x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Potato seed could raise crop yield for Liwa farmers

Imported Dutch potatoes being introduced by the Farmers' Services Centre need less water to produce more food energy, at lower cost - and faster.

Workers unearth potatoes on the Seil Alkhairm farm of Jamil Ahmed.
Workers unearth potatoes on the Seil Alkhairm farm of Jamil Ahmed.

SEIL AL KHEIR // Bending to collect a couple of kilograms of freshly unearthed potatoes, Jamil Ahmed says he is hopeful that they will fetch a good price.

Mr Ahmed hopes the adaptable, nutritious crop will be more profitable and less thirsty than the Rhodes grass he had been growing. He is one of 350 farmers, mostly from Liwa, who participated in the latest scheme from the Farmers' Services Centre (FSC) to cut water usage while reducing reliance on food imports.

Around 150 tonnes of potato seeds imported from Holland were provided on credit to farmers by the FSC, which aims to modernise Abu Dhabi farms. They are now harvesting about 25 tonnes a day.

According to Christopher Hirst, the FSC's chief executive, the programme has the potential to supplant the 90,500 tonnes of potatoes imported annually from Saudi Arabia.

"There's a big demand for potatoes," he said. They are easy to store, he said, and can be readily marketed when demand is highest.

Though harvests only began in the last two weeks, FSC potatoes are already on the shelves at Spinneys and LuLu Hypermarket.

It is not the first time the emirate has experimented with potato farming. Five years ago, the Government cancelled a subsidy programme in Al Ain that offered farmers imported potato seeds and bought the resulting crops. Many believed the crop wasted water, and was economically unsustainable.

The FSC, however, disagreed. "It has a good conversion rate of water to energy," said Mr Hirst.

With good farming practices, less than a litre of water was needed to produce a single calorie of potato. Wheat needs twice as much, while tomatoes, a staple crop in the UAE, require 10 litres of water to produce a single calorie of food energy.

Updated farming techniques such as growing plants closer together, moving the drip irrigation and planting the seeds closer to the surface, have drastically boosted production, while cutting costs.

Traditional methods allowed only 20,000 plants per hectare. That has more than doubled, while the amount of water needed has dropped from 640 litres per kilogram of crop to 154 litres.

The crops also grow faster. Previously, a potato crop took about 120 days to be ready for harvest, yielding an average of 15 tonnes per hectare. The FSC's imported potatoes need only 70 to 75 days for a crop cycle, and are projected to yield around 40 tonnes. The changes mean farmers can plant an additional crop, such as onions, after the harvest.

For Mr Ahmed, planting potatoes, along with cucumber, onions, chilli, squash and cabbage, was the best way to make up a Dh11,500 loss of income for each harvest of Rhodes grass. Last September marked the end of a subsidy programme that had encouraged farmers to grow the thirsty crop.

Instead, farmers were promised a Dh100,000 bonus for following official guidelines on reducing water use, including working with the FSC on projects such as this.

Another farmer involved in the project, Salim Mutib al Muhairbi, said that while growing potatoes was an "excellent idea", some were disgruntled about the prices the FSC were offering for them. "When Al Foah [dates company] started we complained, but everyone wants to benefit and now they buy dates at very good prices," he said. "The centre is just starting, so you can't complain. It needs more time."