x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Dubai and RAK experts share secrets of growing crops in the desert with Arabian Gulf farmers

Regional farmers have taken the initiative to stick together and share their knowledge on how best to grow food in the desert.

DUBAI // Farmers have taken the initiative to stick together and share their knowledge on how best to grow food in the desert.

A group from Bahrain visited two hydroponic farms in the UAE last week to learn about advanced technologies they could apply back home.

“We started the hydroponic system last year,” said Faisal Alawi, a Bahraini who has been farming for 20 years. “But I want to learn more about it because I noticed it’s better than conventional methods in open fields.”

Mr Alawi grows cucumbers, tomatoes, chili and herbs on his 3,000-square-metre farm. But not only are the conditions challenging, the space is limited.

“In Bahrain, the obstacles are the lack of water and there is no space,” he said. “This is a problem because, if you don’t have space and water, you can’t grow. But with hydroponics, we can take a small area and grow anything.”

He was one of two farmers who visited technologically advanced hydroponic farms in Al Awir and Ras Al Khaimah this past week with the Dubai-based International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas.

“I see a huge difference with hydroponic, which is the reason why we want to adopt it,” he said. “All the results we see are positive – reduced water, fertiliser use and less area used with more yield produced.

“I’m hopeful that what I learn from here, I’ll be able to apply it back home and my aim is to also teach other farmers there.”

Sadeq Mirza, who has farmed in Bahrain for the past 10 years, said the soil salinity made it almost impossible to grow crops.

“I need to learn what fertiliser to use and what problems hydroponic farming could have because I need to start using more hydroponics in my greenhouses,” he said. “I want to see what I need for this system.”

His 25,000-square-metre farm grows tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and herbs.

“I saw a lot of improvement with hydroponics,” he said. “I used much less water, the fruits were of better quality and I don’t have to use pesticides, which have become a lot more expensive. The system also prevents diseases from reaching the plants.”

Staff from the centre introduced the pair to advanced hydroponic technologies, implemented in the UAE last year.

“We introduced an automatic controller system which controlled the salinity and acidity of the solution used for the crops, which means the nutrients’ concentration,” said Dr Naem Mazahrih, an irrigation and water management specialist at the centre. “After a year, we found the yield increased by 30 to 50 per cent, depending on the location of the farm and the farmer’s education.”

Seven controllers were installed on local farms last year and a new system was just set up on a farm in RAK.

“Each year, we bring two farmers from a different country,” said Dr Mazahrih. “Last year, they came from Oman and Yemen.”

The farmers were able to witness how the system was built, how it worked and how to calibrate it.

“It’s small but it can monitor the injection of fertiliser inside the irrigation tank,” he said. “And they can grow all types of vegetable crops like cucumbers and tomatoes.”

Dr Mazahrih said many farmers in the region had the perception that hydroponic farming was too complicated.

“But it’s not, it controls everything to ensure the plant takes up all the nutrients it requires,” he said. “This will allow maximum efficiency of nutrient absorption.

“So far, the project has been successful and our demonstration on one greenhouse revealed that the production of food increased by up to 50 per cent with a better quality fruit.”

cmalek@thenational.ae