x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Farmer avoids growing pains of soil

A retired army major explains how his experiments with hydroponic systems have cut his water usage to near zero.

Ali Bukarrood has converted half of his land to hydroponic greenhouses and is experimenting with new techniques to tackle some of farming's toughest challenges.
Ali Bukarrood has converted half of his land to hydroponic greenhouses and is experimenting with new techniques to tackle some of farming's toughest challenges.

DUBAI // Retired Army Maj Ali Bukarrood may have begun farming only five years ago, but he has already found ways to cut water waste to almost nothing, while increasing his harvests.

Two years ago, Mr Bukarrood began swapping open fields for hydroponic greenhouses to grow crops without soil. The process fertilises plants with mineral nutrient solutions and the water used for irrigation is recycled.

Mr Bukarrood has now bought a neighbouring farm, which will allow him to expand commercial operations, and he is also experimenting with new ways to tackle agriculture's biggest challenges.

In one greenhouse, Mr Bukarrood has started a trial in which he grows animal feed that usually requires a lot of water - jet grass, Rhodes grass and alfalfa - in hydroponic boxes.

The next step is to grow the plants through "vertical farming", where a single irrigation line feeds multiple shelves of grass. Rhodes grass currently accounts for three-fifths of the water used in agriculture in the Emirates.

Mr Bukarrood said he hoped that if his project was successful he would be able to help other farmers start growing animal fodder year-round with far less water and in less space.

According to Ahmed Moustafa, the regional director for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), growing animal fodder in this way could greatly reduce the amount of water and space that is needed. He estimated that the amount of grain grown in a five-square-metre space in a greenhouse could produce the equivalent of that grown on a hectare of land.

"So can you imagine, in a hectare, how much water you can save?" he said, adding that growing barley is the best option because it is compact and the stems, shoots and roots can be fed to animals.

To water the plants, Mr Bukarrood said, he wants to collect the water from older air-conditioning units, which are common in Al Dhaid. He estimated that a single building would be able to water all of the hydroponic greenhouses on his farm.

He also hopes to win the Ministry of Environment and Water over to his plan.

"The Government should put in rules that let water not be dumped back onto the ground, but to be collected in special tanks and given to hydroponic crops," he said.

Historically, Al Dhaid was known as fertile agricultural land, but intensive farming has depleted its underground water resources.

"There was no planning, flood irrigation was used everywhere," said Icarda's Mr Moustafa.

"No one was telling them to save water, or use different irrigation, and this is the result," he said.

The water is now often too salty and far underground, making it difficult for farmers such as Mr Bukarrood to get the most from crops.

Mr Bukarrood said water issues were compounded by another problem: poor soil. Two years into growing, he took to the internet to find the solution.

"I kept typing in 'how to fix poor soil', and the answer every time was 'hydroponics'," he said.

Mr Bukarrood spent the next six months, sometimes for as many as six hours a day, researching the growing method.

Then, after watching a news report on Abu Dhabi TV in which the Ministry of Environment and Water toured a hydroponic farm, Mr Bukarrood said he knew he wanted to try out the method.

Soilless agriculture systems using water that is recycled through a closed irrigation system had cut water and pesticide usage to near zero.

Mr Bukarrood, who was by then contract-growing for various hypermarkets, converted half of his land to hydroponic greenhouses.

The system is delicate. Acid levels in the water tanks must be checked twice daily. The readings, along with temperatures and transplant dates, are recorded on a whiteboard in one of Mr Bukarrood's greenhouses.

"That way, if something goes wrong, we can know why," said Mr Bukarrood.

Always innovating, he has begun trying to grow grape vines to help shield the air coolers on one wall of the greenhouse from the sunlight.

"My first aim is to provide cover, and that is already working; if it gives grapes, that's OK," he said.