Ajman // A small farm in Ajman is working to determine the best way to use hydroponic technology to grow fruit and vegetables while saving water and energy.
Mohammed al Naeemi, the farm's owner, believes that constant experimentation is key. So when the Ministry of Environment and Water in 2008 asked him to convert a greenhouse on his farm to hydroponic growing, he accepted. Under the method, plants are fertilised with mineral nutrient solutions and the irrigation water is recycled.
A little more than two years later, Mr Naeemi's farm looks remarkably different. His 14 greenhouses produce 7 kilograms of produce per square metre, almost four times the yield of soil-based crops.
In addition, the fruit and vegetables on his farm have a higher nutrient content and are less likely to be blemished, said Ahmed Moustafa, the regional co-ordinator of the Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda).
"All the uncontrolled things, such as heavy metals, Nematode or fungus within soil are eliminated completely," said Mr Moustafa.
In 2009, Icarda, in collaboration with the ministry, selected five farmers, including Mr al Naeemi, to be part of a pilot project for soilless agriculture systems. The Hydroponic method used, in which water is recycled through a closed irrigation system, has cut water and pesticide usage almost down to zero.
Icarda has developed several hydroponic techniques, including the use of a special netting cover that allows air to naturally cool the greenhouses while keeping out pests.
"We have to make it simple for small growers," said Mr Moustafa. "Greenhouses are good for plants, but also very good for insects and disease, so unless a farm is well-managed the amount of pesticides used in incredible."
The solution, he said, was to employ integrated management, so that farmers ensured there was proper ventilation and that humidity levels were kept in check.
During each growing season, Mr al Naeemi conducts what he calls "experiments," designed to improve how he cares for his crops. All of his greenhouses are now outfitted with a cement block cover to keep sand and mice out.
"I had to learn these things," he said. "This is my own experience."
With about 11 hectacres of land, Mr al Naeemi is concerned with using every open area on his small farm, including the two-metre gap between each greenhouse. This season, he's built a greenhouse 7.5 times the size of the typical 8m by 36m proportions.
"After doing calculations, I realised it is the size of 10 greenhouses, but fits in a space where six greenhouses once stood," he said.
Eventually, he plans to build small greenhouses in the rows between his date palm trees so that the fronds provide shade.
"This is my latest experiment," he said, pointing to a greenhouse that has been divided in two, half netting, half plastic. A single water tank irrigated both sides. With all other factors equal, Mr al Naeemi wants to know which will yield more tomatoes, natural air or the more traditional cooling system of a water-bed and fan.
His crops are grown in a mixture of perlite, which is a form of volcanic glass and coco peat, made from the husks of coconuts. The coconut husk aides in absorbing water, while the perlite aerates the soil.
All the technology aside, Mr al Naeemi's most precious resource may be his knowledge.
"We need more people to train growers," said Mr Moustafa, adding that while Icarda offers technical training it is meant to be brought back to farming communities and passed on, something that is not yet happening on a wide scale. The ministry reported that by the end of 2009 75 greenhouses had adopted the hydroponic system. However, Mr Moustafa thinks more help is needed to spread the expertise.
"Growers will need follow-up because they will face problems; there will need to be adaptive research," he added.
Mr al Naeemi has already helped four farmers set up their own hydroponic system. Marlon Malabrigo is the farm manager at one such farm, which is also in Ajman. His operation produces lettuce, which is grown suspended over nutrient-rich water. Not long into the new method of producing food, Mr Malabrigo sees where improvements are needed.
"The water is too deep, and it sits stagnant, growing algae," he said. The algae inhibits plant growth by blocking sunlight and nutrients from reaching plant roots. "Now, we'll try using only a thin film of water, which will be more aerated."