In 1999, about 25% of the labor force engaged in agriculture, which accounted for 12% of GDP. Fertile land is generally limited to the north, where cereals, olives, fruits, grapes, and vegetables are produced. In the southern desert and plateau, desert farming is precarious, but barley is produced in quantity. About 4,900,000 hectares (12,108,000 acres) are arable. Cereals account for 1,347,000 ha (3,328,000 acres), while tree crops utilized 2,000,000 ha (4,492,000 acres).
Harvests have traditionally yielded sizable surpluses for export, chiefly to France. Tunisia's early growing season allows the nation to profit from exporting fresh produce to Europe before European crops ripen. Crops fluctuate greatly in size, however, depending upon the weather. In very poor years, wheat and barley must be imported to satisfy local food requirements.
Chief grain crops in 2002 were wheat, 423,000 tons, and barley, 90,000 tons. Olive trees number some 55 million; output of olive oil in 2002 comprised 150,000 tons. Other important commodities (with 1999 production estimates, in thousands of tons) were tomatoes, 864; oranges, 105; potatoes, 298; peppers, 215; dates, 103; and grapes, 110.
The government has undertaken irrigation and soil conservation projects to improve agricultural production and raise the living standard of rural areas. The 1962–71 plan aimed at constructing 40 dams, mostly in the Medjerda River system, plus opening over 1,000 new wells, particularly in the southern regions. In the period 1962–64, the government initiated a program to help the new cooperative farm system, with a total investment of d150.5 million; remaining European-owned farms were nationalized as part of the program. In 1969, however, the development of cooperatives was halted, and appropriated land was redistributed to individual Tunisian owners. Irrigation and flood-control projects, many undertaken with foreign aid, were under way in Bizerte, the Medjerda River basin, and other locales in the early 1980s. To increase and direct the flow of capital to this sector, the government has established the Agricultural Investment Promotion Agency and the National Agricultural Development Bank.