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Emiratis' love for farming on the rise

posted on 11/05/2014: 4271 views

While driving through an elevated road to a farm in Remah area in Al Ain, a beautiful green valley appears on the right.

"These all are farms,” says Adel Salem Al Saeedi, an Emirati agricultural officer. "This vast green area was once a burning desert. It started greening in the 1980s thanks to the efforts of Shaikh Zayed [Bin Sultan Al Nahyan],” he says.

Shaikh Zayed started giving land to Emiratis for farming and, gradually, the area turned green, he says.

Today, there are 4,100 farms in Remah area and most of them are active, especially during the winter season. Going by the rise in their number, it points to Emiratis taking an increasing interest in farming.

Abu Dhabi emirate has about 24,000 farms, according to the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority.

But some of them do not grow any crops because of a problem beyond their control — water shortage. Still most of the farmers take care of the date palms in their farms at the very least, because farming is a passion for them.

"They do something, although water shortage is a big hurdle,” says Al Saeedi, an extension officer with Abu Dhabi Farmers Service Centre (ADFSC), an Abu Dhabi government organisation promoting farming in the emirate.

Along with the dwindling water resources, increased salinity of available water is another challenge that farmers face.

Ideal farming conditions require the salinity of water to be below 5,000 ppt (parts per thousand) but in most of the farms in Remah area, it is between 18,000 and 25,000 ppt, according to Al Saeedi. (The more saline or salty the water, the less beneficial it is for crops.)

They use this water for date palms, which can survive with excessive salinity although it is not good for these trees in the long run.

Some of the farms in the area use water from the grid, but this is available for a limited time only.

Shade provided by trees help the farms to withstand the summer heat to a certain extent. Thick lines of damas and ghaf trees make many farms look beautiful.

To date, date palms are the major choice for farming and the major crop in almost all farms. There are about 772,533 date palm trees in around 4,100 farms in Remah area.

A public sector company collects the dry dates from the farms across the emirate and markets them. Two years ago, the Abu Dhabi Farmers Service Centre started marketing packaged fresh dates from local farms. "This helps farmers earn a better income from dates,” says Al Saeedi.


But to get back to the issue of the hurdles facing farmers in the UAE today, from extremes of heat to salinity in the soil, we ask Chris Hirst, CEO of Abu Dhabi Farmers Service Centre (ADFSC), an Abu Dhabi Government organisation tasked with improving farming in the emirate, to throw light on how these challenges can be met.

How do you tackle the water issue?

Hirst: The centre has set a goal to reach a 40 per cent reduction in agricultural water usage that is one of our mandates. We are educating and training farmers so that a managed approached to irrigation can be employed, thereby reducing the stress on water aquifers.

A huge help in achieving this goal was stopping the cultivation of Rhodes grass [a water-intensive crop that was banned]. In its place, ADFSC is testing and promoting other types of fodder that will grow in areas with higher salinity that will also be used as feed for livestock.

ADFSC is continuing to train farm workers to minimise over-watering. We also ran a ‘stop the leaks' programme that encouraged farmer to look out for preventable forms of water loss such as leaks in irrigation systems. Other irrigation training programmes include sessions on modern techniques such as irrigation uniformity, date palm irrigation, and drip irrigation for vegetables.

What are the changes in the farming conditions over the last 20 years in terms of soil, cultivation, irrigation systems, rainfall, fertilisers, etc?

Recently, more farms have switched to protected agriculture, involving greenhouses and hydroponics. These systems allow farmers to better control the conditions and also manage resources such as water.

The centre is also consistently training farmers and workers on good farm practices. To date, over 17,000 workers have been trained in the professional management of date palms, learning techniques such as pruning, irrigation, fertilisation, pollination, netting and other palm management services. Farmers are involved in a number of other training programmes including vegetable production, livestock handling and farm business planning.

What are the efforts towards sustainable farming?

The centre is focusing on a sustainable policy. Our extension engineers are training farmers in sustainable techniques such as crop rotation, crop diversity, integrated farming and integrated pest management.

These practices sustain farmers, resources and communities in a profitable, environmentally sound manner that is also good for the community.

Are more people taking up farming as a profession? What is the trend?

We are excited about the possibility of training a new generation of farmers in the UAE. We are hoping that farming, like other sectors in the Emirates, will become more technically advanced and will be on the cutting-edge of all aspects of the business in the region, including research, production, quality control, logistics and marketing.

What sort of technical and training support does the centre provide to farmers?

The centre is providing technical advice and training in new farming technique like integrated farming. Integrated farming is a farming system with simultaneous activities involving both crop and animal. The main purpose of integrated farming is that the farming components support one another.

Cultivable land in UAE

Although Abu Dhabi occupies 86.7 per cent of the total area of the UAE, excluding the islands, it has only 5.4 per cent of total cultivable land in the country.

Of about a total 13 per cent of the soil suitable for irrigated farming in the UAE, about 7 per cent potential agricultural land is in the northern emirates, especially in Ras Al Khaimah, according to the national soil map prepared by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

Four-fifths of the UAE being desert, the nation is able to produce only around 15 per cent of the total food consumed and the rest is imported.

Of the UAE's 83,600 sq km total area, Abu Dhabi occupies an area of 67,340 square kilometres, excluding islands.

In Abu Dhabi, the Western Region (Al Gharbia) covers 83 per cent of the landmass of the emirate. The region is home to most fertile farms in the emirate.

Dubai emirate being highly urbanised, the land suitable for agriculture is scarce. The soil map found 89 types of soil in the UAE. Abu Dhabi has 62 types of soil and the northern Emirates 28 (one is common).

About 40 per cent of the soil in the northern emirates is covered by vegetation.

More than 80 per cent of the soil in the UAE is sandy. – Gulf News


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