x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

FSC claims farms blight the palm that feeds them

Entrenched ideas clash with new as a government agency attempts to help those growing dates in the capital to modernise their operations.

FSC ‘is here to learn from us’, says Salim Al Muhraibi, pictured at his date palm farm in Liwa.
FSC ‘is here to learn from us’, says Salim Al Muhraibi, pictured at his date palm farm in Liwa.

ABU DHABI // Salim Al Muhraibi knows each of the 400 date palm trees on his Liwa farm inside-out.

So when the Farmers' Services Centre (FSC), the government body tasked with modernising Abu Dhabi farms, offered to lend him a helping hand he was reluctant.

"We've been planting these trees for hundreds of years," Mr Al Muhraibi said. "They have no idea how to plant or how to take care of a date palm tree."

He pays the centre Dh3,000 a year for its services and receives a monthly subsidy of Dh7,500, partly from an FSC programme that aims to improve the condition of date palms across Al Gharbia.

Last year, 50 farms joined the improved date palm nutrition scheme, which involved cleaning and trimming palms, fertilisation and spraying for pests.

This year the scheme will expand to cover 175 farms in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. They will serve as demonstration sites for the centre's 24,000 farmers, teaching them to apply the practices on their own farms.

But getting farmers to put the advice offered into practice has proved the centre's biggest challenge, and Mr Al Muhraibi's attitude is all too typical.

"They didn't bring anything new to us," he said. "They didn't teach us anything. We are teaching them and they're here to learn from us."

The programme provides farmers with a high-tech conditioner that improves soil structure by adding organic matter.

It helps to keep nutrients in the soil, rather than being washed away by irrigation, and adds mycorrhizae - tiny fungi that work with the trees' roots to help them take up water and nutrients.

"Within three months there was a significant difference in the condition of the trees," said Ray Moule, the centre's technical services director. "[They] went from being yellow-looking and tired to fresh and almost like a second youth."

At harvest time, the size and quality of the fruit had also noticeably increased.

But Mr Al Muhraibi stopped using soil conditioner three years ago, saying "it made no difference". For fertiliser, he uses natural animal manure and compost bought from Abu Dhabi Fertiliser Industries - even though the centre advised against it.

"Most farmers tend to use fertiliser based around locally produced compost, which is poorly broken down, and animal manure," said Mr Moule.

"It is an ideal breeding area for pests that we're trying to get rid of. They lay their eggs in it and farmers spread it around their trees."

But Mr Al Muhraibi plans to stick with his natural fertilisers, which he said were "always better".

Part of the programme also includes removing trees' side shoots, where palm weevils lay their eggs.

"We've got to have a nicely trimmed trunk so there's no way for them to enter the tree," said Mr Moule.

"But telling a farmer to remove something he's grown and throwing it away makes it hard for him to link it to better results."

Mr Al Muhraibi said: "There are two kinds [of side shoots] - the karoub, which I remove because it's bad for the tree, and the ayal for small palm trees, which I keep. I don't think karoub causes weevils though."

The centre advised him to remove the lot.

"Then I showed them a tree that had no side shoots but was infested with weevils," Mr Al Muhraibi said. "We know our trees and we know how to take care of them."

The centre also warns farmers about over-watering, having found from a study in Liwa that they were using up to 2,000 litres a day - from six to 11 times the recommended amount

"That's a lot of water that can be saved," said Mr Moule.

Here, at least, Mr Al Muhraibi is playing ball.

He has a drip-irrigation system that uses between 150 and 180 litres for each tree a day.

One of the FSC's main aims is to help to wean farmers off the subsidies to which they have long been accustomed.

"The mentality of the farmers is still one where they want the Government to provide everything," said Mr Moule.

But instead of using the centre's help, many farmers like Mr Al Muhraibi resort to other means to make a living.

"Al Foah Company buys my dates and exports them worldwide," he said. "I make a good profit from them and they advise me on good farming practices according to the season by text."