x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Abu Dhabi farmers urged to grow new crops

The Government is encouraging farmers to think beyond the 'big four' crops in an attempt to reduce the need for imports.

ABU DHABI // Farmers in Abu Dhabi emirate tend to grow cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbages and potatoes.

But a government project announced yesterday is urging them to think beyond the big four.

Green beans, green and red peppers, pumpkins, sweetcorn and carrots can be grown successfully too, said officials at the Abu Dhabi Farmers' Services Centre.

The plan would not only provide a wider mix of local offerings, it would reduce the need for imports.

The centre hopes to put the plan in place in time for the winter growing season, which starts in November and ends next June. Altogether, the plan focuses on 41 vegetables and herbs.

The centre hopes to sign deals with 1,500 farmers for the season. Candidates must declare their intent to participate by the end of this month.

Last winter, of the 20,700 tonnes of produce handled by the centre, about 53 per cent were cucumbers. Altogether, 80 per cent of the produce consisted of only four crops. A more diverse mix would protect farmers, the centre's officials said.

Under the new plan, for example, the share of cucumbers would be cut in half, to 26 per cent.

The initiative, like many other activities in the centre, is an attempt to modernise Abu Dhabi's agriculture sector, which economists and environmentalists have called wasteful. The crops that farmers produce have been of low quality and consume large amounts of a resource that the country has in scarce amounts - fresh water. The new approach aims to make local farming more efficient and commercially viable.

"It was a very heavily subsidised system and they were producing a lot of product," said Chris Hirst, the centre's chief executive. However, he added: "You have to have consistency of supply, quality and quantity."

There are about 24,000 farms in Abu Dhabi. Last winter, the centre signed contracts with 934 farmers. It bought their produce, selling it on to retailers and wholesalers.

To participate in the scheme, farmers needed to meet specifications for the quality of their produce. The centre is not making a profit from its activities, but it gives farmers a guaranteed minimum price for products, which protects them when market prices are low.

An indirect benefit is that the centre has the ability to look at the agriculture sector strategically. It can provide incentives to farmers, encouraging them to grow more lucrative crops. Such is the rationale behind the plan to encourage a larger crop variety.

Expanding into new types of crops will require adjustments and learning. However, it can offer opportunities for farmers, said Martin Aguirre, commercial and operations director at the centre.

One example is growing carrots, which is not done here.

"At the moment we have a very good contract with some customers, but there is not much local supply," he said. The centre is collaborating with several farms to produce 4,000 kilograms of carrots a day.

vtodorova@thenational.ae