-fixed prices and quotas halved land under cotton to 1 million acres but modern methods kept the yield high.
Farmers paid fines or went to prison rather than sell their crops at a loss, Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali told Parliament last month.
Millions of rural peasants sought work in booming oil states or in the teeming streets of Cairo, filling the capital to the bursting point and creating a manpower crisis on the farms.
The government now fixes what it deems to be fair prices. Cotton is still the biggest commodity export, as it has been since it was introduced to Egypt over a century ago.
Egypt, whose other main sources of income are the Suez Canal, oil, and money from workers abroad, earned about $400 million from cotton exports in 1986 and expects more from the bumper harvest forecast for this year.
Farmers send cotton to about 2,200 collecting centers, and the state buys it after it is graded by a government expert.
If the farmer disagrees with the grading, he has one option--an appeal to an arbitration committee whose decision is final.
The crop is harvested under the watchful eyes of state officials trying to prevent cotton from being smuggled to the local market for higher prices.
Surprisingly, Egypt also imports cotton. Its own crop is very high quality and it buys a cheaper type from the United States for domestic textile factories, $47 million worth in 1986 and an expected $22 million worth this year.
Highly prized Egyptian cotton is sold to Europe and the United States.
During the early fall, a million youngsters cut classes to help remove the main pest--the cotton worm--from the crop. The Education Ministry complains, while the Agriculture Ministry pleads for a delay in the start of the academic year.
But an abnormal heat wave this summer inhibited cotton worm infestation, boosting the crop to bumper levels, farmers say.
"Our immediate problem now is the manpower shortage," a farmer said. "There are machines to harvest wheat and rice, but none has yet been marketed to collect cotton."